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Blame umpiring on injuries

According to Tracy Ringolsby, there's a hidden reason for the apparently subpar umpiring we've seen this month ...

    The quality of the umpiring has taken a hit because at least a dozen umpires, including seven crew chiefs, were left out of postseason assignments this year due to injuries.--snip--

    While federal laws prohibit Major League Baseball from discussing injuries of employees, FOXsports.com has learned that the sidelined umpires include crew chiefs John Hirschbeck (testicular cancer), Charlie Reliford (back), Jerry Crawford (back), Tim Welke (concussion), Ed Montague (concussion and neck), Gary Darling (ankle and foot) and Rick Reed (stroke).

    Other umpires who are sidelined by injuries include Kerwin Danley (concussion), Alfonso Marquez (back), Brian Runge (details unknown), Bill Hohn (back) and Ed Hickok (concussion).

    Several of them did return from the injuries in September, but given their limited time on the field this year they were not included in the list of postseason candidates.

The situation makes me wonder about MLB's retirement policy for umpires. You get the impression that veteran umpires are like Supreme Court justices or Bud Seligs: they'll quit when they think it's time, not when anyone else does. I understand the rational with the judges; the notion is that they should not be subject to political pressures. But, should umpires be allowed to umpire forever?

Practically speaking, older umpires occupy slots that would otherwise be held by younger umpires, who presumably be 1) learning their trade at the highest level, and 2) more likely to be healthy enough to work in October.

But of course all those injured and (mostly) older umpires are just one part of the problem. Ringolsby:

    Major League Baseball has a selection process that is weighted by how the umpires are ranked, but there are restrictions that include the rule that an umpire cannot work the World Series in back-to-back years, a nuance the umpires wanted in the CBA (which expires Dec. 31) so that more umpires are afforded the opportunity of a World Series.--snip--

    Umpires also cannot work consecutive postseason series, meaning an umpire cannot work the LCS and the World Series in the same year. That is supposedly designed, by the request of the umpires, to assure that an umpire does not get physically or mentally worn down during the showcase events.

    As a result, Tim McClelland, generally ranked at the top of the list of umpires, and fellow crew chiefs Gary Cedarstrom and Dale Scott are working LCS games this weekend, but after working the World Series a year ago they cannot be included on the World Series crews this year.

    That means even with a system based on merit, the six best umpires in baseball do not work the game's premier event because (1) every other year they cannot work the World Series and (2) it's not like baseball can treat the LCS as a secondary event because the ALCS and NLCS do determine the participants in the World Series.

Physically or mentally worn down during the showcase events? The umpires can work for weeks on end during the regular season, but they can't work 14 games -- at the very most over the course of three weeks? Really?

Naturally enough, the umpires just don't want to work any harder than they have to. And while there is a moderate financial incentive for them to work postseason games, every full-time umpire receives a standard postseason bonus whether he works postseason games or not (which is of course to soothe the tender feelings of the umpires who are not selected).

Anyway, it's obviously not any ideal system. If Major League Baseball asks the most fundamental of questions -- "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?" -- the answer must almost certainly be no. Fortunately, Major League Baseball has the perfect chance to ask that question. Because according to Ringolsby, the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the World Umpires Association expires at the end of this year. Nobody's got any excuse if the umpiring isn't better in 2010 than it's been this fall.