It’s not even the end of May yet, and this has already been a rough year for the “art” of umpiring.

Earlier this month, we were treated to one of the all-time, most egregious missed calls I’ve ever seen.  In fact, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to call it missed–it was more like a gift.  In case you didn’t see it, have a look.  Todd Helton was a good foot or more from the bag when he caught the ball, but he was apparently close enough for umpire Tim Welke to call the runner (former Cub Jerry Hairston Jr.) out to end the inning.  You can read a full account of the play and the immediate reaction–as well as see a couple more great angles on the call–in this Yahoo Sports write-up.

Calls like that happen all the time around second–where the “neighborhood” often expands and shifts depending on the perspective and the positioning of the second base ump.

No such “neighborhood” exists for first.

Welke’s erring out call didn’t have the game-changing impact of Jim Joyce’s perfect game-spoiling mistake in Detroit a couple years back.  But there’s a sense in which Welke’s missed call is worse.  Joyce made a bad call on a bang-bang play and memorably owned up to it right away–Welke was out of position and missed a call that could have been made correctly from the cheap seats.  The Joyce call highlights the potential need to expand the use of replay.  The Welke call combined with the lack of replay makes the league into a laughingstock.

Jump ahead to the Cubs game last Friday, and another shockingly bad call that flew under the national radar (however it won’t be news to VFTB readers–Jedi highlighted the play in his recap).  The storybook ending to Kerry Wood’s career overshadowed Gordon Beckham tackling David DeJesus off of second base to rob DeJesus of a double and steal the second out of the fifth inning.  Here’s the full video of the play (apologies for having to listen to the arch homerism of Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone).  Even if umpire Eric Cooper had a bad angle–and it’s hard to imagine a potential angle from which that play wouldn’t have looked like the form tackle that it was–he should have asked for help on such an unusual play.  It’s hard to say how significantly the bad call impacted the game, but losing a runner in scoring position and an out in the later innings of a game is no small cost.  What is clear is that it could have–and should have–been easily overturned.

It hasn’t been all bad news though.  That same day, the MLB announced the one game suspension of pugnacious umpire Bob Davidson.  Earlier in the week, Davidson had instigated a shouting match with Phillies manager Cahrlie Manuel (who was also suspended for a game).  Davidson got tangled up with the Phillies’ catcher on a dropped third strike call, allowing the runner to advance safely to first base.  The umpire–who Bob Brenly has occasionally referred to as “Rabbit Ears”–heard something he didn’t like from the Phillie dugout, and responded loudly enough to be picked up on the broadcast mics.  What followed was a profane shouting match between Manuel and Davidson, and ultimately Manuel’s ejection from the game.  You can see the whole thing here–apologies in advance to any lip readers out there.

The MLB statement said that Davidson was being suspended for “repeated violations of the Office of the Commissioner’s standards for situation handling.”  Basically, they’re making an example of their hot headed ump.

The reason I say it’s good news is that the MLB usually keeps umpire punishment under wraps.  In fact, there usually isn’t any public accountability for the umps.  Publicizing the suspension is a simple way to show that there is a standard they’re holding the umps to–that they’re not content with sloppy or poor performance.

As the calls increase for expanded use of replay, computerized strike zones, and throwing out human umpires altogether, the league will need to keep showing the fans that they are watching, that they see the flaws we’re seeing, and that they’re committed to doing something about it.

Still, they need to respond a lot stronger–Davidson got a slap on the wrist.  Welke and Cooper got nothing.  That’s not enough as long as their poor performances continue to hose teams and their fans.

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