Matt Barnum explains why David Ortiz’s violent outburst toward home-plate umpire Tim Timmons after striking out on Saturday matters.
When I tell people that I used to work, for several years, as a little-league baseball umpire, they usually smile wryly and say something like, “That must have been awful!”
Actually I loved it. I loved the measured authority—the almost moral probity—that a good umpire brings to the field; I loved the kids, and how much they love the game; I loved knowing and applying the most obscure rules. I even loved going toe-to-toe with heated coaches, explaining calmly and respectfully what I saw and why I made the call I did, hopefully diffusing a tense situation.
But it often became too much: when a twelve-year-old swears at you, when a coach is still complaining about a call made five innings ago, when a parent snaps at you while you’re getting into your car, “You had an awful game!”
It’s this experience I bring to the table when I watch David Ortiz’s violent outburst Saturday over a call by home-plate umpire Tim Timmons. With the Red Sox leading Baltimore 7–3 and Ortiz ahead in the count 3–0, Timmons called a borderline pitch a strike. The next pitch, also borderline, was also called a strike. Ortiz then swung and missed for strike three at a pitch well outside the zone.
So Ortiz did what any grown man would do in such a situation—he threw a temper tantrum. He stormed back to the dugout and smashed his bat repeatedly against a wall phone, destroying the bat, though luckily not destroying teammate Dustin Pedroia’s head, which appeared to be just inches a way. Ortiz was then ejected, causing him to march back on to the field, before being physically restrained by three coaches, while screaming a profanity-laced tirade at Timmons.
What is perhaps just as disturbing, though, was Ortiz’s post-game reaction and the media’s subsequent coverage. ESPN’s account was lighthearted, almost humorous: “[S]omewhere in the greater Baltimore area, a phone installer is likely to smile upon receiving the news that while Ortiz’s bat did not survive its seventh-inning encounter with the phone, the bat splintering into pieces while Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia took cover under a towel, the phone somehow did.”
Oh, ho, ho, what hijinks. No harm, no foul. At least the phone survived, and all Pedroia had to do was hide under a towel! No one questioned Ortiz’s temperament or the example it set for kids watching; no umpire was asked how it felt to be screamed at on national television. (Answer: not great.)
Ortiz, meanwhile, in a post-game interview called out the real offender: “When I’m walking away, I’m telling [the umpire] he was acting like he was right about the call. No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t right. Don’t be giving me that BS. If you miss it, tell me you missed it and I’ll walk away. I don’t have a problem with that. You’re not perfect. You’re human, you know what I’m saying. But don’t act like you made the right call. It was ball four.”
Dude, I get it. Sports are a big deal. I mean, I feel really competitive playing in the University of Chicago intramural ping-pong league. So I can’t even imagine how much more intense it is to play a sport for a living. But umpires are going to disagree with you, they’re going to make bad calls, and when you politely tell them your opinion, they may still not agree with you. That’s baseball. And indeed that’s life. In almost every other profession, if you disagree with someone you work with, and then proceed to violently smash a bat against a phone and then have to be restrained by three people from confronting that coworker—well, I think it’s safe to say that you might be out of a job. Here, though, the question is whether Ortiz will even be suspended at all.
When watching Ortiz’ behavior—along with recognizing the banality of these sorts of outbursts—is it any surprise to hear of physical assaults against officials? Not to suggest that Ortiz intended violence directly at the umpire, but it is the logical outcome of the violence and anger he exhibited.
The problem is that we glorify this sort of behavior. ESPN writers pen bemused articles and Ortiz basks, unrepentantly, in the media attention. A hockey coach gets a glowing profile written based on the facts that he once had a shouting match—and nearly a physical altercation—with a fellow coach and that as a high-school hockey player he would beat up those on his team he deemed not to be giving sufficient effort. Somehow that’s become the meaning of the word “intensity.”
So goes the culture that pervades much of professional sports. The problem, then, isn’t David Ortiz. The problem is that he’s the rule, not the exception.
Photo: AP/Gail Burton