Saturday, October 26, 2019

Umpire Julius E "Chuck" Meriwether Dies at 63

Umpires still reeling from the untimely loss of Eric Cooper have been hit again with sorrow as longtime MLB umpire Chuck Meriwether died at the age of 63. The Nashville-born 17-year member of the staff officiated seven Division Series, two League Championship Series, and two World Series (2004, 07) before his retirement from on-field service; Meriwether would later join the Commissioner's Office to serve as an umpire supervisor.

Julius Edward Meriwether, who went by "Chuck," was born in June 1956 in Nashville, TN, attended the Wendelstedt Umpire School (then-newly acquired from Al Somers by Harry Wendelstedt) in 1979 upon reading an advertisement in the newspaper, and never looked back after his first game in Minor League Baseball in 1979.

Chuck made his way to the Pacific Coast League and American Association before his first American League game in 1987 and hiring to the AL staff shortly thereafter. 2,594 regular season games and 28 ejections later, Meriwether left the field after the 2009 season due in part to wear-and-tear on his knees, and soon became an umpire supervisor.

In 2016, his hometown Nashville Sounds renamed the First Tennessee Park umpire room the "Chuck Meriwether Umpire Room" and in 2017, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame inducted Chuck as its newest member.
Related PostUmpire Chuck Meriwether Inducted into TN Hall of Fame (6/30/17).

Chuck and Coop worked on the same crew under chief Mike Reilly in 2004 and 2009.

Video as follows:

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Rob Drake's Twitter War, Umpires and Social Media

With MLB umpire Rob Drake under fire for a since-deleted political tweet referencing an AR-15 firearm and "cival war," we analyzed the freedom of speech concept, umpires in public and online, and disciplinary appropriateness for what happens when an umpire goes beyond the pale of protected speech in a public forum hosted on a private platform, as social media on the internet is.

Disclaimer: Close Call Sports has had a longstanding policy of no politics on the website. This story is so significant that it all but requires an article, but we will attempt to do so while not delving into the political discussion other than to report the facts of what occurred.

The Story: According to ESPN, Drake on Tuesday tweeted "I will be buying an AR-15 tomorrow, because if you impeach MY PRESIDENT this way, YOU WILL HAVE ANOTHER CIVAL WAR!!! #MAGA2020." The tweet, published to Drake's @thedrake30 Twitter account, was subsequently deleted and the account deactivated, but the damage was done as the tweet's content was spread throughout the news world, resulting in a pending MLB investigation.

Freedom of Speech: As an American citizen, Drake—just like anyone else—is entitled to the protections of the USA's first amendment regarding freedom of expression, but what exactly is free speech?

Free Speech is a right with certain allowances & limitations.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

What That Means: In short, the US government cannot arrest a person for exercising his or her first amendment an extent. For example, speech is limited if it presents a "clear and present danger" (e.g., a terroristic threat) and it is also limited on private property. If Twitter, for instance, wanted to remove Drake's tweet (as opposed to Drake deleting it himself), it would have the legal right to do so, as Twitter is a private platform (thus, it would be a legal form of censorship, but not a violation of the US constitution regarding free speech).
Free speech can get somewhat complicated.

Freedom of Speech Doesn't Apply to Private Entities
: The accompanying image of a sign outside Gelson's Market asserts the private property owner (the supermarket)'s right to censor speech while acknowledging the public/government (local police)'s default declination to take action against it.

Although a person's speech is protected by constitutional law, a non-public company can set its own rules (as long as they aren't discriminatory pursuant to federal, state, or local law) while the speech may be "unauthorized activity" from Gelson's Market's point of view, it is not the same from the police's perspective (trespassing is another matter entirely).

Court of Public Opinion: The mythical court of public opinion cares not one whit about rules, laws, nor facts—i.e., the electronic strike zone issue. Keep this in mind, because I will refer back to this "court" throughout the article's latter half.

