I may be late to the party, but with the latest baseball scandal hitting the highlight reels, I thought it appropriate to label what any story that receives too much publicity inevitably requires: a name. So, with the latest MLB drama involving veteran umpire Joe West, and Chicago White Sox pitcher, Mark Buehrle…I give you: “Balk Gate”.
As with any drama, scandal, or controversy, I always have to ask myself: Where did it start?What was the motivation? Who stands to benefit? and the clincher, Did it really need to happen? So with these basic questions, let’s have a look at the anotomy of the situation at hand. In one corner you have Joe West, a veteran MLB umpire who is widely respected as one of the better umpires in the game today. He also happens to be the President of the MLB Umpire’s Association, the labor organization that controls the umpires in Major League Baseball. I do not believe that many (players, coaches, and media included) really believe that Joe West’s ability is in question in this particular incident, but it has become very clear for some time now that Joe West’s intentions are in question. He has consistently called attention to himself all season for being a proponent of speeding up the game by enforcing the speed of the game initiative that MLB would have us believe is best for today’s game. He has created this “tough guy” image for being the umpire who will take charge of the game, and not take any flack from a player or Manager regardless of there notariety or place in the pecking order of MLB. He also, by the way has another gig that he likes to promote as well…he fancies himself something of a country & western performer. Hence, the nickname: “Cowboy” Joe West.
And in the other corner, you have: Mark Buehrle, veteran pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. Not only has Buehrle established a reputation for himself in MLB with accomplishments such as: All-Star appearances, a World Series Championship, a no-hitter, a perfect game, but in this particular instance it becomes very relevant that Buehrle also has become widely-known for having a very good pick-off move(s) to first base. It’s a very effective weapon for a left-handed pitcher to have, especally when you are not blessed with the gift of an overpowering fastball. Buehrle has created, and honed this particular weapon in his arsenal over many years, and the amazing thing about it is: anybody who knows anything about baseball, knows it’s coming…and it still works!
The smaller player in this saga, added almost for flavor in a course already serving meat & potatoes: is one Ozzie Guillen. No stranger to controversy, the colorful Manager of the Chicago White Sox has been known to place himself in the middle of more than a few controversial situations, whether it be a ejection from a game, an explitive-laced post-game interview, or collecting fines, suspensions or reprimands for his behavior from either his own team or from MLB (or both). In this case he has/will likely be collecting the above-described trifecta of bad behavior.
Now that the players have been established, let’s proceed to the dynamics of the situation as they unfolded. It is here that I will assert my right as a blogger to inject my personal opinion into the situation. With Joe West drawing the assignment of First-base umpire in the rubber-match of a game between the Chicago White Sox, and the Cleveland Indians, at face value, you wouldn’t think much about this game. A third place team against a last place team in what is considered the weakest Division in the American Leauge…no big deal, right? Wrong. Here’s where the opportunity presented itself. As a Wednesday (“getaway day” game) during a day when it was the only MLB game being played before a night-game heavy slate, and being broadcast Nationally on Superstation WGN. What better opportunity could there be for exposure, if that was your goal. You have the perfect forecast for creating controversy. On what would seem as an otherwise sunny day, just sprinkle in some Joe West, and watch the black clouds roll in.
