Thursday, January 6, 2011

15-Year-Old Controversies

Upon Roberto Alomar's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, there was a little bit of conversation that - if blogs had been invented by Al Gore back in 1996 - there probably would have been another legendary 50-post comment section slugfest about. The Alomar/John Hirschbeck spitting situation at the very end of the 1996 season raised a lot of issues, some of which we still discuss here today.

1. Let's start with Hirschbeck. I believe that in this situation, as well as a couple of other situations in the late 1990s, he was proactive in picking fights with players. This guy was a long-respected umpire who was making the same decisions that a lot of us have crushed the younger umpires for. This guy thought he was bigger than the game and was habitually elevating situations that didn't need to be elevated.

2. Alomar looked like the bad guy initially after this situation. And he should have. Don't spit in an umpire's face. That's a bad idea. But when more time went by, it looked like not Alomar, but Hirschbeck, was the one in the wrong. There were many accounts that claimed that Hirschbeck used a four word racial slur against Alomar, a theory that was given more weight when Hideki Irabu accused Hirschbeck of calling him a "Japanese m-f" after being called for a balk. But that's pretty bad. How, in an international game, can you say stuff like that? Hirschbeck is beyond a clown, and hopefully baseball fans do not forget this. I don't care what kind of stuff is going on in your personal life; it doesn't give you the excuse to be a racist.

3. The most controversial part at the time, at least in my memory, is the fact that Alomar didn't get suspended for blowing up and spitting in Hirschbeck's face until April 1997. They had plenty of comic strips and jokes about it, and maybe this was a harbinger about how much Bud Selig actually cares about disciplining any players. I'm pretty sure there was a negotiation between Selig and the union about the suspension of Alomar, but there's no doubt that if Selig had any balls, Alomar would have served his suspension during the playoffs.

(Of course, what also should have happened in the wake of the Alomar situation was that during road games during the '96 playoff stretch, opposing stadiums should have had some more security preventing people/future Wesleyan baseball players from f***ing with balls in play. But that's another story.)

But here's what I would like to know. You guys were all watching baseball back then. And you guys at least have a vague recollection of the situation.

1. Why don't umpires get any kind of discipline for actively seeking fights on the field? Is it just ego or is it something else?
2. Do you think Hirschbeck really dropped the slurs? If he did, what should the discipline have been?
3. Alomar got five games in April 1997. What should his discipline have been?
4. Would this have been different if it had happened in 2011?

Y'all have a good weekend. By the way, last week, the unranked, irrelevant UMass Minutemen basketball team REJUVENATED THE MULLINS CENTER WITH THEIR HUGE WIN OVER BU! WHEE! HUGE WINS OVER TCU AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY!


Anonymous said...


Interesting post. I have no idea if Hirschbeck used a racial slur. It certaintly wouldn't surprise me. If he did, you certainly understand Alomar spitting at him because it's totally unacceptable for someone in a position of authority like that to stoop to that level.

Having said that, spitting on someone is also pretty bad and I think if that happened today you'd probably get more than 5 games- I'm thinking at least 15 games.

The bigger issue here is officials in various sports who think that they are bigger than the game itself. You could certainly make the argument that there are a few NBA officials that have the same attitude. I don't really understand that attitude. Those guys need to understand that no one goes to a game to watch them. They should just do their jobs and be happy that they make a decent chunk of change working in sports even though they have no athletic ability whatsoever.


Anonymous said...


If the umpire called Alomar a slur that starts with 'S' and rhymes with "pick" then the five games suspension starting the next season was probably pretty close to the right thing, for two reasons. First, you have to suspend a player for spitting on an umpire. Always. Secondly, if he was provoked in a serious way and not just "stop bitching you goddamn baby" (and that type of slur is probably pretty serious provocation) then he shouldn't have had to miss his teams playoff run. Those are the most important games and he was a big part of that team. The punishment for Alomar seemed to fit. Now, if Hirschbeck just simply offended Alomar or razzed him a little, then the equation changes, and he probably should have either been suspended for a playoff series or at the very least gotten 20-30 games the next year.

