There are only so many synonyms for “strange” to describe this 2020 Major League Baseball season, and the first two weeks of play did plenty to use them up.
The year has been odd, bizarre, unusual, peculiar, weird, abnormal, atypical, etc. The stands are empty. Fake crowd noise is being used. The season is just 60 games.
All of that weirdness was topped Sunday. Longtime umpire Joe West, one of the best-known in the league, threw Mike Rizzo out of a game in Atlanta for shouting at the umpires. There are layers to this, from the problems with no fans in the stands, to a general manager screaming from a suite, to the stark lack of public accountability among baseball’s umpires.
Hot mics have been one of the key figures in the 2020 season. They caused Davey Martinez to advise his coaching staff to calm themselves or at least clean up their terminology. Swear words being launched by Jesús Aguilar were easily audible when the Miami Marlins were in Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg was ejected from the stands. Aníbal Sánchez was asked to leave the stands, which is the same as being ejected, just without the official designation.
Then came Sunday, when Rizzo stood defiantly on the second concourse at Truist Park hours after discussing his new three-year extension. West, never wary of the spotlight, tried to shoo him away. Then called security. Then took another significant step.
Hang with a little inside media process: if reporters need to hear from an umpire or referee or game official, they will ask for a pool report. Meaning, one reporter will be nominated to go talk to the officials about a controversial or unclear decision which affected the game. This process was enacted Sunday in Atlanta -- sort of. The current climate of separation within stadiums -- where all occupants are divided into tiers 1, 2 or 3 -- doesn’t allow for the co-mingling of the past.
So, instead of speaking with a reporter directly, Major League Baseball stepped in to distribute an ineffective statement:
“We have already been in communication with the Nationals regarding what transpired during today’s game, and we will speak with the umpiring crew today. We will expect Joe West’s crew to provide a full account of their perspective, and we will follow up with them accordingly.”
It clarified nothing.
Not long afterward, West undermined the process by speaking alone with the Associated Press, flippantly talking about how and why he ejected Rizzo. He knows better, but doesn’t care. West is 67 years old. Next year, he presumably will break the record for the most regular-season games umpired. He’s under a shield.
West is the umpire of a bygone era, an authoritarian type living in a time of extreme scrutiny. He’s representative of baseball’s lack of transparency for their umpiring crews. Individual umpires with bad track records remain for decades. How they are measured, reprimanded or held accountable remains unknown. The NBA and NFL have moved toward attempts at more transparency. Major League Baseball plods along, per usual.
In the case of the NBA, they did so against the referees’ wishes. The league’s last-two-minutes reports are imperfect and draw ire. They can’t fix what transpired. They can provide an explanation for why it did, further educating those watching (or even leading to a rule change down the road). Again, not perfect. But at least a peep at the process.
West’s hubris-based actions were a sigh-worthy sideshow. Rizzo screaming at umpires about balls and strikes from an executive suite were also silly. The whole exchange was so bizarre, Martinez didn’t know what happened until he read the Associated Press story with comments from West.
“I’m actually still a little confused about the whole deal,” Martinez said Monday. “I didn’t realize he got thrown out. Like I said, I saw [West] go to the phone in the Braves dugout and talk, and we sat there. I look up and Rizz is still sitting there. The game went on.
“Until today, I read all the reports, I was kind of shocked to hear Joe did eject Rizz. Obviously, there’s no fans, so if one person’s screaming, they can pinpoint that guy. And they did. It is what it is and it’s kind of part of this crazy year.”
No one was ejected from Monday’s game. The Nationals beat Tampa Bay. Max Scherzer pitched seven shutout innings. A makeshift lineup scored six runs. The fake crowd noise and in-stadium announcements were so loud they made it hard to hear someone five feet away, let alone two levels -- or more -- up in the stands.
The Nationals played as normal a game as they have all season. Scherzer pitched well, the key bullpen pieces finished the game, no one was ejected. Sunday’s nonsense is a drifting afterthought stalled for a day by normalcy, or at least what passes for normalcy this season. Tuesday, anything is again possible.