In case you haven’t seen the video, see attached, http://chicago.whitesox.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20100526&content_id=10449660&vkey=news_cws&fext=.jsp&c_id=cws
as it will save me several hundred words to describe the events, but in short: Buehrle used one of his pick-off moves (the same one that he’s been using for several years without being called for a balk), and Umpire Joe West decided to call a balk. No big deal so far as it is an Umpire’s discretion to interpret the rules as he sees them, or better known as, a judgement call. Buehrle didn’t agree, and got a bit irritated, when the sparks started to fly a bit. Ozzie Guillen, sensing that Buehrle (with his gestures, and seeing a conversation between to two start to escalate) did what Managers commonly refer to as “protecting their players”, and he exited the dugout to go talk to Joe West. This is always a risky move, as it is well known that you may not argue many things in baseball (balls & strikes, AND a balk call) without running the risk of being ejected from the game. Ozzie claimed in his post-game interview that Joe West was trying to embarrass Mark Buehrle, and took offense by that, escalated the situation to deflect to touchy situation away from his starting pitcher (as it was still only the second-inning) and was quickly tossed from the game by West. Situation over, right? Wrong. As if it was not enough to make a point, in the next inning with a runner on first base, Buehrle had made a few more pick-off throws to first base to keep the runner close, without incident. Then, without warning, Joe West decided that on the next throw over, that he would call Buehrle for another balk. Now, I am a fan of the White Sox, (which makes me biased in the situation), but this is a very unlikely occurence. To recieve 2 seperate balk calls from the same umpire in the span of 2 innings, is highly suspect and controversial. In his disgust, Buehrle while displaying both his disbelief and his displeasure made a shrugging of the shoulders gesture and allowed his glove to leave his hand, falling to the ground. It looked in the replay as if he wanted to throw it down in anger, but tried to stop himself (as that is a definite “No-No” in baseball etiquite) and couldn’t. The result of that reaction and gesture by Buehrle to West’s second balk call, was what I can only guess was the perception by West that Buehrle was trying to “show him up”, and he took the opportunity to flex his umpiring muscle to eject Buehrle from the game as well.
The resulting melee was a combination of Buehrle having to be restrained by players and coaches, while a defiant Joe West stood at his position with arms crossed, having looked like a man that was telling the world that he was untouchable and had just rendered his own form of baseball justice. Now, I ask for the record, why did that happen? According to both Mark Buehrle and Ozzie Guillen in their post-game comments, it was an effort by Joe West to call attention to himself, that it may even have been a planned (or pre-meditated) event. West’s comments were very matter-of-fact that he called what he interpreted as violations of the rule. Video replay is clear in that no such violations were performed, and that West was wrong in making either call. Of course, when you have humans making “judgement calls”, there is always a margin for error. In this case, was there an error in judgement, or was it more likely an opportunity created and seized?
Like I had laid out earlier, in any controversy, you ask yourself: What was the motivation? The answer to that we may never know, short of a full confession of guilt from Joe West, which is highly unlikely given the personality and reputation involved. The question of who stood to benefit was clear. It was not Mark Buehrle, who was in the very early stages of working toward pitching his team to a much-needed series win, for a struggling team that has under-performed to this point in the season. It was not Ozzie Guillen, who had attempted to fall on the sword for his player, as it is his reputation to protect his players. Although he could have potentially been trying to “start a fire” under his struggling club, the time and circumstance in the game did not look like that was his motivation. So, the only logical conclusion in this short cast of characters to answer the question of: Who stood to benefit? is apparent. “Cowboy” Joe West, perhaps in an effort at self-promotion, decided to create an opportunity on a stage that was built out of his own reputation as stickler for the rules, his reputation as a guy that won’t take any guff from anyone, and a guy with a reputation who is certainly not afraid to be in the middle of a controversial situation.
What is mind-boggling however, is that the answer to my last question of: Did it have to happen? Is today a matter of complete opinion. Why would Joe West call (not one, but two) balk moves on Mark Buehrle when literally hundreds of the exact same situation previous to the ones in question, never garnered any attention? Was it an axe to grind personally between West and the pitcher, or the Manager, or the team that we are not aware of? Or maybe it’s as simple as a would-be amateur performer doing what many persons seeking celebrity in the industry of entertainment ocassionally do when they seek to create buzz surrounding a movie premier, or a record release, or sometimes to resurrect a dying career, (or in this case perhaps to build a bridge between one established carrer on its downside, and the potential of manufacturing rising stardom of another)…create a spectacle. If that was the motivation, congratulations to Joe West for a job well done. Not only are people talking about him, and his “music career”, but he did it all without it costing himself a dime. Talk about brilliance in self-promotion. They say that any press is good press, and that if they aren’t talking about you, then you haven’t been doing much. Problem is Joe, they also say that the Umpires have done their job well if by the end of the game, nobody knew their names. I think you’ve likely accomplished your goal of making sure that everybody was going to find out about “Cowboy” Joe West, by deciding to wear part of your costume from your “other gig” to your full-time day job.