Does Umpire Joe West Have a Conflict of Interest?

And today, we learn that West is standing by his comments on the two teams, via ESPNBoston:

“I don’t second-guess what I said.  And I don’t believe I’m wrong. A lot of people don’t believe I’m wrong.  I kind of expected the firestorm I created. But the interview was taken out of context. The first thing I said was that these were two of our best teams, but the pace that they play the game was pathetic and embarrassing. But everybody, especially the New York media, blew it out of proportion and said I was calling the teams pathetic. Some people said I had no right to single them out. I didn’t single them out. I said they were both bad.”

Now, you might be asking a legitimate question:  Why is this news?  Well, because Joe West is going to be umpiring the Red Sox/Royals series this weekend in Boston.  And how do we know that, when MLB doesn’t announce umpiring crews before regular season games?  Because Joe West’s Nashville-based publicist tells us so.  Indeed, Joe’s publicist brags that he is “one of the most unique individuals in the professional sports world” and “available for media interviews and guest appearances.”  Next question: Why does an umpire need a publicist?  Because he’s also a country music singer/songwriter.  I won’t bother to link to his webpage.  You can Google that, if you’re morbidly curious.  As Edes points out, it’s believed West is the only umpire with a publicist.

Anyway, in my mind this raises a legitimate ethical issue about whether Joe West, MLB Umpire, and president of the World Umpires Association, has a conflict of interest.  Umpires’ salaries are fixed based on service time, as they should be.  The promise of extra cash might cause some umps to make certain calls differently.  However, publicity definitely helps Wests music career.  Indeed, how many of you knew Joe West was a terrible country singer/songwriter before this?  West is apparently not shy about seeking this publicity, and the more often he gets mentioned, the more often he and his band can book gigs in the offseason.  Indeed, while I would not go so far as to accuse Joe West of being insincere in his beliefs, it’s his willingness and desire to share those impartial beliefs with the media that is problematic.  Also, when Joe makes controversial decisions on the baseball field, like decisions to eject managers and players, and takes steps to ensure that the exchanges are heated and drawn out (and will thus appear on highlight shows and be discussed on blogs like this one), we fans are left to wonder whether he is deliberately altering the course of baseball games in order to garner additional publicity for himself and his music career.

Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem, generally regarded as the greatest umpire in major league history, once said, “The best umpired game is the game in which the fans cannot recall the umpires who worked it.”  Joe West apparently doesn’t believe that.  And neither does his publicist.  Because Joe is not only making himself an active participant in the ball games he works, he is also telling us in advance where he’ll be so that we can come to the park to see him (or book him for one of those interviews or appearances).  Bud Selig and Major League Baseball need to make it clear, once again, to Joe West that he needs to stop his grandstanding and instruct his publicist to restrict their announcements to his music career.  The two careers need to be kept strictly separate.  Baseball, rightfully, banned Pete Rose for life for betting on baseball games, including those his team was playing in.  An umpire who may be tempted to place himself and his visibility before the integrity of the game cannot be tolerated.  If Joe West can’t see that, he needs to be allowed to focus exclusively on the career that apparently matters to him most.  He needs to be ejected.

Update: According to Bruce Levine of ESPNChicago, MLB has announced that there will be an investigation of the incidents at yesterday’s White Sox game. Levine points out, “MLB does not announce disciplinary actions against umpires, although they are common. If umpires receive more than a few reports from umpire supervisors that they didn’t meet standards in the game, it could affect the umpire’s ability to get assignments such as the All-Star Game and playoffs, which are extra paydays.  Umpires can be fined and suspended, but those situations are never announced.”  So, um, if we don’t hear from Joe West for a while, no news is good news.

The Common Man writes 2-3 times a week on his own site, and you can follow him on Twitter.

11 thoughts on “Does Umpire Joe West Have a Conflict of Interest?

  1. This guy is a joke. Last year when the Rockies beat the Giants in late August on a walk off grand slam, West, the 2nd base umpire, apparently made some a few comments to Yorvit Torrealba after he hit a double about not liking the way that Torrealba and the rest of the Rockies played.  When Ryan Spilborghs hit the walk off grand slam, instead of leaving the field, West went up to Troy Tulowitzki and told him that he nearly caused Spilborghs to be called out because he apparently touched him before he touched the plate.  It was so bad that the Rockies filed a formal complaint against him and asked that his crew not be assigned to Rockies games for the rest of the season.
    When umpires become bigger than the game it gets really annoying.

