Calling the Wambulance: Jonathan Papelbon

Everyone who watches sports, plays sports, used to play sports; they have all had problems with officiating. Fans and athletes (humans in general) are inherently biased. If the 49ers have a pass interference penalty called against them, I ignore the actual rules and list all the reasons why Nate Clements was not at fault. Naturally, if it’s called against the other team, I comment on how fantastic the officiating has been this game.

Major League Baseball may be the toughest league to umpire in, and despite being harshly scrutinized, statistics show that MLB umpires do an unbelievably accurate job making calls every season. Still, one missed call can change an entire at-bat, which can change an entire game, which can change an entire series, which can change an entire season. But, human error has been a part of the game forever and despite the possibility of the expansion of instant replay, I highly doubt that umpires will ever be completely replaced by emotionless machines.

That being said, there is a fine line between complaining and protesting. And even when considered a protest, there better be a damn good reason for it. After Sunday night’s game against the Yankees, Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon criticized home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, placing partial blame on him for a blown save that led to a 4-3 extra inning loss. From Yahoo! Sports, via the Boston Globe:

Really rough tonight, considering the fact that I’m not only pitching against the hitter, I’m pitching against the umpire,” Papelbon said. “When you’ve got to do that against this lineup, you’ll never be successful.”

Yes, the pitches were close and he didn’t get the calls. But Cuzzi’s strike zone was consistently tight all night, as manager Terry Francona acknowledged in the original Boston Globe article. Regardless of the calls made in the at-bat in which Alex Rodriguez walked to load the bases, prior to Robinson Cano’s game-tying single, a few questions burn in my mind for Papelbon.

First, how did the first two hitters get on? Whoops. Second, after the close call that took the count to 3-2, why didn’t you strike A-Rod out, or induce a ground ball, or do anything but walk him to put the winning run in scoring position with an MVP candidate coming to the plate? Right. Third, once the bases were loaded, why didn’t you shake it off and just make a good pitch to get Cano out? Hmm. My point is, while you can complain all you want about the umpiring in that at-bat, Paplebon is the only person at fault. He has a history of failure against the Yankees and has had a rough season, by an established closer’s standards. This makes me think that the end of a subpar season against arch rivals in a difficult place to pitch got to Papelbon, and he simply blew the save.

Complaints about officiating is all well and good. It’s a part of sports. But it’s a matter of sportsmanship and respect that we’re dealing with here. If Terrell Owens had publicly-criticized an NFL official, he would have been fined an arm and a leg. If Papelbon had a problem with the umpiring in the game, you rant about it to a teammate or a coach in the clubhouse after the game. You call your friends or family and complain about the unbalanced strike zone. It’s totally understandable for him to feel slighted, but as a professional athlete he has to know the limitations. He has to know that in the end, he didn’t do his job. Going to the media was absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing. All that comes out of complaining to the Boston Globe is a loss of respect among other players, pure annoyance of the fan base, and a potential punishment from the Commissioner’s office. Papelbon already blew a save and essentially lost the game for the Red Sox. Don’t rub salt in the wound and turn it around on the umpires.

Let me contrast Papelbon’s situation with a now infamous event that happened mid-season, on June 2nd. Tigers starter Armando Galarraga had a perfect game through 9 2/3 innings against the Cleveland Indians. The 27th batter of the game, Jason Donald, hit a routine ground ball to first. In picture-perfect form, Galarraga covered first base and took the flip from first baseman Miguel Cabrera in time for the out. Fans and players threw their hands in the air to celebrate the third, and most unlikely perfect game of the 2010 season, until first base umpire Jim Joyce yelled, “Safe!” Replays clearly showed that the runner was out and that Joyce had just accidentally altered baseball history by missing a very easy, average call.

Joyce tearfully admitted later that he blew the biggest call of his career and denied Galarraga a place in history. Now that is a reason for a player to call out an umpire. Galarraga, after an initial look of shocked disappointment, cracked a smile, took the mound and got the next batter out to complete a 1-hit, 3-0 win. After the game, no ill will was directed at Joyce by Galarraga or any of his teammates. He had every right in the world to bitch and moan to the media about how he had been screwed, but instead he talked about how good he felt after throwing the best game of his life. Not once did Galarraga throw Joyce under the bus or blame him for blowing his perfect game.

Fast forward to Sunday. Realistically, the Red Sox are out of the playoffs. The Yankees are in. All that remains to be determined are whether the Yankees will be the division champions or in as a wild-card team. It was a game with far less meaning than Galarraga’s gem. This Red Sox vs. Yankees game would not have gone down in history, and was hardly an out-of-the-ordinary news story. Until Papelbon summoned his inner, spoiled 10-year-old and opened his mouth to reporters about the incompetence of a respected, veteran umpire. My guess is that if Papelbon had done his job and secured the win for the Red Sox, he never would have said anything about the umpiring. Something more along the lines of, “I didn’t have all my stuff tonight, but fortunately I was able to keep making pitches and get out of that jam” would have been in order.

Papelbon didn’t throw a belt-high fastball against Rodriguez and not get the call (of course, if he had, the game would have been over before Cano had a chance to come up…). Cuzzi didn’t call anyone safe when they missed the bag. Things just didn’t go Papelbon’s way, and he let it get to him. Mariano Rivera blew a save on Sunday as well, and you would never hear him blame it on a bad call. That’s part of the character that makes Rivera so likeable, so well-respected; a complete professional, who will eventually be enshrined forever as one of the greatest.

Papelbon has a lot to learn if he is still placing blame for his failures on the officials enforcing the rules of the game. He had no good reason to question the strike zone of Cuzzi and should be fined, justly. My only hope is that Papelbon grows up and starts taking credit for his own mistakes. From now on, the only people who should hear those kinds of gripes are his teammates, friends and family, all in private. Stay away from people with microphones, recorders and notepads. Because next time Cuzzi is behind the plate, you might find yourself with an even tighter zone to operate in.

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