Ump should be praised, not punished

Poor Joe West.

He expresses what a lot of us have been thinking and feeling for a long time now, and what is he likely to get for his trouble?

A slap on the back or, in the great baseball tradition, a friendly pat on the rump?

No. More like a public slap on the wrist from his bosses, and maybe worse.



Clearly, he should have known better than to say something as candid; fan-friendly; and, by the way, true as what he said Thursday to a reporter for the Bergen Record.

Namely, that big league baseball games are just too darned long.

Shame on him for being honest. Now he must pay.

Sources on both sides of the argument tell me that West, the crew chief of this week's Yankees-Red Sox series, is likely to face some kind of penalty for calling both teams "pathetic and embarrassing" for needing nearly 12 hours to complete three baseball games.

It could be dollars, it could be days, or it could be both.

But there's no way, I am assured, that West is going to be allowed to escape unscathed for merely saying publicly what Major League Baseball has been telling its teams and players for years now: Speed it up.

As a unionized employee of Major League Baseball, West was only verbalizing a policy his bosses have been trying to implement for years, a policy spelled out in a memo sent out to all 30 teams before each season and reinforced in a personal visit to every big league clubhouse by Bob Watson, baseball's dean of discipline, during spring training.

To that end, baseball instituted a rule that requires a pitcher to deliver within 12 seconds of when he is set on the mound and the batter is set in the box. It issued stopwatches to the second base umpires to makes sure the rule was being observed. They authorized the umps to issue warnings and even fines -- Boston's Jonathan Papelbon is said to have paid a couple -- and even assessed balls to Indians pitcher Rafael Betancourt for violating the 12-second window twice in a 2007 game.

So everyone on the MLB side of the equation seems to be on the same page, substantively at least, with Joe West. What they might have taken issue with was with his choice of words -- substitute, perhaps, "tedious and interminable" for "pathetic and embarrassing" -- and most certainly his choice of venue.

Umpires are supposed to be seen but not heard, which is why it was so shocking last year to hear umpire Tim McClelland make the remarkable admission of having blown a call in Game 4 of the ALCS. Normally, baseball's umpires, like the NFL's referees, are as accountable as Supreme Court justices.

Which, clearly, is the way the leagues want them: silent, unapproachable and unassailable.

Also, minus opinions.

In a way, the leagues have a point, because West's comments gave an opening for both the Yankees and Red Sox to accuse him of bias when it comes to calling their games.

As an official of one of the two teams told ESPNNewYork.com on Thursday, "He's supposed to be impartial. He shouldn't be criticizing any team whose games he might have to work."

In fairness, had a player used the same or similar words to criticize West, MLB would have had no choice but to fine him.

In this case, however, it seemed West was criticizing both teams equally, so the bias argument really shouldn't be allowed to fly.

And the GMs of both the Yankees and Red Sox should assume some of the blame for the excessive length of their games, since both specifically and carefully shop for hitters who like to work deep into the counts in an attempt to get the right pitch to hit and in the process wear down pitchers.

Still, something about what West said, or perhaps to whom he said it, did not sit well, either with the teams in question or with his bosses on Park Avenue.

A spokesman for Bud Selig said, "We're looking into Joe West's comments." Other sources described the commissioner as "furious," and one said "I guarantee [West] will be disciplined."

But for what? For articulating what a lot of fans must have been thinking as the clock neared midnight on Sunday with the game still droning on? The opener ran 3 hours and 46 minutes, or nearly the length of "The Ten Commandments" without being as consistently entertaining.

Tuesday's game lasted two minutes longer. And Wednesday's game, featuring Andy Pettitte and John Lackey, two starting pitchers who waste no time getting rid of the baseball, ran 3:21, even though at the end of nine innings only two runs had been scored.

That's an average of 3:38 per game, which is two minutes less than last year's 18 games averaged, ranging from a relatively brisk 2:56 to a whopping 5:33 for a 15-inning marathon in August.

Even those of us who love baseball and find every Yankees-Red Sox game, even those in early April, among the most compelling nights of theater pro sports has to offer, can find games that long to be too much of a good thing.

Last year, the average length of a major league baseball game was 2:55. A typical Yankees-Red Sox game now averages nearly an hour longer than that.

Certainly, TV networks, including the one that I and others who write for this Web site represent, add to the length, and the ratings indicate that in spite of it all, viewers are tuning in, in large numbers.

But when a batter like Nick Johnson seems determined to see at least six pitches each time up, or David Ortiz finds it necessary to step out of the batter's box between every pitch, fiddle endlessly with every last bit of equipment, and then call time out on top of it just before the pitcher goes into his windup, even Ken Burns might be tempted to blurt out what baseball has been telling its players for years now.

Pick it up, will ya, fellas?

That's all Joe West was saying, and deep down, we all know he's right.

For that, he shouldn't be reprimanded. More like rewarded.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.