Jon Heyman
Friday April 9th, 2010

Umpire Joe West is nicknamed "Cowboy" because he performs country songs and has sung with Merle Haggard, Johnny Lee and Mickey Gilley when he isn't on a baseball diamond. It might also be because he isn't from the city. But it's not because he has the biggest mouth in the entire United States, as some might now suspect.

After the required-to-be-impartial umpire called the Yankees and Red Sox "pathetic and embarrassing'' in an unprofessional rant to the Bergen Record regarding their slow play, West's ego seems to have grown to be about the size of the East Coast, if not the whole country.

West also called two of baseball's flagship franchises, rather colorfully, "a disgrace to baseball.'' He said, "They're the two clubs that don't try to pick up the pace. They're two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest?"

West's criticisms regarding the Yankees' and Red Sox's maddeningly slow play were inappropriate and over-the-top, and they have earned West scorn in baseball circles, a well-deserved admonishment from his bosses and possibly even discipline from baseball's powers.

While I doubt West would actually treat these teams unfairly based on his over-the-top public comments, the appearance of a bias was certainly present in his pointed criticisms. Yankees GM Brian Cashman declined to respond to West's remarks, saying, "I have no comment." It's always smart to avoid upsetting an umpire, especially one who's apparently already upset. The whole topic is rather sensitive, as people inside the game know pace of game is as an important issue to commissioner Bud Selig.

Not everyone declined to respond, though. "It's incredible," Yankees closer Mariano Rivera told the New York Post. "If he has places to go, let him do something else. What does he want us to do, swing at balls?...He has a job to do. He should do his job. We don't want to play four-hour games but that's what it takes. We respect and love the fans and do what we have to do and that's play our game."

Umpires have to present an image of impartiality. They can't engage in name calling, which is what West did, and which should have been obvious to someone who's been a major league umpire since 1976.

But that doesn't mean West was entirely wrong. In fact, based on the numbers baseball keeps, he appears to have been dead on. Whether his intention or not, he also called attention to a problem that's been getting worse over the past six years, even though major league baseball says it's trying to address the issue.

As time-of-game stats acquired by SI show, the Red Sox, and especially the Yankees, do need to pick up the pace. In 10 of the last 11 years, the Yankees played the longest games in baseball, the lone exception being 2000, when they were one minute quicker than the Indians. (The quickest games last year were played by the White Sox and Mariners at 2:42 per.)

The Red Sox aren't too far behind the Yankees, either. The last four years running, in fact, the Red Sox have been second slowest to the Yankees, with the lone exception being 2008, when the two rivals tied for slowest with an average game time of 3:02.

Baseball isn't messing around about this issue. In 2009, dozens of players were warned for pace-of-game violations, and many of them received second warnings. Several managers also were warned, and a few of them were fined.

But since West's comments came out, it was also learned that one player in particular has earned his way onto the commissioner's office hit list as a serial time-waster for his repeated pace-of-game violations. He has been warned and fined multiple times for obvious offenses, and that player is believed to be star Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is known for his time-consuming preening, snarling and over-celebrating. He may be entertaining Red Sox Nation with his antics, but his act is otherwise wearing thin with baseball powers.

At least Papelbon is supposed to be part of the show, though. Those who have followed West's career aren't necessarily surprised he called attention to himself with his rant. He's among a group of umpires that seems to think they are part of the action.

West made clear he believes the Yankees aren't doing their part to adhere to Selig's wishes to speed up play, and his frustration is clear. It's hard to believe the Yankees are so consistently slower than everyone else, but several theories have emerged, ranging from their usually excellent offense to their pitch-taking philosophy to the added pressure of playing in New York, competing in baseball's fiercest rivalry and staying on top. They also probably lead the league in deep breaths.

The Yankees' slow-as-molasses reputation started in the Joe Torre era, and it's interesting to note that Torre's teams have consistently played the longest games, even after his move to the Dodgers in the quicker-paced National League. Joe Torre's 2007 Yankees set the record for longest average game at 3:10, and two years later, in 2009, Torre's Dodgers became the only National League team to go over three hours on average when they played to an NL record 3:02.