Drake walks away from Justin Turner in SD.
For example, the court of public opinion might ask if Drake's prior body of work was in any way influenced by the perceived ideas exposed through the content of his tweet, for instance, did he call a pitch one way or another because of X or Y, related to his twitter presence and unrelated to his professional umpiring training.

Sidebar: In the Angel Hernandez lawsuit, MLB referenced its federal anti-trust exemption, which goes back nearly 100 years, and which technically could mean that MLB is bound by some degree of public oversight and/or responsibility. For instance, the Mitchell Report for MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in 2007 was conducted by the US Congress and Maine Senator George J. Mitchell, a public body and a publicly elected official.

What does this say about non-USA players?
Although an employee is protected from retaliation (e.g., adverse treatment, demotion/firing, etc.) by an employer for political speech/beliefs in certain jurisdictions, such as California (A's, Angels, Dodgers, Giants, Padres) or the federal protection from discrimination based on political affiliation—Drake's tweet goes beyond any potentially protected political speech by referencing (1) an AR-15 firearm [which on its own may be protected by the second amendment, if not for...], and (2) civil ("cival") war [...invoking war].

Gun & War: Those two parts of the tweet, in concert, are what have Drake in hot water. We researched the issue, and Drake's longstanding Twitter account has featured political content for a considerable length of time—most nearly all of which were his right to express. But what set this tweet apart were his invocation of a direct action relative to a firearm ("I will be buying an AR-15 tomorrow") and an allusion to its use ("YOU WILL HAVE ANOTHER CIVAL [sic] WAR").

Mentioning a gun & war sealed the deal.
If he doesn't put those two elements in his tweet, there isn't much actionable content for anyone to react to (other than, again, his politics, which, agree or disagree, we are not discussing, and which is anyone's right to have). The question is whether a reasonable person might construe such a sentence as violent or invocative of violence.

Referring back to the limits of free speech relative to the potentially criminal threat issue, these limits can also vary by jurisdiction/state, and in some places, rather depends on how a reasonable person interprets the speech regardless of whether the person who said the speech intended it to be threatening or not.

Which means that Drake's tweet about guns and war may or may not be a threat—again, largely in reference to the court of public opinion. The question of whether "threat" is appropriate here depends not on Drake, but on the person interpreting his statement.

Considering that the answer is largely politically-inclined (for instance, a court-of-opinion jury of 12 reasonable people might split on the issue—quite dramatically too, as in a "how could you POSSIBLY think it was a threat?" versus "how could you POSSIBLY think it was NOT a threat?" debate), we will leave that question open-ended...and ultimately, I don't personally believe we're looking at a crime per se...unless one were to consider it a social media/public opinion crime, in which case we're back to the political divide that CCS isn't touching.

Umpires at ALL Levels are Public: My educated guess is that someone in the media had been following Drake's twitter account (and perhaps those of other MLB umpires) for months. Journalism what it is, I would think Drake's political tweets were known, but again, as long as they were only about politics, they were rather benign—not once did Drake appear to comment on MLB game events, and, after all, even Joe West made a political statement in an interview, but it was woven into a story, and, again, rather benign.

How'd they get in? Drake's account was public.
As soon as Drake—operating with a fully public Twitter account—tweeted something beyond the pale of simple politics, it was go time.

Bias: What really hurts Drake comes down to the same thing that doomed Toby Basner in 2016 (when a family member's Facebook post applauded Basner's May 21, 2016 ejection of Blue Jays player Josh Donaldson) and netted Joe West a three-game suspension in 2017 (when he described Adrian Beltre as baseball's biggest complainer): an appearance of lack of impartiality as an umpire.

Cuzzi kept it light in August by demurring.
Impartiality is Officiating's Lifeblood: Again, we're not talking politics, so I'll just leave it as society's expectation that an umpire must be impartial in all aspects of life in order to be impartial on the field, and an indication to the contrary thus calls into question, in the court of public opinion, the umpire's neutrality on the field...Drake's tweet hit on hot-button issues in the popular culture as well as sports officiating specifically.

