Sunday, April 19, 2009

Phil Cuzzi and the Culture of Mediocrity

One of the things I learned early on, during my days working for the Community Action Program, was that the hardest thing in the world is to fire an employee for incompetence. It is easy to fire somebody for a single act of misconduct, but for an employee who has demonstrated incompetence, even over a long period of time, it is very difficult because it is hard to document it sufficiently to make it stand up to a challenge.

All this came to mind the other day when MLB umpire Phil Cuzzi give another pathetic performance behind the plate. The Indians' announcers couldn't stop talking about him, as the strike zone was so erratic that no hitter could possibly know where it was. When the umpire becomes the major story of a game, you know something is seriously wrong.

Cuzzi has a long and inglorious history. He was the home plate umpire in the 2005 playoff game who tossed Jim Edmonds out, with the count 3-2, for the "crime" of asking where the pitch was (Edmonds thought it was ball 4 and and had started toward first). He had earlier tossed out Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. Before that, Cuzzi had disgraced himself by tossing Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay from a game in which Halladay was going for a team-record 22 wins.

Cuzzi's pathetic performances are reminescent of Eric Gregg's incompetent strike calls during a Braves-Marlins playoff game some years back. Livan Hernandez pitched the Marlins into the World Series in that game, helped by Gregg's consistently calling pitches a foot outside as strikes. Gregg probably would have umpired up until his death, except that he joined a group of 22 umpires in a ridiculously ill-advised act of resigning en masse in 1999. MLB was able to get rid of Gregg by simply not hiring him back.

We hear that the Commissioner's office is grading umpires this year. One hopes that this will lead to evaluations which will allow the incompetent ones to be dismissed. Surely the best umpires in the minor leagues are way better than the worst ones in the majors. The problem is to identify those bad ones and develop the backbone to get rid of them. If the umpires' union contract needs to be renegotiated to allow this, then do it!

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