This has been a really bad year for officials.
Hot on the heels of various overseas soccer scandals in the last few years, we've had the Joey Crawford nonsense and the Tim Donaghy affair in the NBA, the latter to date the granddaddy of U.S. officiating scandals, as well as the ongoing randomness of that league's refereeing and the timid middle management of the NFL's candy-stripers.
And now we have what looks like a mess involving baseball umpire Mike Winters.
It's not that what Winters is accused of doing is anywhere near as bad as Donaghy's game-fixing. It's just that when you have an incident in which Milton Bradley, who is almost certainly the craziest, least impulse-controlling player in baseball, tears his ACL while being physically restrained by his manager from going after an umpire, and there's even a ghost of a possibility that someone other than Bradley could be the bad guy in the incident, that someone else must really be a pip.
Winters is that someone else.
You've probably seen the video of Sunday's incident by now. When Bradley came to bat in the eighth inning, home-plate umpire Brian Runge asked Bradley if he'd thrown his bat at him following a called third strike in his previous at-bat. Bradley said no and asked if first-base umpire Winters had told Runge that. The two agree on all that.
Runge told the Associated Press that he said no, Winters hadn't said anything to him, that he believed Bradley and that Bradley should calm down. Bradley singled and, after reaching first, began jawing with Winters, who walked toward Bradley to engage in the argument. At one point, first-base coach Bobby Meacham left his coach's box and walked up the first-base line toward Winters, just as Bradley called timeout and approached the umpire angrily.
Manager Bud Black raced out of the dugout to restrain the volatile Bradley, wrestling him to the ground and injuring Bradley's knee in the process. Bradley's out for the season and the playoffs, on the off chance that his San Diego Padres, now tied for the wild-card spot and missing their best hitter, qualify.
So it sounds like Crazy Old Milton again, the guy who wore out his welcome in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Oakland with his temper and his antics, not to mention the fragility that's landed him on the disabled list a dozen times, and it was.
Whatever Winters said -- and we'll get to that -- Bradley simply couldn't afford to once again let his emotions get the better of him. He couldn't afford to get thrown out of Sunday's game, an eventual 7-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies that completed a three-game sweep, much less risk a suspension or get involved in a tussle with his manager that could get him hurt.
And before you say nobody could have foreseen the once-in-a-lifetime injury Bradley incurred Sunday, remember that this is Milton Bradley, who can get hurt brushing his teeth.
But what did Winters say and, more important, why did he say it? Major League Baseball is investigating whether Winters baited Bradley, as Bradley claims.
"He kept talking to me. He wouldn't stop," Bradley told reporters after the game. "This is the most unprofessional, most ridiculous thing I've ever seen ... He's going to kick me out of the game, for what? Because you called me a piece of shit?"
Whoa, pronoun whiplash there, but Bradley's saying Winters called him a piece of shit.
Winters hasn't commented to the media. Meacham, the first-base coach, told the San Diego Union Tribune, "In my 26 years of baseball, that was the most disconcerting conversation I have heard from an umpire to a player. The way Winters responded was bizarre. It was almost like he wanted to agitate the situation. I was appalled."
Meacham told the paper that Bradley didn't use profanity and that Winters swore and called Bradley a name that would have evoked a similar response from Meacham had it been directed at him. Asked if Winters made racial comments, Meacham said, "It smacked of that tone." Meacham, like Bradley, is black. Winters is white.
The other witness within earshot was Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who has been mum except to say that the incident was "interesting and crazy." The Denver Post reports that he chose his words carefully.
Bradley was in the wrong Sunday in that he put himself in a situation that could -- and did -- hurt his team's chances to make the playoffs.
But Winters may have been more wrong. We'll wait for MLB's investigation, but there doesn't seem to be much dispute that Winters was plenty aggressive toward Bradley, that he walked toward him and said something that was at least perceived as inflammatory not just by Bradley but by Meacham too. And in the moment, not in an after-the-fact, protect-my-guy kind of way.
Helton's cryptic comment speaks volumes in its own way. He could have just shrugged out a "That's Milton being Milton," but instead he played it close to the vest, choosing his words carefully. The way a person might do when speaking about a class of people he doesn't want to offend because they hold his fate in their hands. Like, just to pull an example out of the air, the way umpires hold a ballplayer's fate in their hands.
Joey Crawford getting up in Tim Duncan's grill at the end of the last NBA regular season is the most egregious example -- Donaghy's game fixing excepted as a whole different animal -- of the trend of officials overstepping their bounds, trying to take on too big a role. We seem to have an epidemic of umpires and refs initiating shouting matches with players, or needlessly letting them escalate.
Officials should be disinterested and above the fray. Players and managers and coaches are in the heat of competition and should be given some leeway -- not as much as Bradley seems to require, but some -- to be emotional. But officials, as the arbiters and controllers of the game, have to be cool and businesslike.
Winters' response to the question Bradley says he asked, whether Winters told home-plate ump Runge that Bradley had thrown his bat at Runge, should have been a simple "Yes, that's how I saw it." The question and answer had no effect on the outcome of the game, so the matter should have been of no concern to Winters beyond that point.
If Bradley had wanted to argue about it, Winters should have said something like "I'm not going to argue about it, Milton," or even just ignored him. Maybe one warning beyond that, and then toss him if he keeps the argument going in an obviously disruptive way.
Winters certainly had no business calling Bradley a name. Whether the name was racial in nature, though inflammatory, is a red herring. Whatever the name, Winters should get the boot if he did it. If Winters is willing to escalate an argument in that way because he doesn't like Bradley, how do we know he's not willing to call a ball a strike when Bradley's hitting, or to call him out when he's really safe?
Thanks to Tim Donaghy, the customers are even more on edge than usual these days about whether the officials of their various favorite sports are on the square. All fans sort of suspect the boys in blue, or gray, or stripes, have it in for their favorite team, but when an umpire is caught saying, on the field of play, that he thinks the local nine's left fielder is "a piece of shit," it sort of removes all doubt, at least when the left fielder's involved in a play.
Winters hasn't been caught yet. Only accused. But if he's guilty -- and when was the last time the world waited for the next comment by Mr. Todd Helton? -- MLB should throw the book at him.
By the way, getting tossed and injured wasn't Bradley's only trick Sunday. He also inadvertently stepped on the right hand of diving center fielder Mike Cameron as they both chased what would become Garrett Atkins' inside-the-park home run. Cameron's out for at least the rest of the regular season with a torn ligament in his thumb.
All of a sudden Bradley's not looking quite like the bargain he appeared to be when he became their best hitter -- when he wasn't on the disabled list -- after the Oakland A's left him on the curb and the Padres picked him up in late June.
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