To repeat: yes, any official is absolutely entitled to political opinions by nature of being a citizen and a human being...but the court of public opinion judges officials far more harshly than others due to an expectation of neutrality.

I refer to August 2019, when Phil Cuzzi had a terrific response when he was asked in Chicago which MLB player talks the most trash to umpires—he laughed, patted a reporter on the shoulder, and walked away without answering the question...because he knew that saying any name in public would instantly lead to a news story that he lacked impartiality and was biased against a certain player, or certain team, such that any future close call against that team or in favor of a divisional foe (or game opponent) would be called into question even more so than they would be otherwise.
Related PostPlaying in Public - Cuzzi Keeps Cool (8/12/19).

It's the same reason Joe West is suing Paul Lo Duca over Lo Duca's public claim that West purportedly accepted a bribe in exchange for favorable calls: one of an umpire's most valuable attributes is the perception of impartiality or fairness, and this reputation for ethics is fairly vital to a successful officiating career.
Related PostJoe West Sues Paul LoDuca Over Bribery Claim (10/22/19).

We are very comfortable with this fact check.
And that's what hurts Drake so much here from an officiating standpoint—politics aside, the fact that Drake has such a strong opinion may call into question, in the court of public opinion, his ability to be a neutral arbiter.

From a humanistic standpoint, tweeting about gun violence in a cavalier manner is harmful in today's environment. In 2015, the Houston Rockets fired social media manager Chad Shanks for tweeting an emoji of a gun on the brand's account. In 2018, Disney removed James Gunn from directing Guardians of the Galaxy after a series of offensive tweets. In June, Compass Elementary School placed principal Dr. Chad Searcey on administrative leave—he later entered into a separation agreement with the school—after he tweeted photographs of guns in opposition to a gun control conversation.

Social media hate & harm leads to job loss.
It's not just guns. The Des Moines Register fired reporter Aaron Calvin over past racially-charged tweets, and the Fort Worth Independent School District fired teacher Georgia Clark for her tweets referencing "illegal students."

The Point? Silence Cannot Be Misquoted: When it comes to an official's online presence—from MLB crew chiefs to Little League umpires, NFL referees to Pop Warner officials—less is often more. It's absolutely fine to share innocuous well wishes and positive messages—as we've seen with tributes to the late Eric Cooper and various charitable endeavors with UmpsCare and beyond—but it's wholly another matter to enter into the fray of controversial hot-button issues of the day.

Case Study, NHL: The National Hockey League made headlines when it suspended referee Tim Peel in 2015 for meeting with hockey reporter Greg Wyshynski in a bar, and taking a picture with him. As Wyshynski wrote, "Peel's a good guy who genuinely wanted for me to learn about where he's coming from and vice versa; and in turn, to enlighten the critics of NHL referees about why they do what they do."

This photo landed Peel in hot water.
As Wyshynski phrased it, "it references the myopic micro-managing of officials that leaves so many fans and media frustrated." Yet...Wyshynski and other reporters help contribute to the problem by criticizing officials for the most minor of actions, which perpetuates the suffocating cycle in the first place.

For instance, Peel joined Twitter on July 21, 2014 and tweeted out a welcome message at 1:55pm. By 7:45am on July 22, he tweeted, "Sorry hockey fans..gotta shut it down#Passionate hockey fans!" 16 hours and that was that.

Is it fair? Probably not, but that's the scrutiny officials are under. In 2011, NHL's newly-created social media policy restricted referees and linesmen from using social media to make certain statements about games—especially when controversy or critique was involved.

Tim Peel lasted less than a day on Twitter.
The NHL-NHLOA agreement subsequently added a line prohibiting NHL officials from using social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook entirely. In 2019, the Russian KHL followed suit and banned its officials from social media altogether.

Meanwhile, NBA referees use social media to such a great extent that the official NBA referee twitter account has been known to live tweet games and regularly interact with fans. So at least it's consistently inconsistent.

