Harrelson's right: Joe West is a joke

Over at It's About the Money, TheCommonMan wonders if Joe West has a conflict of interest:

    And today, we learn that West is standing by his comments on the two teams, via ESPNBoston, “I don’t second-guess what I said. And I don’t believe I’m wrong. A lot of people don’t believe I’m wrong. I kind of expected the firestorm I created. But the interview was taken out of context. The first thing I said was that these were two of our best teams, but the pace that they play the game was pathetic and embarrassing. But everybody, especially the New York media, blew it out of proportion and said I was calling the teams pathetic. Some people said I had no right to single them out. I didn’t single them out. I said they were both bad.”Now, you might be asking a legitimate question: Why is this news? Well, because Joe West is going to be umpiring the Red Sox/Royals series this weekend in Boston. And how do we know that, when MLB doesn’t announce umpiring crews before regular season games? Because Joe West’s Nashville-based publicist tells us so. Indeed, Joe’s publicist brags that he is “one of the most unique individuals in the professional sports world” and “available for media interviews and guest appearances.” Next question: Why does an umpire need a publicist? Because he’s also a country music singer/songwriter. I won’t bother to link to his webpage. You can Google that, if you’re morbidly curious. As Edes points out, it’s believed West is the only umpire with a publicist.

    Anyway, in my mind this raises a legitimate ethical issue about whether Joe West, MLB Umpire, and president of the World Umpires Association, has a conflict of interest. Umpires’ salaries are fixed based on service time, as they should be. The promise of extra cash might cause some umps to make certain calls differently. However, publicity definitely helps West's music career. Indeed, how many of you knew Joe West was a terrible country singer/songwriter before this? West is apparently not shy about seeking this publicity, and the more often he gets mentioned, the more often he and his band can book gigs in the offseason. Indeed, while I would not go so far as to accuse Joe West of being insincere in his beliefs, it’s his willingness and desire to share those impartial beliefs with the media that is problematic. Also, when Joe makes controversial decisions on the baseball field, like decisions to eject managers and players, and takes steps to ensure that the exchanges are heated and drawn out (and will thus appear on highlight shows and be discussed on blogs like this one), we fans are left to wonder whether he is deliberately altering the course of baseball games in order to garner additional publicity for himself and his music career.

I agreed absolutely with Joe West's comments about the Yankees and the Red Sox; those teams don't play quickly enough. I absolutely believe that West should have been fined or suspended for making those comments publicly.

Why? Because criticizing teams is not his job. Or rather, one of his jobs is (or should be) expressly not to criticize teams. Or anything else. When umpires speak publicly about their employment, they should limit themselves to two subjects: 1) the life of the umpire, and 2) specific reasons for particular calls.

An umpire isn't really viable if there's a belief that his integrity is compromised. And when an umpire uses words like "pathetic" and "embarrassing" to refer to one team (or two teams), isn't it reasonable to wonder if he'll treat that team fairly the next time around? Remember, when it comes to public integrity it's not about impropriety; it's about the possible appearance of impropriety.

After West ejected Ozzie Guillen yesterday, Hawk Harrelson said, "He's becoming a joke, is what he's doing. He's becoming a joke, to the umpiring profession."

And that was before West called the second balk on Mark Buehrle, who was eventually ejected. (Here are the highlights of Harrelson's jeremiad).

Harrelson's known as perhaps the biggest "homer" in all of broadcasting. But even if Hawk's only half-right about West, doesn't that suggest a real problem?

I don't know if West has a conflict of interest. But when an umpire has a publicist and tells writers that certain teams are pathetic and seems perfectly happy to become the center of attention in a game, you have to wonder if maybe he's forgotten that he's merely an umpire, ideally unnoticed while the real attractions are performing for the crowd.

Joe West is 57 years old. He first reached the majors in 1976, when he was 24, which is impressive. He was one of the 22 umpires who resigned in 1999, in a failed ploy to gain leverage in negotiations with Major League Baseball. As part of an unfortunate (for baseball) settlement, West was rehired in 2002. So he's been around forever, he found his way back to MLB after deserving to lose his job forever, and now he's president of the union. After his comments about the Red Sox and Yankees, West reportedly wasn't fined but was admonished firmly (ouch).

Can you blame West for thinking he's untouchable?

Unfortunately, he probably is. Harrelson's right: Country Joe West is a joke. Unfortunately, when it comes to disciplining umpires, the joke -- and it's not a funny joke -- is on Major League Baseball. And the players. And us.