Nobody seems to have a good theory why Torre's games have taken longer, although it's interesting to note that he's a member of baseball's newly-formed blue ribbon committee that's raising time of game as a prime issue again

MLB has made the pace of games an issue for a decade now, and after some very quick progress under Sandy Alderson, when baseball games went from a 2:58 average in 2000 to 2:46 in 2003, baseball has drifted back up in the last six years, going to 2:47, 2:46, 2:48, 2:51, 2:50 and 2:51.

Baseball's powers are obviously going to the umpires to try to rectify what's seen as a problem, and West's crew saw the first two Yankees-Red Sox games played in 3:46 and 3:48, respectively. The third game, a 10-inning affair, was a more reasonable 3:21. West obviously became frustrated his crew couldn't control the game times (Derek Jeter and Marcus Thames of the Yankees and David Ortiz of the Red Sox all weren't granted the nearly automatic timeout once they got into the batter's box, leading to words between Jeter and home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez, another one of the attention-getting umpires). And West took it out on the Yankees and Red Sox.

Unless umpires are asked to explain a rules situation or one of their screwups, they are generally best seen and not heard. Baseball's umpires are the best in the world, notwithstanding the first two rounds of the 2009 postseason, and they certainly are within their rights to make constructive criticisms to the league office as they see fit, as no one understands the game or the problem more than them.

But this criticism wasn't intended to be constructive but rather punitive. And it wasn't made in private. West's comments were over-the-top in light of the fact that he's supposed to be an unbiased judge. Hard as it is to believe, he didn't understand the importance of conveying impartiality, and for that he deserved to be called out for his tirade.

Umpires are supposed to recede into the background, something West sometimes seems incapable of doing. They sometimes don't seem to get the idea that fans aren't there to see them but to see the players. Veteran major league umpires make big wages for making correct calls, not because they are entertainers, and a select few of them appear to overestimate their importance.

Jamie McCourt is going to have to make a case about her own state of mind when she signed the team over to soon-to-be ex-husband Frank. She has a shot, according to lawyer familiar with the case, but as one L.A.-based lawyers said, "She's not the favorite.''

• The two contracts signed this week by young stars appear to be fairly team friendly. Adam Lind, who was seventh in the AL with a .932 OPS, got $18 million over four years but three club options. Yovani Gallardo got $30.1 million over five years plus an option, though he can void the $14-million option if he amasses six Cy Young points (five for a Cy Young, three for second and one for third).

• David Ortiz has a point that the focus doesn't need to be on him two games into the season. But he's still getting pretty nice treatment from manager Terry Francona, who used Ortiz twice vs. lefties when he could have gone with righty Mike Lowell, once on Opening Day and then in the series finale against Andy Pettitte (whom Ortiz hits well). Lowell still can hit, and he gives Francona a viable option vs. lefties.

• Mets manager Jerry Manuel has made some interesting choices so far. He played Gary Matthews Jr. in center field the first two games, even though Angel Pagan is the superior offensive player and a solid leadoff man, which the Mets need with Jose Reyes out until Saturday. He also employed Mike Jacobs as the cleanup hitter twice after $66 million was invested in Jason Bay. In game three, Manuel went to Pagan and batted Bay fourth.

• The Phillies made a nice pickup to grab versatile pitcher Nelson Figueroa off waivers.

• It's the year of the radar reading, and Neftali Feliz hit 99 mph on Thursday. Joel Zumaya is still the leader, as he's hit 102 multiple times.

Dontrelle Willis turned in a solid six-inning performance in his debut, raising some hope that he can rebound from his miserable 2009. Last year he had only five games of five innings or more, none after May 24.

Nate Robertson, who lost to Willis for the Tigers' final rotation spot and then was traded to Florida, didn't look bad in his first game back with the Marlins (he started his career 0-1 with them in 2002).

Garrett Jones' emergence probably shouldn't come as such a surprise. He had 153 home runs in the minors and then 21 last year, even though he didn't play in the majors until July 1, and he already has three this season. Anyway, good job by the Pirates to get him for nothing.

Vernon Wells got a jump start in his hometown of Arlington, Texas, by hitting four home runs in three games as he tries to put together his first decent campaign since signing for $126 million after the 2006 season.

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