Being a baseball addict, a guy who falls asleep every summer night to the sound of an exhausted ESPN highlight reel repeatedly slapping against the floor, who watches VHS tapes of old games just for fun, whose sum total of missed televised Braves games since 1989 isn’t even in double digits, I thought I had seen all there is to see on the diamond. Sadly, I was wrong. What transpired at the conclusion of tonight’s game at Landshark Stadium was unnerving in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.
After Nate McClouth struck out to end the game, Marlins catcher John Baker jubilantly turned to home plate umpire Bill Hohn–who, in keeping with his temperamental performance in Boston, had already depleted the Braves of its manager and all star catcher–and gave him a fist bump. Yes, the same wayward salutation that landed President Obama in hot water with Republicans for evincing frat boy cool was on display, except it wasn’t over a beer.
It was over home plate of a major league baseball game.
Trouble started brewing in the 8th inning, with Chipper Jones at first and Brian McCann at the plate , when Hohn called a pitch that Baker caught a foot off the outside part of the plate a strike. The Braves catcher, usually a model of zen like calm, impulsively belched “Oh my God!” Hohn took a couple steps toward McCann, baiting him much the way he did Eric O’Flaherty in Boston, but Brian simmered down and survived long enough to hit into a double play.
Hohn wasn’t finished; he had brandished his weapon and would be damned if he wasn’t going to get to use it. In response to the inevitable cat calls emanating from the Braves dugout during the next half inning, the bewhiskered umpire, doing his best impersonation of Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, strolled over to Bobby Cox’s gang looking for a fight. The Braves manager, who actually looked more mystified than angry, was history. Hahn would toss McCann minutes later for good measure, call a few more strikes, and then finish the show by taking a bow with Baker.
To be clear, no one is going to accuse Bill Hohn of anything as sinister as betting on a game, accepting a bribe, or even harboring prejudices towards a particular team, but complying with Baker’s “Thanks, bro!” was a grave misstep that must be looked at by the powers that be. Umpires, like judges in a courtroom, are official arbiters, who, when garbed in black, must be resolutely devoid of humanity. They aren’t meant to be colorful, or mysterious or affable; they are meant to be as impersonal as the chalk lines that determine fair and foul balls–the integrity of the game demands it. For an umpire to display even the slightest lodge type conviviality is wrong, plain and simple.
Whether the Braves would have had a better chance of winning the game had another umpire called balls and strikes, we can never know. I’d be willing to bet no other umpire in baseball would have called the controversial pitch to McCann a strike (even the Marlins announcers said the Braves had a legitimate beef), but there’s nothing that can be done about that. That the Braves lost is an irreversible fact.
So is the fist bump. It’s on tape. And Major League Baseball can do something about that.