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Umpires can blame TV, Internet for increased second-guessing

PHILADELPHIA -- The seeming increase in bad umpiring this postseason may just be a television- and Internet-created phenomenon.

Conditions have certainly never been better for second-guessing the umpires.

Baseball has endured about a dozen badly blown calls this October, many in key spots. Starting in day two of the postseason, left-field umpire Phil Cuzzi called foul a would-be, extra-inning double from the Twins' Joe Mauer. Most recently, in Thursday night's World Series Game 2, when the Phillies' Chase Utley appeared to be safe at first base but the umpire, Brian Gorman, called him out, completing a rally- and inning-ending double play, with Ryan Howard left on deck in the eighth inning of a 3-1 game.

It's hard to quantify umpiring errors for comparisons with other postseasons, but there's no question that this intense focus on the men in blue is a creation of television. At the ballpark itself, MLB policy prohibits any obvious umpiring mistake from being shown on the video scoreboard.

Mistakes are simply disseminated quicker and farther. The live TV audience is larger -- and not shrinking because of the umpiring blunders, either, as Fox's World Series Game 2 ratings were 44 percent better than the same game last year. There's a larger press corps at each playoff game, and the Internet transmits their words instantly. Video clips are easily accessible online.

Fox is using 20 TV cameras for each playoff game it broadcasts, the same as it used last year, but that's still twice as many as most networks use in the regular season.

"There's always close calls," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I think now there's just more camera angles. I don't think it's any different than any other year."

Remarkably, baseball, which has an instant replay system in place for questionable home-run calls only, probably won't expand it anytime soon. MLB commissioner Bud Selig, speaking before Game 2, told reporters that his office will review instant replay options in the offseason, but he didn't sound eager to overhaul the plan in place.

"Times change, but I'm still in favor of keeping the human element as a part of it, and I'm also very concerned about pace," Selig said. "I think there are other ways we can make corrections. During the offseason we'll review everything.

"I've made my position clear. And, by the way, I think it's the position of most people in baseball. You have to be very careful when you tamper with a sport."

The ability to so closely scrutinize plays -- from several camera angles and at several different viewing speeds -- has created a unique situation in which the spectators know as much as, or more than, the participants. Though the umpires are standing mere feet away, their eyes can't realistically compete with a half-dozen television cameras trained in on the same play.

"When you have high-def cameras that can go in slow motion and pause, you can find a flaw in anybody," Yankees reliever Phil Coke said. "No one's perfect."

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Though the most contentious calls of this postseason have been questions of fair or foul, safe or out, caught or trapped, the second-guessing can be even more intense with rulings on balls and strikes.

In addition to camera views, the home-plate umpire's body of work is subject to the second, more critical standard of FoxTrax (or PitchTrax on TBS), which uses a series of cameras to project the trajectory, movement, speed and location of each pitch as it crosses home plate.

It's intended as a viewing aid for fans watching on television but can set umpires up to fail. Fox, however, disagrees with that latter sentiment.

"I don't think that technology should influence the view of the home-plate umpire," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said. "I've heard from players over the years that they just want consistency. The technology is a guide and as long as the umpire is consistent, I don't think we are putting the umpires in a difficult position. It's simply our cameras, and the cameras basically don't lie."

Goren said he hasn't heard any grumblings from umpires about FoxTrax but did hear complaints a few years ago when Fox featured a camera mounted on the roof, high above the plate.

Not everyone is so keen on the use of pitch-monitoring systems.

"I think what's bad for the umpires is this PitchTrax because it's not fair to them," said TBS analyst and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley. "I think that's haywire. To me, I'm going by my eyeballs and I want to get on the umpires just like anybody else, but I have to give them a break because that PitchTrax is not an exact thing."

PitchTrax is the product of SportVision, the same company that created the yellow first-down line in football. Its general manager of baseball products, Ryan Zander, explains that two tracking cameras get 60 readings on each pitch, with a third camera in centerf ield in support. There is also an on-site operator, who re-sizes the height of the strike zone for different batters -- obviously, the height of the zone for 6-foot-7 Richie Sexson would be different than, say, 5-6 David Eckstein. (In fact, the height of Sexson's strike zone may be the height of Eckstein.)

Zander disagrees with Eckersley's assertion of inaccuracy, saying that PitchTrax is precise within "about a half inch." But he points out that exposing umpire flaws isn't his company's intention.

"What we want to focus on is really about the strategy of the pitcher and batter," Zander said. "It is a sensitive area and we understand that. We want to focus on is making a better presentation by the fan. We provide the tools, and it's up to production to use them."

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A key culprit in engendering debate about the umpires is the league itself.

The league's official site, mlb.com, has not been shy in discussing the questionable calls, writing stories solely about the umpires throughout the playoffs, from the ALDS to the World Series. Despite the disclaimer at the bottom that articles are "not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs," they implicitly carry a sort of official acknowledgement when they run under the MLB banner.

The mlb.com stories themselves are no more critical than what a completely independent news source might write, but they have the added bonus of running alongside video clips from the game, often of the very plays in question. It's league-sanctioned second-guessing.

It's the same at the league-owned MLB Network, whose analysts are not limited in what they can criticize on air. Speaking in December before the launch, Network president Tony Petitti said, "We have to be credible. If it's what fans are talking about, they'll expect us to cover it." And so far, through steroid revelations and umpire mistakes, they've been true to that word.

But while the umpires have always been great fodder for fan debate, it's a radioactive topic among uniformed personnel, who either don't want to be fined or don't want to be labeled as whiners for questioning the umps.

"The great thing about today is that you guys get to see every play 10 times," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "I don't have to make any comments, because you guys get to see them. Whatever the call is, that's what it is.

"I'm not touching that."

One Yankee insisted that the umpiring was not a topic of conversation among the players. But it's not completely a case of out of sight, out of mind. Lying on an endtable in the middle of the visiting Yankees clubhouse on Friday was the Oct. 19 edition of Sports Illustrated, neatly folded open to a short article discussing umpire blunders from division series games. With the crease in the margin, the thumbprints in the corner and the stray pen marks off to the corner, it was clearly a page of interest to someone and probably not for the small item on a boxing reality TV show.

Neither manager, when asked during Friday's news conferences, took a hard stance about expanded use of instant replay, though the Yankee's Joe Girardi seemed more open to the idea, presuming calls could be reviewed quickly without hurting a pitcher's rhythm.

"If it was expanded, I would like to see an umpire in the booth that could make a call within 30 seconds," Girardi said, "because I think most calls you could make within 30 seconds, which a lot of times would be quicker than a manager running out there."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, meanwhile, seemed reluctant to endorse more replay, noting that this is the way the game has always been played.

"Baseball is a human nature game," he said. "You're going to make mistakes, umpires are going to make mistakes, players are going to make mistakes, everybody in the game is going to make mistakes. Even managers make mistakes sometimes."

It was a different tune than Manuel sang after Game 2, when asked about the call at first base involving Utley.

"I'm not saying nothing about the umpiring," Manuel said Thursday night. "I'm just saying that he was safe. That's all I'll tell you. I'm not complaining about the umpire. I'm not saying nothing at all about the umpire. I'm just saying that he was safe."

Pressed further, Manuel used humor to deflect attention from further discussion about the disputed call.

"You know, I've probably never thought umpiring was good, if you want to know the truth," he said.

With television's new technology, we do know the truth. And that's the issue.

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