Something happened in Sunday's Phillies-Nationals game that's worth dwelling on.
Yeah, Bryce Harper got drilled in the back by Cole Hamels, and yeah he got suspended five games for saying he did it on purpose and yeah, it seems a rivalry was born in real time right before our eyes, and that's sort of awesome. And yeah, Harper stole home, which was definitely awesome. Maybe that kid’s only 19 and maybe he’s getting a rep as sort of a punk, but honestly, I love it. I hope he plays for thirty years. (And you know, in all the drama that unfolded after the game, with Hamels admitting he plunked Harper on purpose and saying it was old-school and a welcome-to-the-big-leagues thing and all that nonsense, and then everyone’s reaction to that—it’s like the 19-year-old was the only one who handled it right, both during and then after the game. After, he didn’t say much, and rightfully so. They lost. But during the game? Kid stole home.)
What struck me, something that went pretty well unnoticed, happened after Jordan Zimmerman, the Nationals pitcher, pegged Hamels in retaliation a couple innings later. Everyone in the ballpark knew that’d mean warnings for both teams, and chances were that things could pretty seriously escalate.
Home plate umpire Andy Fletcher calmly walked out in front of home plate and pointed at each dugout, like every umpire in the world. Only it wasn’t. It was so subtle, so calm and so understated an action that I completely missed it, and I was watching the whole thing live. It wasn’t until the broadcasters talked about it later that I knew he’d even warned anybody.
There’s a lot to be said for that. I’ve seen umpires make something of a spectacle out of themselves issuing those warnings. They either get caught up in all the emotion or they want to be a part of it, and so they make dramatic gestures and glare and all that. They make themselves part of the scene, when of course, that’s not an umpire’s job at all. An umpire’s job is to maintain order and, best as he humanly can, enforce the rules so as to ensure a fair outcome.
The game rolled on without further incident, other than the Phillies going on to blow the Nationals away 9-3.
Umpires screw up all the time. In just last week’s Rockies-Dodgers game, first base umpire Tim Welke made one of the worst calls you will ever see an umpire make, on any level of play, beer league softball included. Rockies 3B Chris Nelson made a horrible throw after fielding a Jerry Hairston Jr. ground ball, pulling Todd Helton a solid two feet off the bag. Welke called Hairston out. Now, sure, the angles were probably just so that Welke though Helton’s foot still appeared on the bag, but it was still an absolutely horrible call.
Umpire Jim Joyce famously ruined then-Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga’s perfect game last year by blowing a call at first that would’ve ended the game. That one got so much attention they got a book deal out of it.
Umpires get noticed all the time for screwing up. Sometimes, though, in a moment that would be very, very easy to screw up—in a moment the likes of which umpires screw up all the time—Andy Fletcher got it right. He made his point, he did his job, and nothing more.
I don’t know if umpires do this like ballplayers, but if they do, then hey, someone give Andy Fletcher a nice hearty slap on the butt.