Officiating Has Reached an All-Time Low

Officiating Has Reached an All-Time Low
     Before investing hundreds of dollars in a major-league baseball game, you should check to make sure Laz Diaz is not scheduled to be the home-plate umpire that day. Because when Diaz is back there, you are not watching a big-league game.
     Implicit in any major sport is that fans are seeing the very best players in that sport, and by extension, also enjoying the best facilities, the best broadcasters and the best game officials.
     You are not getting that when Diaz is behind home plate. Just Google his name and you will see a deluge of evidence against the 60-year-old, 29-year veteran umpire. He averages at least 10 missed calls a game behind the plate, and actually officiated a game between the Pirates and Twins last August in which he blew 20.
     And he is not alone. Angel Hernandez is equally awful, and C.B. Bucknor is not far behind. They are all baseball’s dirty little secret, three umps that make players and managers cringe and fans want to leave for home early.
     Unfortunately, those three are not alone in helping to ruin sports events. There are bad refs in every sport. Media types love to ruminate about these inept, or worse, officials without naming names. Hey, if you’re going to complain, the least you can do is provide some targets for fan wrath. Remember, it wasn’t all that many years ago when Tim Donaghy was banned from basketball for betting on games.
     One of the best interviews I ever conducted on WIP was with Donaghy. Yes, he was corrupt; there’s no question about that. But he was also enlightening in how the NBA conspires to get the results that are best for the league. For example, he said the NBA extends playoff series by assigning “company officials” to big games. The object, he said, is always to extend the series and add more revenue into the league coffers.
     The ref whose name came up often in the Donaghy affair and is still working today is Scott Foster, who you will see regularly in playoff games despite his unpopularity among players because of a quick whistle and a fast hook. Ex-star Rasheed Wallace went public with his disgust for Foster earlier this year when he called the veteran ref “a bleepin’ cheater” and a “company man.”
     Last year Foster was voted the worst ref by the players, and yet he keeps getting the biggest assignments. Why? Well, maybe because he knows how to affect the outcome of games to benefit the NBA the same way Donaghy did, but without the illegal payoff? Is there a better explanation than that?
     One of the most revealing things any league has ever done is the Two-Minute Report initiated by the NBA in 2017. After every game, a tape of the final two minutes is analyzed and all of the bad or missed calls are identified. In the first round this season, the Sixers probably should have won Game 2 and lost Game 5 because of ref mistakes. The outcomes of two of the six games in the series were altered by bad officiating. It’s hard to imagine a more damning public indictment than that.
     And then there’s the NFL, which has no problem employing men in their 60s chasing around elite athletes less than half their age. In fact, the worst ref of the past decade, Tony Corrente, actually worked past his 70th birthday before retiring in 2021. Toward the end of his tenure, he had screwed the Eagles so many times, I warned the fans whenever he was assigned one of their games.
     It’s not just the old refs who stink, though. If you love to see flags, don’t miss a game officiated by Alex Kemp. He calls the most penalties — 259 in 18 games last season, an average of more than 14 a game. Beware of flag enthusiasts Ron Torbert and John Hussey, too. They must think fans go to the games to see them.
     Of course, the NFL is not blameless here, either. I’m still waiting for some clarity on what pass interference is. Or holding. Or roughing the passer. Every game, the standards seem to change. This season, we even get a new play to grumble over — the hip tackle. I’m still trying to figure out what a horse-collar is.
     Why am I diving into this story now? Because there is nothing in sports that rankles me more than bad officiating. Earlier this week, I saw a checked-swing strike by Whit Merrrifield that was missed by two different umps. It wasn’t even close. He should have been down to the last strike of the game. Instead, the Mets imploded and the Phillies won. I was happy with the victory, but not with how it was achieved.
     I guess, deep down, I have a thing about injustice, even when my team benefits. I just would like to have confidence that every game I watch is a fair competition. These days, it rarely is.
     Many years ago, I played in a charity basketball game officiated by one of the greatest refs of all time, Earl Strom. In that game, Strom actually conspired to have someone pull down my shorts while I was at the foul line. I can still see that late, great man laughing while the crowd roared.
     Above all, Earl knew when to blow the whistle. He anticipated chippy play and adjusted accordingly. He also interacted with players in a non-combative way that won their respect. Strom told me many times that officiating is not that hard if you can relate to the people playing it. Alas, when Earl died, so did his philosophy on how to relate to the players.
    I know, I know. I can hear the ref defenders now. Officiating is actually better these days; it’s just that high-definition replays are so much more revealing than the grainy old replays of the 1970s and 80s. Players today are just a bunch of whiners. If you think it’s so easy, why don’t you try it? Blah, blah, blah.
     I don’t buy any of those arguments. I believe leagues should be able to fire bad refs like Diaz and Bucknor and Hernandez. I believe leagues should be able to get rid of the old-timers who are pushing 55, or even 60, and still trying to keep up with stronger, faster athletes. Above all, I believe the leagues should finally see the current state of officiating for what it is — a crisis — and act accordingly.
     Technology can fix all of the missed ball-and-strike calls in baseball, just as it has helped to correct mistakes on the bases. Basketball and football reviews are a big step forward, but they are not enough. The NFL especially needs an official with the power to call plays from above the field, where the perspective is clearer.
     There’s no reason, with the billions pouring into all of the major sports these days, why officiating is still so nickel-and dime. The sooner these changes are made, the better it will be for everyone, including the new generation of legal bettors.
     As someone who has watched sports closely for more than 60 years, I can say without a doubt that this is the low point for officiating in all of America’s major sports. Right now. Today.
    Will any league ever have the balls to do something about it?

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