The Year of the Umpire?

The Washington Nationals bombarded the Houston Astros on Monday, wracking up 14 runs on 14 hits, and registering the biggest inning in Nats history. Nyjer Morgan, batting second, went 3-4 in breaking out of a May slump, while Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman each had four RBIs. But the Nats-Astros tilt was not only notable for the fireworks provided by Washington’s bats. In the third inning, Houston ace Roy Oswalt was ejected from the game by home plate umpire Bill Hohn, whom Oswalt clearly believed was not giving him an outside strike. Oswalt complained, confronted Hohn, and was tossed. The Nats were pleased with Oswalt’s departure (even though they seemed to be hitting him) and jumped on the Astros’ bullpen.

Oswalt argued his innocence after the Nats win. “I was upset I missed with a pitch a little bit off the plate and was actually talking to myself on the mound,” Oswalt said. “I wasn’t even looking his way, and when I turned around, he was pointing at me and saying something about, ‘Are you going to keep your mouth shut?’ I couldn’t really tell what he said. I told him I wasn’t talking to him and he kept on talking, so I told him again I wasn’t talking to him, and he threw me out.” Houston manager Brad Mills put himself between Oswalt and Hohn, but the signal for Oswalt’s ejection had already come. Hohn’s finger-in-the-air toss came after Adam Dunn had put an extra base knock into right-center field off a pitch that Oswalt seemed to groove after Hohn had called successive balls on his corner pitches. “That’s on you,” Oswalt mouthed to Hohn as Josh Willingham came to the plate.

Is This The Year of the Umpire? Oswalt’s ejection over called balls and strikes highlighted the increasing noise over the strike zone in major league baseball. Roy Halladay’s perfect game against the Marlins on Saturday featured a strike zone that gave the Phillies’ ace an outside strike — not nearly as tight as Hohn’s zone with Oswalt in Houston on Monday. The Marlins refused to talk about “the Halladay strike zone” after the game (“I don’t want to talk about the strike zone, because that’s a discredit to what he did,” Fish regular Chris Coghlan said), but they were clearly upset about some of the calls — on 3-1 and 3-2 counts. Strangely the strike zone seemed incredibly small in April — perhaps an attempt to inject some offense into the game in the post-steroid era — before loosening up through all of May.

A family member (here he is, honest) theorizes that the endless use of slo-mo, super slo-mo and the strike zone box featured in nearly all MLB broadcasts (on Nats broadcasts it’s the “MASN HD Pitch Track”), has so irritated the umpires that they are in revolt. The result of the revolt is a wider strike zone, faster games and punch and judy hit-the-opposite-way games. The theory is more than just an idea. In March, a group of baseball experts convened by USA Today (that included players, umpires and managers), took on the strike zone box used by color commentators. Veteran ump Steve Palermo was the most outspoken; he called the graphic phony and inaccurate. “They put up the same box for Freddie Patek and Dave Winfield,” Palermo said. “You telling me those two strike zones are the same? I don’t think so. Not at 6-foot-6 and 5-foot-4. They should say at the bottom of the screen, ‘This is for entertainment purposes only.’ ” The graphic has led to endless second guessing by managers, fans and viewers of umpire calls. “I hate that damn box on TV. Why don’t they eliminate that?” super scout Gary Hughes queries.

If MLB’s umpires are in revolt, they’re likely led by Joe West, the president of the World Umpires Association and the spiritual leader of the fed up and huddled umpire masses. West would be an odd choice for a revolutionary leader: he’s controversial, holds grudges and spends a lot of time off the field promoting his country western CD and hobnobbing with celebrities. Earlier in the season, West criticized the Red Sox and Yankees for their habit of playing interminable games, calling the two teams “pathetic and embarrassing.” The comment sparked a firestorm of comment. But West’s complaint was hardly new: it has been made often by baseball insiders (and outsiders), who point to the Red Sox and Yankees as arrogant flouters of Commissioner Bud Selig’s wish to speed up the game. “Everybody else gets screwed but those two teams,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter says. Steve Palermo went public with his own anger back in March, noting that when Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was disciplined for throwing extra pitches in the bullpen warm-up session after being summoned to the mound, he ripped up the disciplinary notice in front of a group of reporters. “You know what?” Palermo says. “If somebody acts up, whack them. I’m talking about $50,000. And then $100,000. And then $200,000. You usually get the attention after the $100,000 mark.”

If there’s an umpire revolt in major league baseball, it’s likely to reach a boiling point this week, when Bud Selig and crew may decide to reprimand Joe West — and either fine or suspend him — for allegedly recruiting reporters to his side in the length of games controversy. West is also under fire for calling two balks on White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle and ejecting him, and then doing the same with Pale Hose manager Ozzie Guillen. Now, granted, West comes off as a jerk and his “Cowboy” Joe West pose flies in the face of one of the game’s most sacred unwritten rules — that umps should be invisible. But in spite of this, West seems to be making a point that has nothing to do with his comments on the length of game controversy or his dust-up with the South Siders. And it’s a point that every umpire in the MLB would support: that the strike zone is what the umps say it is (that’s what it says in the rules) and . . . and as soon as you step on the field, the umps are in charge. It can’t be any other way and it hasn’t been for more than one hundred years. Then too, let’s get serious: it’s not as if Roy Halladay is Danny Cabrera. You don’t like the strike zone? Well, get a clue: swing the bat. Like the Nats did yesterday in Houston.