As for Hirshbeck, I don't know him and didn't know enough about the situation at the time to know whether he used a slur or not. If he did, he should probably have been fired. Not because the language is offensive. I can say a hundred things that are more offensive than that without using any slurs. It's more of what it says about his ability to get along with players. If you can't get along with them to the point where you have to use a slur then you probably shouldn't be calling a game. And this is coming from someone who believes that free speech cuts both ways and not just that it allows you to be critical of a conservative political administration.

Lastly, I can't speak for baseball or football because I've never officiated either, but in basketball officials can actually move a game either way. Bad officials can make the game worse, but good officials actually can enhance it. Unfortunately, too many refs they think enhance it by being obnoxious and riling the players up.

--the Gunn

the gm at work said...


I think it will forever be debated whether he used the S word, but those who are going against the umpire said that he called Alomar a S.M.F. and called Irabu a Japanese M.F. David Wells was there for both incidents. He wrote in his book that he never heard Hirschbeck use the S word but heard a lot of M-Fs in there. I couldn't find the passage about Irabu when putting together this post.

I feel like if this were to happen in 2011, Hirschbeck would have been either fired or suspended for a long time due to public pressure in response to the incident. Alomar's suspension would have been longer as well, especially after recent umpire-bumps have resulted in big suspension.

Patrick said...

i won't get into the alomar/hirschbeck speculation because i guess we don't know. what i will say is that if hirschbeck said what is being alleged here, and that could have been proven, he should have been proven because racism is never acceptable on any level. while alomar still has to be accountable for his response, his punishment should be softened because it is more understandable being provoked in that extreme fashion. i woudl say 5 games the following year at an absolute maximum. if hirschbeck didn't say what is being alleged, then that makes what alomar did more reprehensible and the punishment should have been more severe. i would agree with gunn that a more immediate punishment is necessary in that scenario. to answer your last question, i would say this situation would have undoubtedly been different if it had happened in 2011 because most things are. the scrutiny and around the clock tv, radio, and internet coverage are too much for it not to.

swinging back to your first question, we spend a fair amount of time talking about umpiring/officiating in this space and i think that's for good reason. there are problems. one issue, to your question, is the lack of punishment for umpries'/officials' involvement in on-field behavior. we really need this in baseball and basketball. i've talked about this before, but this is not really an issue in the nfl compared to mlb/nba. i'm not sure why, but nfl officials do a much better job of handling situations than do their contemporaries in the other two leagues. just think about how often you see an nfl coach absolutely laying into a sideline ref. they rarely throw a flag, and i wouldn't blame them if they did it more often, coaches really let them hear it sometimes. a manager or coach wouldn't get through 25% of a similar tirade in the mlb/nba before being ejected/getting a T in most instances. and in some situations (not all, to be fair many umpires/refs do a very good job) you actually see them escalating the situation as opposed to diffusing it. and that is because of the attitude some nba refs and mlb officials have developed, that we've talked about before and bandi referenced here, that they are bigger than the game. that people are there to see them. to tie that to gunn's points, this attitude can have a huge impact on the game. and that is unacceptable. refs and umps are not there to have an impact on the game, they are there to facilitate the game. if you were to compare their role to something, they would be more of a scoreboard/gameclock than a player/coach.

so to answer your question, there are probably a lot of reasons why they aren't disciplined. the leagues seem to have a general attitude that officials/umpires are imperfect and human just like everyone else and that this general defense excuses most of their actions/mistakes. quick apology for really terrible calls/actions, and then it is just supposed to be forgotten about. i don't know exactly why this attitude isn't disciplined, but it needs to be. again it takes away from the games, and that's before we get into how bad many of these refs and umps are at their jobs, where again i think the nfl is better than nba/mlb. so think about that. if the nfl is ahead of the other two in terms of both performance and attitude, where does that leave the other two leagues? it's not acceptable to be worse at your job and still for some reason do your job with this attitude of superiority (again for some, not all, officials/umps).

