How Joe Torre is combating rising tension between players, umpires
In his first year out of a major league uniform since 1989, Joe Torre is finally able to plan his own schedule. He can commute between Los Angeles and New York, his two most recent stops in a 29-year managerial career with five teams, watch tons of games on TV and spend time with family and friends.
Even his new job as MLB's executive vice president of operations is one Torre, 70, describes as stress-free. He is responsible for everything that happens on the field: He monitors the pace of games, listens to the complaints of managers and general managers and disciplines players. There is, however, at least one sizable challenge for the future Hall of Famer, and that is to eliminate the growing tension between players and umpires that has caused more than a few headlines this season.
"This may be a pie-in-the-sky thing for me, but I'm determined to get these guys to work together,'' Torre said during an interview with SI.com. "I'm not going to say, 'This is crazy,' and throw my arms up and walk away. I want the relationship to work smoothly.
"Respect is the word I want. You have to earn it. You give, and you get it in return, that's how I see it.''
In Torre's eyes, whenever a player bumps an umpire it's a sign of disrespect. On Aug. 2, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina bumped umpire Rob Drake, drawing a suspension in what was just one, but far from the only, example this season of a player making contact with an ump.
In July, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said that tension between players and managers is escalating. "We need to work harder to eliminate tension," said Leyland. You can feel it."
"I agree with Jimmy,'' said Torre, though he said he isn't sure what the reason is. "It is my top priority. I hate to say that, but the issue takes most of my time.''
Communication was one of Torre's strength as a manager, and he hopes it will help solve this problem. Torre, who ranks fifth all-time in victories by a manager and was a nine-time All-Star in his 18 seasons as a player, says he has new respect for umpires and hopes to use his experience in uniform to fix the relationship.
Torre said there are "short fuses'' on both sides and says he's heard all the complaints: Umpires are annoyed that players are too sensitive, quick to assign blame, don't know the rules and don't appreciate their professionalism.
Players say umpires are unapproachable, hold grudges, and give bang-bang calls to contending or home teams to avoid a hostile crowd reaction. Players are also concerned that umpires aren't held accountable for performance.
The problem doesn't mean that Torre has become a proponent of expanded replay, which allows umpires to use replay to determine if a home run is fair or foul and whether or not it cleared the fence. Baseball has resisted attempts at more replay. Commissioner Bud Selig agrees that a knee-jerk reaction to add replay is not good.
"We're always going to have the human element in the game,'' Torre said. "Nobody's perfect. This is a very imperfect game. I'm not in favor of wholesale replay. I look at the big picture. Sometimes, you get the short end and sometimes you get a break.''
Torre said that umpires don't hold grudges or make calls to favor contenders, nor does he support firing umpires that make mistakes. Instead, he wants to build relationships between players and umpires, something he said has deteriorated since 2000, the first year that American and National league umpires were eliminated and started working under the umbrella of Major League Baseball.
Under the old system, Torre said, the 68 umpires worked only one league and got to know the players better. Now, players don't see the same umpires as often.
Torre's solution is in the planning stages. He's trying to arrange logistics in spring training so that umpires and players can sit down, get to know each other, hash out issues and understand each other's professional pride in the game. The goal is friendship.
"I don't totally know how to plan it, it's not as easy as it sounds,'' Torre says. "It's going to start next spring training. It might be in smaller groups. We are trying to plan something that makes sense. We don't need to define the relationship as umpire-player. We want it to be a Bill-George thing. I'm not sure the parties know each other.
"They all want the same thing: Respect. My goal is to try to re-create the mutual respect so that it's there all the time. I am not saying it's not there, but overall.''
Players and umpires interviewed by SI.com were reluctant to talk in specifics about the problem.
"We have to work on it,'' Chicago White Sox shortstop Omar Vizquel says.
White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, said he's not sure there's tension, but he said the most important thing for an umpire to do is answer questions and admit mistakes.
"We give them a very tough job to do and they do it well,'' Pierzynski. "If an umpire says directly, 'I missed that,' how can a player be mad?''
Kirk Gibson, manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, said that he's not "touching'' the issue between players and umpires, but he thinks players shouldn't concern themselves with umpires' calls.
"If you worry about the umpires, that's a bad sign,'' Gibson says. "Umpires do a good job. Sometimes, you get a break, sometimes you don't. As a player, I sometimes made mistakes.''
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen says that umpires are making strides in their flexibility: "Sometimes, they kick me out before I step on the field. They have to give me a chance. But, there's a better attitude. Umpires are getting better and better.''
Torre said that umpires have to understand that when players react to a third strike or a popup, the anger isn't directed at the umpire.
"If there is a situation where a player throws a bat, the umpire has to understand that the player is not angry at the umpire, but is angry at himself. Things are so misunderstood. We have to find a way to be more respectful.''
Torre's advice to players is similar: "They have to understand that umpires aren't perfect in every situation and players shouldn't translate a missed call into, 'It's not as important to them as it is to us.' But, both sides have to realize there's misunderstandings and mis-interpretations, then it gets blown out of shape.''
As a manager in the postseason, Torre, who led the New York Yankees to four World Series titles, used to remind umpires that players are going to be intense and they are going to react when something goes wrong. "If they don't react, they don't care,'' Torre said.
Torre said he knows that players are worried about umpires' accountability, and while he wouldn't get into specifics, he said that umpires are graded and evaluated daily on many levels.
"They are graded on a number of things to determine All-Star Game (assignments) and the postseason,'' Torre said. "We record their work. I know players worry about accountability. We are evaluating them. The players are just going to have to take our word for it.''
Technology, with 24-hour Internet replays of umpire's mistakes, as well as a tracker on every pitch in local TV broadcasts, puts added pressure on umpires, Torre said.
"Umpires are wound a little tighter,'' he said. "And we live in a society that likes to point fingers and place blame, whether it is sports, the stock market or politics.''
The TV technology that grades umpires and allows analysts to second-guess an umpire isn't accurate, Torre said.
He said MLB has its own computer technology to grade the accuracy of umpires' ball-strike calls. Torre said the problem with the TV networks is that they strike zone technology is set up for one strike zone, to a batter that stands six feet tall.
MLB's technology takes into account the batters' various stances. "We couldn't give it to you with that quick of response,'' Torre said. "TV is not accurate.''
Torre also knows that controversial calls get a lot of attention and fuel the belief that umpires aren't doing a good job. On July 26, in the bottom of the 19th inning at Turner Field, home plate umpire Jerry Meals missed a call at the plate that allowed the winning run to score. Meals ruled that the Braves' sliding Julio Lugo eluded the tag of Pirates catcher Michael McKendry.
After the game, Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens suggested to reporters that Meals wanted to go home early. "Maybe he didn't want to be here any more,'' Karstens said.
That's the kind of attitude among players that Torre is trying to erase. He talked to Meals several times and said that Meals didn't want to miss the call.
"He felt very bad,'' Torre said. "He was devastated. I reminded him several times that he was a good umpire. I know how he feels. When I was a player and hit into a double play, I felt as if I was letting everyone down.
"I know in the heat of battle, it's hard not to get angry, especially in the 19th inning. But Jerry Meals is a good umpire. Life isn't always fair.''