By Lenn Robbins
Disclaimer: In some 35-plus years of covering sports on every level, never has an umpire or referee or official decided the outcome of game. Never.
Having said that, the wonderful clarion call, “Play Ball!” will ring out on Wednesday as MLB commences a season like no other.
The 60-game schedule favors the deeper teams and will surely favor a team that starts fast. After 60 games last season the Washington Nationals were 27-33. They were 22-32 after 54 games, exactly one-third of the season. The Nationals, of course, rallied to make the playoffs and win the World Series.
One third of the upcoming season is 20 games. A team that opens 5-15 would have to play .750 baseball over the next 20 games just to get back to .500.
Which means every game and every call becomes crucial. Here’s the rub
: According to noted baseball reporter Jon Heyman, 11 MLB umps have opted out for this season, citing family members who are ill. That’s about 12-percent of the 91 umpires MLB was planning to use this season.
Consider this: MLB uses 19 crews with 76 umps. The pool is down to 80, leaving little room for injury or illness. And let’s not leave out the possibility that more umps won’t opt out.
MLB does have one thing going for it – or not. Since there is no minor league baseball this season, there is an abundance of unemployed umps that will jump at the chance to work in the bigs. And it’s with a high level of confident that most of them are highly competent, at the least.
But they are unknown quantities. Hitters and pitchers don’t know their strike zones or how far they can be challenged before getting ejected. They don’t have the track record, good or bad, of a Laz Dias or a Dana DeMuth or a coronavirus conspiracy theorist Joe West (talk about bad judgment!)
Which leads to the possibility, maybe even probability, that there could be some calls, right or wrong, that stir up a hornet’s nest of challenges and arguments. There could be that one call that costs a team a post-season berth or a brutal end to a season such as the non-pass interference call in the 2018 NFC Championship game between the Saints and Rams.
We’re not hoping such a scenario unfolds in baseball this season. There are going to be enough asterisks attached to this season. It will be discussed and analyzed for decades.
The last thing MLB needs is a neophyte (credit Clyde) for blowing a crucial call. As for the possibility of some raging arguments (masks, people!) taking place at home plate, hey, it’s entertaining. We’ll need all we can get in a 60-game season.