Just about every night at every big-league ballpark across North America, there’s an argument at home plate. The argument is usually about the strike zone, but if the people arguing follow baseball’s unwritten rules, the crowd will never know there’s a disagreement.
Here’s how you have an argument in plain sight without alerting the fans, which is key: You can have a debate at the plate, but you better be subtle about it.
For starters, nobody in the big leagues calls an umpire “Blue.” Calling an umpire that is considered bush-league; umpires have names, and players are expected to learn them and use them.
Another unwritten rule says players should avoid “showing up” an opponent or umpire.
If the hitter disagrees with the umpire’s call, he should keep looking straight ahead at the pitcher or down at his feet while speaking his mind. That way the fans don’t know the hitter thinks the umpire is doing a lousy job. If the hitter snaps his head around and glares back at the umpire after a called strike, he lets everyone in the park know he thinks the umpire missed the call.
Billy Butler made a habit of doing that, and for good measure, he would often roll his eyes and look into the heavens as if asking, “Why me, Lord?” Billy wanted everybody in the park to know the umpire messed up.
Another breach of baseball etiquette is for the hitter to drop his bat and start for first base on a pitch he believes was ball four. If the umpire calls it a strike, the hitter has to come back to the plate and resume his at-bat, and now everybody knows the hitter disagrees with the umpire’s call.
When the late, great umpire Steve Palermo was asked how he would react to a hitter who did that, he grinned like the cat that just ate the canary and said, “Just give me a pitch I can work with.”
Steve would not call a pitch a strike if it was a foot outside the zone, but if it was a borderline pitch — a call that could go either way — there was an excellent chance he would give the pitcher the call if the hitter had recently shown him up.
You can disagree with the umpire ... just don’t make it obvious.
Most of the time, catchers and umpires have a good relationship and talk non-stop during a game; after all, they’re working together. Smart catchers block pitches even when there’s no runner on base because it keeps the umpire from getting hit by a baseball — and umpires appreciate that. It never hurts to have a good relationship with the umpire.
If a hitter shows up the umpire, a smart catcher might set a target just outside the zone and see if he can get those calls.
If the umpire is not giving the pitcher the corners, the catcher might point out that it’s going to be a really long day. Hitters will keep the bat on their shoulders until the pitcher is forced to come into the heart of the zone, and that can mean a lot of pitches thrown, a lot of pitching changes, a lot of runs scored and a very long ballgame.
Everybody likes a quick game, especially on Getaway Day. That’s the final game of series when everyone on both teams and the umpiring crew all have planes to catch.
But whether it’s the first or last game of a series, catchers are constantly lobbying for their pitcher.
Royals catcher Salvador Perez says if he thinks an umpire missed a pitch, he probably won’t say anything right away — Perez knows that umpiring in the big leagues is a very tough job. But if the umpire keeps missing pitches, he’ll eventually speak up.
When he doesn’t get a call, catcher Drew Butera might ask where the umpire had the pitch and then take the blame; Butera will say he didn’t do a very good job of presenting the pitch to the umpire.
Butera will tell the umpire he’ll show him the same pitch again, but this time he’ll get lower and give the umpire a better view.
That’s smart because Butera is taking responsibility for a missed pitch, and that might make the umpire more open-minded about the next one. Which is one reason we might see a pitch called a ball and a similar pitch called a strike: The catcher might have changed the way he was presenting the pitch.
Catchers can also let the umpire know they think he missed a pitch without saying a word. They’ll start to throw the ball back to the pitcher and when the pitch is called a ball, delay their throw; it looks like the catcher has collapsed in disbelief ... how could the umpire call that pitch a ball?
If the umpire decides he’s had enough of the catcher’s antics, he might decide to clean home plate. That gives the umpire a chance to get in the catcher’s face and tell him to quit complaining. Cleaning home plate disguises the lecture.
Pitchers can use body language to express their opinion, too.
If pitchers don’t like a call, he’ll sometimes snatch the throw back to the mound and then stalk off to sulk. He might stare into the outfield long enough to let the umpire know he’s mad about the call.
Or the pitcher might walk off the mound early when he thinks he’s thrown an inning-ending strike.
If the pitch is called a ball, you might see a pitcher tap his chest. That’s an apology to the umpire: “My bad.” No chest tap and the pitcher is telling the umpire he thinks the inning should be over and isn’t apologizing for his opinion.
If the pitcher thinks the umpire is missing a particular pitch, he might walk toward home plate and ask where the pitch is located; does the umpire think it’s too high? Too low?
That’s another way for a pitcher to let the umpire know that he doesn’t understand why these great pitches aren’t being called strikes.
Yelling from the mound lets everybody know the pitcher is questioning the umpire’s judgment. If a pitcher gets too worked up, smart catchers intervene; they’ll tell the umpire not to worry and then go to the mound to tell the pitcher to cool it.
Nobody in the game thinks the strike-zone grids we see on TV are 100 percent accurate, but Butera says they’ve changed the game.
These days, umpires have less leeway on their calls. If the grid says an ump missed a pitch, it won’t be long before someone sends out a Tweet or makes a YouTube video showing just how bad the call really was.
If a hitter thinks he got rung up on a pitch outside the zone, he might go to the video room during the game — they’re often just outside the dugout — and watch a replay. The player might then return to the dugout to yell at the umpire, but that lets everyone in the stands know something is going on, and once again that violates the unwritten rule of arguing balls and strikes.
You can have a debate at the plate, but be subtle about it.
And if you aren’t subtle, you might get tossed out of the game.