Perhaps the toughest call an umpire has to make has nothing to do with the game itself -- even though it can determine the outcome.
A borderline pitch or a bang-bang play is a piece of pie compared to making a decision involving the elements. That point was emphasized again Sunday, when the Orioles had to outlast a couple of lengthy rainstorms in addition to the Red Sox before completing a sweep of the weekend series.
After building a 6-1 lead, the Orioles had to wait out a 121-minute rain delay before completing the five innings required to make everything official. The situation was further complicated when rain resumed only six outs before the game's completion.
In each case it was left to Dave Phillips' judgment whether to interrupt play. In the first instance he did, the second time he determined to let the teams play through.
The game was completed without incident, but under more severe circumstances Phillips would've been let out (pardon the expression) to dry. When a team has a big lead, human nature dictates you allow it every chance to claim a win. Having done that, the next obligation is to give the trailing team an equal opportunity by playing the regulation nine innings.
There is some sentiment for removing umpires from playing the role of weathermen by having all games, once they have started, played to a conclusion.
That, of course, would mean suspending rather than postponing games -- and would create some havoc with rain checks.
But it also would eliminate the gamesmanship of stalling and take umpires out of the business of predicting the weather. The umpires would gladly endorse such a move.
Drew Coble, the umpire-in-chief of the crew working the Orioles-New York Yankees series this week, favors the idea -- or at least a reasonable time frame.
"The best thing, for any game stopped before the fifth inning, would be to pick it up at that point," said Coble. "As it is, I think we should at least have a maximum waiting period and if there's been no improvement in conditions, then the game is called."
The rules call for at least a 30-minute wait when a game is interrupted, but American League regulations require a wait of at least an hour. But neither the rule book nor the guidelines say anything about a maximum length of time an umpire can wait before making his decision.
The primary concern is how the condition of the field will affect play, and the possibility of injuries. But human nature also dictates the game situation be taken into consideration. It is, at best, a tenuous position, and often a no-win situation.
It is one decision umpires would rather not make -- and one that shouldn't be forced on them.