  2. If we want to know if hiring a publicist constitutes a conflict of interest, would not the terms of West’s employment indicate whether it is verboten? Otherwise, how is Bill Klem’s advice relevant? I am far more concerned with Bob Davidson’s creative interpretation of a strike zone.

  3. To be clear, I am also far more concerned with West’s creative interpretation of a strike zone, as evidenced by the chart above.

  4. @JE
    It’s relevant if West is deliberately provoking confrontations to garner additional publicity.  And there are many ways an umpire could do that.  An umpire could order pitchers to throw or batters to get in the box, he could deliberately blow calls (including calls involving the strike zone) to get players and managers riled up.  Even if West is not guilty of these things, Caesar’s umpire must be above reproach.

  5. “Even if West is not guilty of these things, Caesar’s umpire must be above reproach.” (Bold print is mine.)
    You seem to be making assumptions, TCM. What do the terms of employment say?

  6. Really – I thought the connection was pretty clear.  If you’re trying to pimp yourself on the side, you will obviously do anything you can to garner press, face time on tv, and any other attention you can.  Can’t you see Joe selling it to the tone-deaf rednecks that think he can sing? “Y’all c’mon out, see me singin’ and tellin’ it like it is.  Ya saw me last week – I done stood up to that there Ozzie character – I’m jus’ doin’ what y’all wish you could be doin’ – puttin’ all them overpaid preema donnas (sp) in their places, showin’ em who’s boss.”
    Yessirre.  Did not know he had a side career he was promoting.  Kinda puts everything in a whole different light.  Maybe Ozzie should show up at some of his shows, maybe call him out when he’s flat or off time.

  7. I think you misunderstand my point, JE.  I make no assumptions; West may be incompetent, rather than conflicted.  But his sidelights make him appear conflicted, or at least create a motive for confliction, which is absolutely a bad thing for an umpire, who is always supposed to remain impartial.
    The terms of his employment may very much matter from a legal perspective, but they don’t matter from an ethical one.  West, in my mind, is ethically in the wrong.  Major League Baseball may not have a clause in umpires’ contracts about not being attention grubbers; if they don’t, it’s because they probably never considered that an umpire would ever need or have a publicist.  If that’s the case, as I said, I hope MLB will act to correct this situation as quickly as possible.

  8. Shoot – the fact that West is promoting appearances in advance, so his fans can come see him do his umpiring thing – that alone should be enough for a pretty hefty slap on the wrist.
    As stated, umpires are there to make sure the game is fair, balls are fair, and strikes are strikes.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Umpiring should be a case of “Nothing to see here, folks – move on.”

  9. TCM, I sympathize with your larger point (assuming I get it now!), but I still maintain that an umpire can be effective even if he ignores Klem’s advice.  For example, assuming that a home-plate umpire ultimately calls a good game, I have no problem with him doing a pre-game skit with the Philadelphia Phanatic or even responding in-game to a manager’s provocations with some jawing of his own.

  10. To name but one more, Karl Hess is guilty of the same behavior, different sport.  He incessantly makes himself the center of attention at college basketball games.  It’s infuriating as a fan, whether the calls are beneficial or not; I think most of us go to or watch baseball games (or any sports games) expecting the players to decide the game within the bounds of the rules.
    As an umpire (or official, or referee), there’s injecting yourself into the game when necessary, and then there’s stepping way outside the bounds of what is necessary while still accomplishing the job.  Some people have tolerance for the latter and some don’t; that’s a subjective kind of thing that seems to be dependent on the sport and its customs.  The issue is that baseball generally bemoans outrageous behavior and overt displays of emotion and goading of opposition, wherever that opposition comes from.  Joe West seems to fall into a third category where he doesn’t effectively accomplish the job while also creating controversy for the way in which he does it.  On one hand, it baffles me how umpires (referees, game officials) continue to be employed when they demonstrate incompetence in more than one facet of their job, but it’s an international problem with professional sports; there’s always going to be the bad apple.  Eliminating an umpire for behavior might cause more problems than it fixes (i.e. the NBA) because of the press that comes with that, and I’m sure he’s protected rather heftily by some union agreement.  I don’t know what, if anything, can be done.