Patrick said...

this combination of attitude and ineffectiveness is also why i am moving further and further in favor of instant replay. not only does it help get the calls right (which i think we all want) but i think the more it is involved the more it will strip these umps/refs of this power-trip attitude (which is also a good thing). particularly in baseball, i'm in favor of a move in this direction. mostly because of how much easier it is to consistently utilize than in the other sports. basektball is the toughest, because it is a game of non-stop movement. there are few stops. football is in the middle because there is a lot of movement but there are breaks after every play. in baseball there is not a lot of action and there are breaks after every pitch/play. you put a 5th umpire up in the booth, and mosts bad calls can be overturned in a matter of 10 seconds. seriously, a lot of these plays can be seen on tv one time and they ARE NOT EVEN CLOSE. he and the homeplate umpire have earpieces in and are in constant communication. i'm not sure what you want the exact rules should be, it would take some refining, but i am all for this type of general change. i don't buy any argument that it would slow the game down. to the contrary, i think it would speed it up with all the arguing that goes on and the umpires huddling to get the call right. and i don't get ANY argument about the human element. who cares? get the calls right. the only thing i would keep in the total hands of the on -field umpires is balls and strikes. that would slow the game down, and that way the human element people can keep something. everything else is review-able. and this is not only an indictment of umpires. baseball calls can be tough to make live. they are typically pretty easy to see on replay. in this situation, go with the best way to get the calls right. that's on a screen, not on the field.

TimC said...

In 2011:

-A 'Spit-in' at Colby, in front of Miller. Students would spit on prepared posters of slurs and bigoted images, symbolizing the individual's ability to stand up and fight back against discrimination.

-Umpire mikes would probably solve the confusion over these incidents.

-A week of useless programming on ESPN2 where two 'analysts' debate the death of sportsmanship, waxing poetic about the 50's before juxtaposing the Jim Joyce incident. No analysis or new information will be shared and this will run from 10AM to 1125 on ESPN2.

-No one will care, since Brett Favre would just have eaten a sandwich, or some other breaking news.

Other thoughts:
-Sportsmanship as HOF credentials is irrelevant, except when it is.

-I have no really interesting thoughts on the suspension part. Some would argue that this needs to be clearly stated, like 'One wad of phlegm equals three games' or the like, but I agree that the spirit of the law is important. Was he provoked? Justifiably? Stuff like that.

-On the topic, I think the big issue with referees at the moment is the spirit/letter of the rulebook, or the lack of such debate. The biggest difference, to me, of European sports (which is basically soccer, but I see it sometimes in hoop) and US sports is how this manifests itself. In Europe, the referee is pressured not to just get the calls right but to also facilitate the free-flowing nature of the game. They must both call the foul AND eat the whistle if such a decision would improve the entertainment value of the game. This means they must be in tune with the flow of a match, making decisions not just on whether there was contact but whether whistling would stilt the flow of the game.

In the USA, this is rarely the case. We see endless replays of TD catches only for a sure six to be ruled incomplete. We see celebration penalties inconsistently called all over the place, particularly in these college bowl games. What is a charge? We need a stupid half-circle to help. In our increasingly-literal society, we are more concerned with spelling out all the scenarios in print rather than letting the referee the option to 'play advantage' or ignore calls that would lead to a five-minute stoppage. Perhaps a more flow-based approach to refereeing would greatly enhance the quality of play, particularly in the NBA.

This is why I am not exactly for increasing instant replay, though it has a place. Use of replay leads to a greater emphasis on rules, which leads to less use of the 'human element'. Folks, don't get 'human element' confused with making mistakes. The human element is an official's ability to understand that a deflected ball off a rebounder's hand belongs to that player's team if the hand was fouled into the ball. Instead of calling a dumb, cheap foul that impacts the game with foul shots, possibly disqualification, and wasted time making the call, the official splits the difference and calls it out of bounds, perhaps technically incorrect, but within the spirit of the game while maintaining the flow. That's the human element, missing now from the NFL TD-catch rules, and sure to go if we keep pushing replay.

-Regarding the Japanese thing, I think he could have gone down a much darker road with his word selection. I say this because I think someone who would invent such an accusation would use that language as part of it, instead of just a generic curse word with an adjective. Is this weak? Yes, very, but that's my gut reaction.

-If this is a wikipedia article, does David Wells count as a source? He was half-hammered, half-unhittable, so who knows?