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(News Focus) KBO hoping to better educate umps after string of mishaps

All Headlines 15:09 June 27, 2013

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, June 27 (Yonhap) -- A well-worn sports cliche has it that the best umpires in baseball are the ones the fans don't know.

When they make all the correct calls, then the game flows smoothly and the fans may not even realize the umpires are there. But if they blow a call in a crucial situation, they quickly become public enemies and face a heavy dose of scrutiny.

Indeed, some of the more recognizable umpires or referees in major North American sports have been involved in some not-so-flattering incidents. Take, for instance, Tim Donaghy, an NBA official who was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in 2008 for deliberately miscalling games to affect the point spread in those games.

Jim Joyce, a veteran Major League Baseball (MLB) umpire, blew a call at first base costing Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010. Though he didn't commit any crime, in the eyes of Detroit fans, he might as well have.

In June, umpires in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) have also come under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In some cases, they have blown calls. In one particular case, they were unaware of a new rule instituted before this season and allowed an illegal pitching change to stand.

Random officiating mistakes can't be predicted, and by human nature, umpires do make mistakes, even the one as blatant as the blown call on June 15 between the Nexen Heroes and the LG Twins.

In a scoreless game with two outs and bases loaded, Nexen's third baseman Kim Min-seong made a diving grab on a hard grounder and threw to second for a force out. Second baseman Seo Geon-chang caught Kim's throw with the sliding runner, Oh Ji-hwan, about 50 centimeters away from the bag.

The inning would have ended there, but second base umpire Park Keun-young called Oh safe. Replays showed Oh was clearly out, and even the play-by-play man from his broadcast booth called out before he saw Park's motion.

The Twins scored the first run on that play, and two batters later, Lee Byung-kyu hit a grand slam to blow the game wide open. The Twins went on to win 9-0.

The next day, Park, as a penalty, was assigned to call games in the Futures League, the KBO's minor league. He hasn't made it back to the big league.

Just eight days later, in a game between the Lotte Giants and the SK Wyverns, the umpires made a mistake of a different nature -- not a blown call but something that still raised questions over the qualifications of KBO umpires.

Home plate umpire Yoon Sang-won allowed Lotte to make a pitching change that shouldn't have been permitted under a new rule implemented before this season. To start the bottom sixth, Lotte's Kim Soo-wan fell behind 2-0 against Kim Sang-hyun, and was promptly relieved by Chong Tae-hyon.

Under the rule, if a pitcher enters the game to start an inning, he has to finish an at-bat against the first batter before he is replaced.

Yoon was only made aware of the new rule when SK's manager Lee Man-soo came out to argue. Yoon then made his second mistake: once he learned of the rule, Yoon should have brought Kim Soo-wan back into the game, but instead he let Chong stay on the mound.

It cost Yoon 1 million won (US$870) in fines. Four other umpires working the game received warnings from the KBO for failing to correct Yoon.

During and after these two games, the KBO's homepage was inundated with hundreds of spiteful messages. In the case of Park, some fans demanded his dismissal, while others raised conspiracy theories about potential match fixing. With Yoon and his crew, fans charged that the penalty was too lenient for a mishap so egregious.

Against this backdrop, with seemingly every umpire under the microscope, even a borderline call has elicited angry responses. In the top ninth of a game between the NC Dinos and the Lotte Giants on Wednesday, NC's Noh Jin-hyuk looked to have drawn a two-out walk with a runner on first on a 3-1 pitch. The Dinos were trailing 3-2 and Noh would've represented the go-ahead run.

The breaking pitch appeared to have traveled through the strike zone before Kang Min-ho, Lotte's backstop, caught it below Noh's knees. It could have been called either way.

Noh struck out on the next pitch to end the game, prompting more angry messages from fans.

Such intense reaction from the baseball community illustrates the constant pressure under which umpires perform. Also, with baseball's popularity in South Korea at a historic level, there has never been more media attention paid to KBO games.

All games are broadcast live on cable television and are also available on mobile devices free of charge. Advanced technologies present instant replays from several different angles. Cameras also track the location of all pitches and allow viewers to see if they fall in the strike zone.

Scoreboards at stadiums don't show replays, but fans in this highly-digitized country can watch them on their smartphones from their seats.

In other words, there is increasingly less margin for error for the umpires.

Ryu Dae-hwan, head of public relations at the KBO, said there isn't much the league can do other than to try to make the umpires better.

"We have to improve our training for the umpires and make sure there won't be more mistakes like these," he said. "From the fans' perspective, they may want to see some umpires fired, but that's really not the answer."

Umpires are subjected to abuse because of a well-rooted misconception among fans: that they can somehow call a game better than some middle-aged man wearing a mask behind home plate. Generally, you're likelier to hear an average fan say, "Hey, I could've made that call at first base," than, "I could've thrown a better fastball than that pitcher."

This view, though, overlooks the fact that umpires are correct way more often than they're wrong -- otherwise, games wouldn't be played -- and that it takes umpires just as much training in their craft as athletes to develop the skills necessary to work games at the high level.

According to the KBO, there are 43 umpires calling the KBO games and the Futures League games. Yang Hae-young, secretary general of the KBO, said in a recent interview that the league has added three to four umpires to the crew in the past several seasons, and it takes a long time to develop a KBO-caliber umpire.

"New umpires must undergo probation in the minor league and pass some tests, and only the cream of the crop can reach the KBO," Yang said. "If we keep demoting umpires to the minor league after one mistake, it won't help the league in the end."

KBO umpires are signed to yearly contracts, which are subject to renewal at the end of each season, and depending on their grades in the evaluation, they could face hefty pay cuts. Those who are demoted to the minor league during the season also stand to lose money based on the amount of time they stay there.

Despite angry fans' calls for heavier punishments, the KBO feels the umpires are already under plenty of pressure. Ryu, the league's PR chief, said the KBO in 2010 introduced a video review system of strike-ball calls, allowing umpires to watch tapes of their own games to help them improve their performance. Ryu said the league plans to provide umpires with notebook computers or other devices so that they can review the games immediately.

"For umpires, they are already under a lot of stress about their performance assessment as it is," he said. "We will still have to strengthen it gradually for the long-term good of the league."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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