MLB: At present, umpires are free to have social media accounts, though, as the Drake saga demonstrates, an umpire is an umpire at all times. Will this Drake controversy cause MLB to pursue an NHL-esque ban on umpires using social media during 2019's CBA negotiations or will the league and its umpires seek to develop a less prohibitive yet responsible social media policy? At the very least, it might give an insight to how the secretive CBA addresses social media use...or lack thereof.

For reference, here is the NFHS' social media guidance for sports officials.

Video as follows:

Podcast - Mike Reilly Recalls Crew Mate Eric Cooper

We continue the celebration of MLB umpire Eric Cooper's life in a Plate Meeting Podcast episode with one of the umpires who perhaps knew him best: his long-time crew chief, Mike Reilly.

Mike was there for Cooper's first career MLB game in 1996, and Eric was there for Reilly's final career MLB game in 2010.

The two Iowa-born umpires shared a bond that kept them on the same crew for the better part of the 2000s—maybe it was their shared fandom for Notre Dame or simply being from the same region. Mike talks about the good times with Coop on the show.

This episode is available in both audio and video form. Click the following link to access the audio of "Episode 20 - Mike Reilly Remembers Longtime Crew Mate Eric Cooper" or watch the video via "Read More."

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Joe West Sues Paul LoDuca Over Bribery Claim

MLB umpire Joe West filed a lawsuit against Paul Lo Duca, alleging defamation after the former catcher in May purportedly asserted during a podcast that West accepted a bribe in exchange for favorable calls during a Mets game. West's complaint reads, "These statements impugn the integrity, honesty and professional fitness of Mr. West and affect his profession as a Major League Baseball umpire."

West's lawsuit against Lo Duca and The Action Network, a sports betting website that hosted or distributed the podcast, was filed in New York according to USA Today.

In May, we reported on Lo Duca's audio accusations against West, including claims that West ejected him "eight or nine" times, and that New York teammate Billy Wagner purportedly bribed West with the use of a car in exchange for favorable balls/strikes calls during a Phillies-Mets game ("I lend him my '57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me"), finding that they might just be slanderous.
Related PostPants on Fire - Paul Lo Duca's Joe West Accusation (5/10/19).

Lo Duca's tall tales may be legally defamatory.
Fact Check - Wagner ClaimWe fact checked Wagner's appearances against Philadelphia from 2006 through 2009, when Wagner was on the Mets, and West made just one appearance: as a second base umpire on August 30, 2007, in Philadelphia. Ed Hickox was the home plate umpire for that game.

The complaint corroborates our research: "In reality, during 2006 and 2007, the two years that Lo Duca played for the New York Mets with Billy Wagner, Joe West was the home plate umpire for a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets only once, Billy Wagner did not pitch at all, and the game ended on a home run, not on called strikes."

Fact Check - Lo Duca Ejections: Of Lo Duca's eight career ejections, just one involved West (in 2003), and never before the game actually started, which was an allegation made by Lo Duca during the podcast.

Bill Spooner successfully sued the AP.
Precedent for Defamatory Litigation: In 2011, NBA referee Bill Spooner—who previously was a minor league baseball umpire—filed a lawsuit against The Associated Press alleging defamation over AP report Jon Krawczynski's allegedly libelous tweet during a January 24 game between the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves. Krawczynski purportedly tweeted, "Ref Bill Spooner told [Wolves Head Coach Kurt] Rambis he’d ‘get it back’ after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks."

Spooner's suit alleged that Krawczynski, an AP reporter, reported the "get it back" statement as fact when it did not actually happen, triggering an NBA disciplinary investigation into Spooner's actions that tarnished his reputation.

In December 2011, the AP agreed to pay $20,000 in damages to Spooner to settle the lawsuit, and to remove the tweet from Krawcynski's account. In its settlement with Spooner, the Associated Press released a statement acknowledged that it "learned through discovery that referee Bill Spooner and coach Kurt Rambis have both consistently and independently denied that Mr. Spooner told the coach 'he'd get it back' in an exchange that occurred after a disputed call against the Timberwolves on Jan. 24, 2011."

