Baseball fans suffering from an umpire state of mind


It's Enrico Palazzo!

If there is one thing that sports fans love to do, it’s talk about sports. I’m probably not blowing your mind with that statement, but I’ve got to find a way to lead you into a conversation about a particular sports-fan slang, and it just seemed like a fundamental, though simplistic, premise.

Oh, hey, speaking of sports slang, sometimes in a baseball game, the home-plate umpire starts acting up – something other than just doing his job in an unobtrusive manner, like jazz-hands strike calls, tough-guy barking at players, banshee-scream strikeouts. Umpires sometimes get the idea that anyone even remotely cares that they exist and try to put on a “show” for us. Whenever I see this happening – no matter if I’m at a stadium or watching at home by myself in my underwear covered in Funyun crumbs – I always exclaim:

“Hey! It’s Enrico Palazzo!”

Most of my sports-fan friends know about the Enrico Palazzo syndrome. And since you and I have been talking here for a while now, I feel like we’re friends – at least by the Facebook standard of what friendship is: “at least vaguely knowing about the existence of the other person” – truly a dilution of the original meaning of the word “friend.”

Oh, really, you’ve got 300 “friends”? OK, sure. But if you needed help digging a body-sized hole in the desert, you’re not going to find that “friend” on Facebook and probably if you posted a request like that, it could be somewhat incriminating and can and will be used against you in a court of law.

So, what is the Enrico Palazzo Syndrome?

It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen the movie “Naked Gun” and you may not remember every scene word-for-word. They don’t really show it on TV anymore – which I assume is because of the O.J. Simpson thing. It’s still a funny movie, and Leslie Nielsen is borderline perfection throughout. But, yeah, one of the co-stars was found “liable for damages in the wrongful death” of two human beings.

Anyway, toward the end of the film, Lt. Frank Drebin (Nielsen) disguises himself as opera singer Enrico Palazzo to get closer to the field to find the would-be assassin. But he must now sing the national anthem, and he just brutalizes it – and it’s even more hilarious than Christina Aguilera’s attempt. But, he still hasn’t found the assassin, and so disguises himself as the home-plate umpire. And, he quickly finds out the crowd loves when he dances around and showboats when calling strikes.

Who can forget this call?

After the filmmakers have exhausted every baseball-related joke they can think of, they return to the “plot” and the assassin (Reggie Jackson) tries to kill the Queen of England. Lt. Frank Drebin thwarts his efforts and is shown on the Jumbotron screen. Someone says, “The umpire … He saved the queen’s life!” And then a fan recognizes him and yells, “Hey! It’s Enrico Palazzo!”

Yeah, I know it’s a bit convoluted, but the baseball scenes in that movie really capture the ridiculousness of umpires (and other parts of baseball, as well). Yeah, I tried other names for when I see an umpire acting like an ass, like “the Frank Drebin” or “Hey, remember that crazy umpire stuff in the movie ‘Naked Gun’ that was so hilarious?” But “Enrico Palazzo” keeps it simple and it’s fun to say.

Lately, Enrico Palazzo has been making more and more appearances around the nation as it seems there has been an outbreak of truly terrible umpiring. Maybe it’s just because there are more and more media outlets, video sites and social networking sites to replay these things over and over, so it seems as if there are a lot of mistakes. Or maybe Major League Baseball umpires just really aren’t that good. Keep in mind that “Naked Gun” came out in the 1980s with all those jokes, so it’s not as if these umpire flaws are recent.

I’m not going to mention any of these umpires by name – not because I can’t, but because nobody cares who they are – they are just umpires. There’s an old saying about umpires and referees that the best ones are the ones that you hardly notice are there.

A couple of weeks ago, there was that Pirates-Braves game that ended with maybe the worst call in sports history when a player scored the winning run though he was clearly tagged out by the catcher five feet from home plate. Yes, it was the 19th inning and it was late and everyone was exhausted, but you have to find a way to get that call right.

Players seem to be getting angrier and less patient with umpires for their shabby work. The nearly 7-foot, 300-pound Jon Rauch had to be held back by his teamates from an umpire who stood defiant and refused to just walk away and diffuse the situation. Yadier Molina disagreed with an umpire so much that he didn’t just say it, he sprayed it – shooting spittle at the umpire like an angry cobra. Tyler Colvin got thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire who actually followed Colvin to the dugout to start an argument.

Where is all of this anger coming from? Is it leftover roid rage? Is it unforeseen side effects of the deer-antler spray players have been taking? Is it that players are just more disrespectful these days?

Well, that’s what Joe Torre thinks. Torre is the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for Major League Baseball (this sounds like the kind of super-important job that allows for lots and lots of naps – which, if you’ve seen him manage a game, is perfect). In a recent interview with the New York Times, Torre said he thought players are too disrespectful to umpires. (And then, I assume, he took another nap, but not before trying to bring in Scott Proctor from the bullpen one last time.)

Umpire Jerry Meals clearly was wrong when he said Pirates catcher Michael McKenry missed the tag on Atlanta's Julio Lugo in the bottom of the 19th inning, giving the Braves a 4-3 victory. (

And maybe this is the reason for the anger, but then what is behind the disrespect? How can players take these umpires seriously when they are demonstrably incompetent? These players have the same access to the Internet and TV that we all do, and they see these huge mistakes and missed calls and ever-changing strike zones. They don’t even have to go home. They can see it 50 feet from the field in the clubhouse. Last year, after Armando Galarraga went to the clubhouse, he saw right away that the umpire had blown a call and cost him a perfect game. A perfect game that he will certainly never come close to again.

Games are important to teams and the players on those teams. But, looking closer, players are paid to make outs with pitching and defense and to not make outs while batting. If an umpire makes a bad call about a player being out when he was safe, it can affect the result of the game as well as directly affecting a player’s earning potential. So, it’s understandable for these players to get pissed.

Umpires just recently started asking each other for help on the field. You know, because it’s so embarrassing to admit that you didn’t see something clearly in a split-second. Nobody cares about your embarrassment, because nobody cares about you. We all just want the right call made. The umpires don’t use instant replay, but everyone at home sees the bad call again and again. But that’s not the case on the stadium’s big screen, because according to baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the umpires, teams are not allowed to replay “bad” calls at the stadium while the game is going on – presumably to prevent lynch mobs from forming.

It’s not just video evidence, there is technology that exists that can track just how accurate any and every umpire is with calling balls and strikes. And, just as we all suspected, they are all over the place with very few coming even close to the “rules” and most not even being consistent in a given game, let alone from game to game.

Purists (old people) say that we can’t have instant replay, and that these errors are all part of the “human element” that makes baseball the rich game that it is. These people make these statements on telephones and with e-mail and they drive their cars to work and use elevators. They also avail themselves of televisions, vacuums, refrigerators and washing machines. All of these are functions that have had the “human element” removed from them.

The only human element I care about are the humans playing the game on the field. I think it might be time to start using robots to umpire. Laser vision, built-in instant replay, always connected to a network of other robot umpires at the game as well as cameras throughout the stadium and the entire database of rules and archival video. Yes, I am aware of the dangers of them becoming self-aware. But if you’re making me choose between these inaccurate humans and 100 percent accurate robots, then I am willing to risk the slight chance of global annihilation.

It’s time for umpires to start doing their jobs better, to raise their standards of performance, to recognize that they are not part of the show. It’s time for umpires to become self-aware.

Until then, we’ll have to suffer through the bad calls and the showboating and the moving strike zones that are all part of an umpire’s delusion of self-importance. Because they are all Enrico Palazzo. Until the robots take over.

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