The following is not a controversial statement: Ángel Hernández is a bad Major League Baseball umpire.
Hall of Famer Mike Piazza once described a Hernández call as “the worst he’d ever seen in his baseball career,” according to a New York Daily News account in 1998. He was referring to a blown call in the 11th inning in a game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta’s Michael Tucker was at third base when a pop fly was caught in left field. He tagged, but the throw to catcher Piazza clearly beat him to the plate. Hernández called him safe anway and handed the Braves a win.
It was the last game before the All Star Break. Piazza and fellow teammates griped that Hernández clearly wanted to call it a day and skip to the part where he was somewhere else.
Piazza is far from alone in his opinion. The Cuban-born umpire has been officiating Major League games since 1991, pissing off close to every player in his wake. He rings up batters for pitches thrown three feet off the plate, and sends them to first for a walk on no-doubt strikes. He rules home runs doubles and throws managers out for the slightest objection (one recent headline from Deadspin read, simply, “It’s Getting Pretty Hard Not To Get Ejected From A Game Ángel Hernández is Umpiring”).
Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Ian Kinsler, when he played for Detroit, got fined $10,000 after telling the press that Hernández “needs to find another job.”
Looking at the combined 2016-2018 seasons, his calls at first base were overturned at a 78-percent cut – easily unprecedented. During the 2018 American League Division Series between the Yankees and Red Sox, four of the five calls he made were overturned via replay review. Another Hall of Famer, Pedro blasted him after the game: “Ángel was horrible. Don’t get me going on Ángel now. Major League Baseball needs to do something about Ángel.... He’s as bad as there is.”
“His incompetence amazes me and I’m tired of MLB doing squat about it!” tweeted Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (Tucker’s former teammate in Atlanta) in 2013. “Our only recourse, as fans, is to turn the station whenever he, or his crew, are on the field.”
Just this month, Yankees broadcasters mused at strike after strike as each was called a ball. The crowd hurled insults as the Gameday app offered displays of dead-center strikes getting the Hernández brush-off. Catcher Gary Sanchez could only shake his head in disbelief.
Among his many, many detractors, probably none stands out as much as former Yankees skipper – and now MLB Chief Baseball Officer – Joe Torre. Torre’s feud with Hernández dates back to a game in 2001, when the umpire called a balk (when a pitcher begins his delivery, but then stops and attempts to pick a runner off) on Yankees pitcher Andy Pettite. When a balk is called, the runner automatically advances to the next base. But Torre correctly noted that Pettite was just doing his normal delivery motions. No offense was committed – at least, not on the mound.
“He sees something that nobody else does.... You’d like to have him sit down and have him watch the video – which I’m sure he doesn’t do – and describe to people what a balk is, and why it is a balk, and I’m sure he would look like a fool at that point in time,” Torre told the New York Times after the incident, adding that “what’s incredible is that he’s the only one who does it. I think he just wanted to be noticed over there, so now everybody knows he’s in town.”
Hernández declined to comment at the time, but the sentiment evidently festered.
At around the same time Kinsler was unloading on Hernández to the press in 2007, Russell Peterson Jr. was living in Alaska and beginning a two-year stint with the State Department of Labor that would end in litigation. When he joined the Alaska State Employees Association in 2009 and requested service time credit for his two years of employment, ASEA’s investigation noticed that he had failed to disclose a previous felony. So, they fired him.
Peterson filed a grievance, per ASEA’s collective bargaining agreement with the State, but the two parties were unable to resolve the issue. So, Peterson took them to court.
Of the numerous documents subpoenaed by the State in superior court, a point of contention was a request for all written communication between ASEA and Peterson’s attorney, Douglas Merz (part of the collective bargaining agreement held that Peterson could not retain private counsel, so ASEA provided Merz). But Peterson asked to suppress those documents, arguing that they were privileged worker-union communications.
This was novel. There was no basis to allege that conversations between an employee and his union were protected. Any acknowledged protection of such communication would constitute a newly afforded privilege recognized in law. The superior court denied the motion, but Peterson appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. The high court found merit in Peterson’s argument.
