By Tom Verducci
July 08, 2011

Does baseball have an umpire problem? Is the tension worsening between umpires and players and managers, as Detroit manager Jim Leyland would have us believe? Uh, no.

Welcome to summer, when the weather and tempers heat up. We did see 16 ejections in the first five days of July, so people assumed the state of umpiring was worsening. Ah, the power of the small sample.

But look at the first half of the season. While it's true that ejections through June were up for a second straight year, they were 18 percent below ejections through June from 2008. Things in recent years are much better than they used to be with the men in blue. Take a look at the table at right, which shows year-by-year ejections through June over the past eight seasons:

The "problem" is that a disproportionate amount of attention to umpiring recently has come from the crew of Joe West, which includes the equally controversial Angel Hernandez. Guess what crew caused Leyland to bemoan the rising tension? Yep, it was Cowboy Joe's crew. Guess which crew has ejected the most players, coaches and managers this year? Yep, Cowboy Joe's crew. And guess which crew caused Texas manager Ron Washington to be as blunt as you'll ever hear a big league manager in discussing an umpire? ("Angel is just bad. That's all there is to it.") Yep, Cowboy Joe's crew.

RELATED:Leyland says increased tension with umps a problem

Most of the umpires do an amazing job every night. West and Hernandez have been in a spate of high-profile incidents recently. Fairly or not, they have developed reputations for being combative. (Hernandez's "boxing out" of Leyland, for instance, while Leyland was arguing with West, was unnecessary.) Baseball is always better when you don't notice the umpires.

Halfway through the season, you can enjoy what's happening in Pittsburgh, Seattle, Arizona, Washington and Cleveland -- where five of the seven teams that lost 93 games or more last year are surprise contenders this year.

On the other hand, don't kid yourself. Not much has changed in 14 years. The road to a world championship remains I-95. You have to go through the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox if you want a ring. Of the past 13 world championships, seven were won by the Phillies, Yankees or Red Sox and five by teams that had to go through one of the Big Three. The only exception: the 83-win 2006 Cardinals, who were lucky enough to draw the Padres, Mets and Tigers (World Series titles in their past 72 combined seasons for those three opponents: zip.)

Before the Yankees lost last night, the three best records in baseball belonged to the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox. Ho hum.

The Big Three look like locks to win 90-plus games. And while it may seem like few other clubs look potent enough to crack 90 wins, keep this in mind: In the 15 full seasons with the six-division format, there never has been a year in which fewer than six teams won at least 90 games.

So what other three clubs look best equipped to win 90? Atlanta, San Francisco and Tampa Bay. That would mean five of the six best teams in baseball playing out of the East.

I was fortunate enough to serve on the 2008 Veterans Committee that elected Dick Williams to the Hall of Fame, as well as to serve with Williams on a subsequent committee. His sheer joy and appreciation upon being elected will stay with me now that Williams is gone, having passed away Thursday at age 82. Williams always will serve to remind me of the importance of honoring the greats while they are still with us.

It wasn't until his passing that I learned that Williams hit one of the most unusual home runs in baseball history. The date was May 18, 1957, a Saturday, and Williams' Orioles were hosting a night game against the Chicago White Sox with only 9,455 people on hand. The Sox were scheduled to play the next afternoon in Boston -- it was a six-city, 16-day trip -- so the game was played under a strict 10:20 p.m. curfew so the White Sox could catch the last train out to Boston.

The game dragged on for more than three hours. It was 10:19 p.m. when Williams stepped in to bat leading off the bottom of the ninth against Paul "Lefty" LaPalme. The White Sox were winning, 4-3.

People like to say baseball is the one sport where you cannot run out of the clock. This was one circumstance when that saying wasn't true. LaPalme could have stalled on the mound. He could have thrown a pitch to the backstop. He could have done anything to run one lousy minute off the clock and the White Sox would have been declared winners.

Instead, Lefty LaPalme decided to throw a pitch to Williams. And Williams hit it out. It was his first home run in 99 at-bats. As soon as Williams touched the plate, the umpires declared the game over because of the curfew. It ended in a tie. The game was replayed from the start later that season -- and the Orioles won, 5-2.

Williams' home run prompted one of the greatest all-time quotes from White Sox manager Al Lopez, when asked about LaPalme: "If I had had a rifle in the dugout, I would have shot him on the mound."

You don't get those kinds of quotes today, kiddies.

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