The AP went on to explain it was a misunderstanding: "The NBA promptly investigated at the time and concluded that Mr. Spooner had acted properly...During the game, Mr. Krawczynski tweeted what he believed he had heard. Mr. Krawczynski acknowledges the possibility that he misunderstood what Mr. Spooner said and has therefore removed the Tweet from his APKrawczynski Twitter feed."

A $20,000 mistake... Krawczynski no longer works for the Associated Press.

West's lawsuit against Lo Duca seeks unspecified damages. The complaint is filed under case #160250/2019 in New York County Supreme Court as Joseph H West v. The Action Network, Inc. et al. Summons were issued to The Action Network and Paul Lo Duca.

Monday, October 21, 2019

2019 MLB World Series Umpire Crew Roster

MLB selected veteran umpire Gary Cederstrom as crew chief for the Nationals-Astros #WorldSeries alongside six additional umpires selected from the Division Series roster this postseason.

The Replay Official for the World Series serves in MLBAM's New York-based Replay Operations Center for Games One and Two of the series, before joining the on-field officiating crew for Games Three through Seven of the fall classic. The home plate umpire for Game One of the series correspondingly serves as the Replay Official for Games Three through Seven, having rotated to right field for Game Two.

The following roster configuration refers to positions as assigned for Game 1 of the World Series and indicates prior assignments for the 2019 Division Series—what crews the umpires were picked from. Three of the seven World Series umpires came from NLDS-A (STL@ATL), two were from ALDS-A (MIN@NYY), while one umpire came from each of the remaining two Division Series.
Related Post2019 Wild Card, Division Series Umpires Roster (9/30/19).

2019 World Series Umpires (Washington Nationals @ Houston Astros)
HP: Alan Porter `1st WS` (from NLDS-A [STL@ATL]) [Game 1 Plate]
1B: Doug Eddings `1st WS` (from NLDS-B [WAS@LAD]) [Game 2 Plate]
2B: Gary Cederstrom* (from ALDS-A [MIN@NYY]) [Game 3 Plate]
3B: James Hoye `1st WS` (from ALDS-B [TB@HOU]) [Game 4 Plate]
LF: Lance Barksdale `1st WS` (from ALDS-A [MIN@NYY]) [Game 5 Plate]
RF: Sam Holbrook* (from NLDS-A [STL@ATL]) [Game 6 Plate]
Replay: Jim Wolf (from NLDS-A [STL@ATL]) [Game 7 Plate]
Posthumous: Eric Cooper (from ALDS-A [MIN@NYY]) [Game 8 in Heaven]
Related PostEric Cooper Dies at 52 Following Blood Clot (10/20/19).

Replay Assistant, World Series: Jerry Meals.

Bold text denotes World Series Crew Chief, * denotes regular season Crew Chief, `1st WS` denotes first World Series assignment. Pursuant to UEFL Rule 4-3-c, all umpires selected to appear in the World Series shall receive four bonus points for this appearance; crew chiefs shall receive one additional bonus point for this role (five points total). Officials assigned to the replay review assistant position (without an on-field role) do not receive points.

This is the first Fall Classic for Barksdale, Eddings, Porter, and Hoye. It's the second appearance for Wolf (2015), third fall classic for Holbrook (2010, 16), and fourth for Crew Chief Cederstrom (2005, 11, 15). The UEFL Appeals Board voted to give Eric Cooper a posthumous World Series assignment. Umpires will wear a memorial patch honoring Cooper during the fall classic.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Eric Cooper Dies at 52 Following Blood Clot

Less than two weeks removed from his 2019 AL Division Series assignment, MLB umpire Eric Cooper has died after a post-surgery blood clot, six years after Wally Bell’s heart attack during the 2013 postseason. Coop, who officiated the 2019 Twins-Yankees ALDS, was 52 years old.

