Kill . . . er, flog the umpire!


THERE'S something fundamentally American about heaping scorn on baseball umpires. To hurl earnest invective toward errant authority figures sustains an ancient and honored legacy which finds its roots in the colonists' severance of their ties to the British crown.

The inherent tendency to be suspicious of the competence and motives of those in authority is one of the agreeable dispositions arising from the democratic urge -- within reasonable limits, of course.

For example, "Kill the umpire!" as one of baseball's enduring and affectionate exhortations should never be taken as more than a figure of speech. Spirited hyperbole, though, is a solemn right of the baseball fan.

And what fan has not had good reason to suspect serious flaws in the sensory and judgmental faculties of those charged with the fair and impartial conduct of the game? Official misprision must be held to account, short of profanity and mean-spirited abuse, and preferably with wit, irony and satirical sarcasm.

Last week at my elder son's youth-league game, I was exercising my right to redress a number of grievances arising from the obvious deficiencies of the two umpires on the field. To put it in the current politically correct terms, both were severely visually challenged.

In fact, I think that was one of the phrases I directed from the bleachers toward the field, unfortunately to no beneficial effect.

After a particularly obtuse call on a pitch by the plate umpire, I suggested that he open his eyes because he was missing a good game.

On a play at third, after the runner clearly slid under the tag but was gratuitously ruled out on one of the worst calls in baseball history, I hollered to the coach to go out and lend the umpire his hanky, as the dust on his thick glasses had obviously obscured his vision.

These disputatious criticisms were rendered in reasonably good humor, but both umpires kept casting menacing glances toward the bleachers to identify the source of such insolent challenges to their authority. At first, I thought nothing of it.

Then my younger son, who is 9, turned to me with a worried look on his face. "Dad, they can't kick you out of the game, can they?"

Between pitches, I offered a capsule explanation about cherished rights of liberty, the tireless quest for truth and resisting tyrannical abuse of authority.

Then I began to wonder: From the looks of the men in blue, had this league, in the zealous pursuit of oppressive conformity, fitted on its umpires the iron glove of autocratic power to subdue and stifle even the honest and justified protestations of fans? At any rate, they did not bring down the iron glove, and I remained in my seat, unrepentant.

Of course, no umpire ever changed a call as a result of such protestations, but that's not the point. Players and coaches agree to accept the decisions of umpires under the code of good sportsmanship. Some are more agreeable about the arrangement than others, but a certain rough justice amid occasional injustices usually tends to work itself out eventually.

Fans, however, have another obligation: to themselves. Deep in the core of the human soul burns a desire for right and goodness, for clarity and equity. Much in people's everyday lives confuses them and frustrates their attainment of those ideals, sometimes by the vagaries of life itself but often by the intervention of human failings and even the willful, exploitative designs of those who hunger for power over others.

Most people have little or no control over those forces, and so many of them go to rest themselves in the sweaty-sweet purity and clarity of a baseball game: a wondrous exhibition of human talent straining in defiance of the laws of physics, played out within precise and uniform geometric limits and unencumbered by the dimension of time.

Umpires introduce to the game the ineluctable element of arbitrariness, of judgment and authority that so often violate the fan's subjective sense of justice.

Bellowing at the top of one's voice, "You're blind as a bat! Send him for an eye test!" reaffirms and reasserts the belief that the elusive notion of justice matters and is worth demanding.

But let us merely flog the umpire. Killing seems so unjust.

Tommy Denton is a columnist and senior editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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