Umpires' poor calls conjur up memories of Maddux

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WALLA WALLA - I've never been much in favor of instant replay.

Even in the NFL, where it has been a widely accepted technological staple for many years, I find it more of a nuisance than anything else.

With so many commercials already in place to interrupt a televised game, replays only add to the intrusions. Besides that, instant replays are an attempt to reduce the human element from very human endeavors.

If players can make mistakes, if coaches are allowed to goof up on occasion, shouldn't game officials be afforded a like measure of imperfection? They're human, too, right?

But one month into the Major League Baseball season, I'm beginning to have second thoughts. In one aspect at least.

Maybe it's because the teams I pull for are off to such dreadful April starts. Maybe it's because the players I follow the closest are all hitting in the neighborhood of the Mendoza Line. Or maybe it's just because those strike-zone boxes are being displayed on practically every pitch of every game I watch.

Whatever the reason, the home-plate umpires are driving me crazy with their inconsistent judgment on balls and strikes. You'd swear that in every game Gregg Maddux was on the mound pitching for the Braves during his halcyon years in the 1990s.

Maddux, in case you don't remember, won 355 games during his 23-year career. He posted a career 3.16 earned run average and a 1.143 WHIP. And he struck out 3,371 batters while walking just 999.

Maddux also benefited from what many of us might describe as a rather wide strike zone. Known as a pitcher with pinpoint control, he was adept at spotting his pitches just about anywhere he wanted.

And as his reputation grew - winning four consecutive Cy Young Awards will do that - umpires' admiration for his precise placement did as well. He almost always got credit for a borderline pitch. And often pitches that were four or five inches off the plate - inside or out - were called strikes as well.

I'm not suggesting here that umpires showed favoritism towards Maddux. They simply fell into the trap of thinking that because of his amazing control, if that's where he wanted it, then it must be a strike.

Because he could put it there every single time.

But don't get me wrong, calling balls and strikes isn't easy under any circumstance. Especially, I think, pitches that are up or down in the zone, because every batter's strike zone is a little different based on his build. And batters who crouch in their stances only add to the difficulty of the decision-making process.

However, missing pitches that are off the plate, either inside or outside, is less tolerable in my view.

Home plate is 17 inches wide. It never changes. And umpires should have a clear and consistent conception of when a pitch covers any portion of that 17 inches and when it doesn't.

And I don't want to hear about pitches that are on the black - that narrow black strip that borders the plate on all five sides. It's only purpose is to clearly define the plate itself, which is white.

Pitches that cover only the black portion of the plate do not meet the 17-inch strike requirement and are therefore balls.

More and more this spring, I've seen pitches called strikes that appear to be either inside or outside. In some cases way inside or outside.

And more and more, the strike-zone boxes confirm what the naked eye perceives.

How accurate are these strike-zone boxes? I can't answer that. But I can assume that they are at least consistent.

I'm not ready to call for balls and strikes to be determined through some sort of technological eye in the sky. As frustrating as they can sometimes be, I don't for a minute believe umpires make the calls they do to benefit one player from another or one team over the other.

And I am just as certain that Bud Seleg, baseball's commissioner, would never consider such a dramatic move in the first place. I get the feeling he's even more opposed to instant replay than I am.

I'd just like to see a little more consistency behind the plate. And maybe a little less stubbornness.

But if you want to retain the human element, I guess you have to learn to accept the bad with the good.

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