Born on December 18, 1966 in Des Moines, Iowa, Cooper began his journey in Minor League Baseball in 1990's Appalachian League and officiated his first major league game in 1996, becoming a member of the big league staff on the American League side in 1999.

Cooper had the plate for three no-hitters during his MLB career, and officiated three Wild Card Games (2015-17) 10 Division Series (2003, 05-06, 08-09, 11-14, 2019), three League Championship Series (2004, 15-17), and the 2014 World Series.

He had 72 career MLB ejections over nearly 2,800 career regular season games. His last MLB game was in service as the second base umpire for New York's series-clinching victory in Minnesota on October 7; his crew chief for that series, Gary Cederstrom, will also chief the 2019 World Series.

Cooper often served his community through UMPS CARE Charities; here's Cooper speaking about his experience visiting a St. Louis-area hospital as part of UmpsCare in 2012.

For many, this will bring back memories of umpire Wally Bell's death during the 2013 postseason. Like Cooper, Bell had just officiated a Division Series nary two weeks prior to his own fatal heart attack.
Related PostMLB Umpire Wally Bell Dead at 48 (10/14/13).

The UEFL Appeals Board has awarded Cooper a posthumous 2019 World Series assignment. Tribute video as follows:

John Bacon Ejects Derek Hill Over AFL Auto-Strike

Another week produced another ejection in the Arizona Fall League, as HP Umpire John Bacon ejected Tigers prospect Derek Hill for arguing an automatic strike during Saturday, October 19's Javelinas vs. Solar Sox game in Mesa.

Hill fell victim to the auto-K to lead off his at-bat in the bottom of the 8th inning of the contest, as Bacon enforced the AFL's pitch clock rule that has been in place since the 2014 AFL season, and, in its current form, specifies that the penalty for a batter who fails to be in the batter's box and alert to the pitcher with seven seconds (or less) remaining on the timer shall be penalized with an automatic strike.

Bacon ejected Hill following a post-at-bat argument, which had ended in a swinging strikeout. The crew assigned to Peoria-Mesa on Saturday was quite the experienced group of AFL umpires: HP Umpire Bacon (MLB fill-in #70), 1B Umpire Jose Navas (ejected Jacon Heyward for arguing a computer strike call last Wednesday), 2B Umpire Jansen Visconti (MLB fill-in #52), and 3B Umpire Brennan Miller (MLB fill-in #55).
Related PostComputer Strike Call Prompts Navas' AFL Ejection (10/16/19).

Summary of Penalties for Pitch Clock Violations:
Batter not in box & ready at 7-seconds: Auto-Strike.
Pitcher not in motion at 0-seconds: Auto-Ball.

We previously analyzed baseball's Pace-of-Play automatic strike in 2018. See the following article for a video example of an umpire enforcing the pitch clock rule with an automatic strike in Minor League Baseball during the 2018 season.
Related PostPitch Clock? Anatomy of a Pace-of-Play Auto-Strike (8/27/18).

The AFL's present pitch clock rule most nearly resembles MiLB's pace of play initiatives as introduced prior to the 2018 season. Pitch clocks debuted for the first time at the MLB level during 2019's Spring Training.
Related PostMinor League Baseball Issues 2018 Pace of Play Rules (3/14/18).
Related PostManfred: Pitch Clock WILL Debut at Spring Training (2/18/19).

Clock-averse Official Baseball Rule 5.04(b)(1) states, "The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly when it is his time at bat," while Rule 5.04(b)(4)(A)'s penalty states, "In National Association [e.g., Minor League Baseball] play, for a batter’s second or subsequent violations of this Rule in a game, the umpire shall award a strike without the pitcher having to deliver the pitch. The ball is dead, and no runners may advance."

The pitch clock rule prescribes a strict interpretation as to OBR 5.04(b) violations.

Wrap: Peoria Javelinas vs. Mesa Solar Sox, 10/19/19 | Video unavailable.