“Implicit in Alaska’s public union statutory rights is the right of the union and its members to function free of harassment and undue interference from the State,” Justice Daniel Winfree wrote in the ruling (Peterson v Alaska, 2012).
“If unions are to function, leaders must be free to communicate with their members about the problems and complaints of union members without undue interference,” he continued. “Members must be able to have confidence that what they tell their representatives on such subjects cannot be pried out of the representatives by an overzealous governmental agency. Union members must know and be secure in feeling that those whom they elect from among their ranks will be their spokespersons and representatives, not the unwilling agents of the employer.... Any attempt by the State to force disclosure of confidential communications between an employee and a union representative during a grievance proceeding would constitute an unfair labor practice.”
The ruling remains controversial, and other courts at both the federal and state levels have rejected it outright. But other states have recognized the new privilege.
Ángel Hernández took note of the Peterson ruling and, last year, happened to find himself in the middle of litigation against Major League Baseball. He also happens to be a member of the Major League Umpires Association.
Hernández’s suit, in a very big way, is based on his feud with Joe Torre. His complaint alleges his treatment in the MLB changed after Torre was exalted to Chief Baseball Officer: his yearly and mid-year evaluations took a nosedive. His 2011 mid-year evaluation bore language eerily resonant of Torre’s comments to the media a decade earlier, that Hernández’s “communication skills... [and] approach has fostered a Club perception that you try to put yourself in the spotlight by seeing things that other umpires do not” and that he was attempting to “put himself in the spotlight.”
Hernández’s case against Major League Baseball went a lot further.
“Though it may seem as if Major League Baseball’s problems with Hernández begin and end with some personal animus Torre... may have towards Hernández, an overview of how Major League Baseball has treated minorities such as Hernández shows a much deeper and more troubling trend,” it read. Hard statistics followed: in the six World Series since Torre’s tenure as MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer began, “there has been only one non-white umpire assigned to the World Series[.]” The other 34 officiating jobs went to white umps. Since the National and American League merger in 2000, out of 23 umpires promoted to crew chief, 23 have been white. Of the combined 77,760 Major League games played between 2000 and 2016, “there has not been a permanent minority crew chief.”
Umpires of color who had applied for the job of crew chief in those years, the complaint alleges, had been passed over for white umpires who didn’t even turn in applications.
Hernández is a shitty umpire, but those are some damning and unrelated figures. He backed them up with a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Major League Baseball wants what the State wanted in the Peterson case: all communications between Hernández and the Major League Umpires Association, as NBC Sports writer Craig Calcaterra surmises, “most likely to see if Hernandez ever brought up discrimination claims to his union before filing the suit. The league also wants the union’s own internal evaluations of the job Hernandez does on the field. MLB hopes to be able to undercut Hernandez’s arguments that he was discriminated against via these records.”
Part of that effort led MLB to move the lawsuit from Ohio, where Hernández filed it – and where the Alaska standard is recognized – to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York – where President Donald Trump’s nightmares live, but where the Alaska standard has been rejected.
Last week, the court sided with the MLB and demanded the umpire’s union to comply in handing over all communications with Hernández. And that’s some dangerous foreshadowing for looming labor negotiations in the near-term future. The next time won’t center the discussion around the umps. It’ll be between the league and the players. Players have been upset about the glacial free agent market that left marquee players without teams well into the 2019 season. Meanwhile, teams aren’t spending what players believe they should be spending on talent (creating less competition; most divisions have already been decided and we’re a month away from the All Star break), younger players are getting paid less, and veterans – thanks to the rise of advanced metrics – are chronically undervalued.
With the omission of the Peterson ruling in Alaska in Hernández’s lawsuit, players’ concerns aired within the players’ association will now, no doubt, be fair game in any forthcoming contract disputes. That’s going to mean a lot of dirty laundry out in the hot, summer air. That’s going to mean a lot of trouble for baseball.