If there was ever a game in which the umpires didn't figure to play a major role it should've been the one played at Camden Yards yesterday.
For eight innings, nobody knew they were there, which is the way it's supposed to be -- and the way they prefer it.
But suddenly, in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game, home plate umpire Larry McCoy and then second base arbiter John Hirschbeck found themselves in the middle of debates that had to be confusing to anyone watching or listening. And, ludicrous as it seems in view of the speed-up policy baseball is about to introduce, it all started because a player wasn't ready to enter the game.
After Gary Gaetti walked with one out, Keith Lockhart emerged from the dugout to pinch hit for Pat Borders. However, while Rex Barney was in the midst of informing the crowd, McCoy was trying to wave off the announcement as Lockhart retreated toward the dugout.
"A pinch hitter isn't in the game until he assumes his position in the batter's box," said McCoy. "At first, it looked like he [Kansas City manager Bob Boone] wasn't going to use him [Lockhart], which is why I was trying to wave off the announcement."
As it turned out, there was no indecision on Boone's part, he was merely trying to buy time to get Vince Coleman into the game as a pinch runner for Gaetti. For some unexplained reason, Coleman, who missed the last two games because of a rib injury, was in the clubhouse putting on his spikes.
Finally, McCoy directed Lockhart to the batter's box, after which Coleman emerged from the dugout as a pinch runner. By this time, the audience of 45,324, already upset with Orioles manager Phil Regan's decision to pull starter Jamie Moyer, resumed expressions of disapproval.
The mood of the spectators didn't improve when, after three pitches and three pickoff throws to first, Coleman called time and re-tied his shoes. During all of this he was calling out to Hirschbeck at second, who rapidly became as impatient as the crowd.
"He was telling me to make him [Orioles closer Doug Jones] come to a stop," said Hirschbeck. "But it wasn't what he said, it was the way he went about it. He's not going to come out there and tell me how to do my job. I don't tell him how to do his -- and he's not going to tell me how to do mine. I told him to shut up three times."
The third time was after Jones had thrown his fourth pitch to Lockhart and the count was 3-and-1. While Boone was strolling toward second base for a chat, Hirschbeck threw Coleman out of the game.
"I figured three times was enough," said Hirschbeck. Boone didn't take the expulsion lightly and tempers flared as high as the temperature. "The umpire wanted to be the show and have an effect on the outcome of the game," he said later.
With the threat of a stolen base removed by Coleman's ejection, Jones struck out Lockhart and Bob Hamelin to preserve the victory for the Orioles. But instead of concentrating on a marvelous pitching performance by Moyer, most of the attention at game's end centered on the ninth-inning sideshow, which started and ended with Coleman in the clubhouse.