DiMuro has witnessed umpire challenges, changes over the years

by Wayne Graczyk

Back in 1972, in the early years of NFL’s “Monday Night Football” on ABC, the broadcasting trio of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and “Dandy” Don Meredith were calling the gridiron action. A play occurred whereby, because of a rule change, the result was substantially different than what it would have been a year earlier.

Meredith described it in a way that would have made Yogi Berra proud. “Pro football is not what it used to be,” he said. Then, after a pause, he added, “And it never was.”

After another pause to think about what Dandy Don had just said, Gifford offered some sarcasm. “That was a brilliant statement,” he said.

Then Cosell chimed in with, “I won’t try to decipher it.”

Professional baseball, as played in the major leagues and Japan, is not what it used to be either. Two of the biggest changes, because of technology advancements over the years, are the use of video replay to confirm or reverse calls and the wearing of cameras, microphones and headphones (for challenges in MLB) by umpires.

At an American League game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox on July 5, the home plate umpire was Mike DiMuro. The game was telecast on Fox Sports, and DiMuro, wearing a mic, had gone to the pitcher’s mound to explain something to Red Sox pitcher John Lackey.

Fox Sports played back over the air what the umpire had told Lackey, and the incident reminded me of something DiMuro had said while he was an umpire in Japan’s Central League in 1997. First, though, for those who did not know there was an American umpire in Japanese baseball, I will explain the circumstances of DiMuro’s brief tenure calling CL games in Japan.

He came to the country in March of that year as part of a spring exhibition game umpire exchange between Japanese baseball and MLB. He then stayed on as a regular Central League arbiter, and the idea was to have Japanese umpires learn from him more about American umpiring techniques.

There were a few problems to begin with — unlike foreign players on teams in Japan, DiMuro had no interpreter to accompany him, and he was not assigned to a specific crew — but the regular season began, and he seemed to be settling in. Then, a few weeks into the schedule, there was big trouble.

During an early-season game, DiMuro called a borderline outside corner pitch a strike on Chunichi Dragons slugger Yasuaki Taiho. The Taiwan-born Taiho argued with DiMuro and likely embarrassed him. Later, on a pitch that appeared further outside, DiMuro called Taiho out on strikes.

Taiho then shoved DiMuro in the chest as players, coaches and fiery manager Senichi Hoshino ran onto the field from the Chunichi dugout. The roughed-up DiMuro ejected Taiho, but the player received no subsequent fine or suspension.

Shocked by the apparent acceptance of abuse of umpires in Japanese baseball, the then-30-year-old DiMuro resigned and returned to the U.S. to resume his career in the American League in the days when umpires in both countries were separated by leagues.

He has followed in the footsteps of his late father, Lou DiMuro, a long-time AL umpire. Mike, now 47, is one of the more experienced umpires in the majors.

Getting back to when we was working in Japan in 1997, though, he said one of the things with which he disagreed (besides umps being attacked by players and managers) was the way Japanese umpires would explain disputed or questionable plays or calls to the crowd over the stadium public address system.

Typically, after a confusing call, an NPB umpire will go behind home plate to the backstop and be handed a microphone. He will say something like, “I am Saito, the first base umpire tonight, and I will explain the play that just occurred . . .”

“I don’t like that,” DiMuro had said. “If the call went against the home team, it might incite the fans and there could be trouble.”

“But, Mike,” I said. “I’ve never seen that happen, and it usually works the other way. Even if the call went against the hometown team, the explanation would let the fans understand why the call was made and, hopefully, calm the situation. There would more likely be trouble if they don’t know what happened.”

Here it is 17 years later, and DiMuro is wearing a microphone pinned to his MLB-logo uniform shirt, explaining to a player why a certain call was made, and his voice is heard (on replay) by an international TV audience.

Play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and his Fox colleagues were suggesting maybe baseball umpires should follow the NFL custom of referees explaining plays to the stadium crowd and TV audiences. If it happens, it would be a rare case of major league baseball picking up on something Japanese baseball has done for several decades.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if Japan’s Central and Pacific Leagues adopt the challenge system introduced this season in MLB games. To be honest, I kind of like it and must admit I am surprised at the apparent ease with which the challenge plays have been carried out.

One thing is for sure, though. Professional baseball will never again be what it used to be — if it ever was.


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