A Study in Contrasts: Don Mattingly and Joe West

Two left-handed pitchers from the southern United States with longish hair and unkempt beards pitched for their respective National League West teams yesterday. Each struck out nine but uncharacteristically gave up three runs early to a relatively weak NL West opponent, despite the fact that both are among the very best pitchers in Major League Baseball. And as the games moved along, each had a disagreement with an authority figure that led to an altercation of some sort.

I’m talking, of course, about Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants. Kershaw gave up individual runs in the second, third, and fourth innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks, while Bumgarner allowed a three-run homer to Derek Norris of the San Diego Padres in the second inning of their game.

In the bottom of the sixth inning of the Giants/Padres game, Bumgarner walked Jedd Gyorko with two outs on a 3-1 pitch. After the pitch sailed outside, Bumgarner yelled loudly in frustration, then continued to mutter after receiving the ball back from Buster Posey and heading back to the top of the mound. Unbeknownst to Bumgarner, after his loud expletive, home plate umpire Joe West had stepped out from behind the plate and removed his mask to show his displeasure with Bumgarner showing his displeasure.

Eventually, Bumgarner turned around to get ready to pitch, and he noticed that he was being stared at. Bumgarner, who has wrestled far larger animals than Joe West, did not even remotely back down. What followed was a tense 19-second staredown between an intense competitor and an old man who should know better:

Note at the 0:37 mark of the video, when the Giants’ color commentator (Mike Krukow?) says, “He’s not gonna back away from a confrontation; it’s just not in his makeup,” and play-by-play announcer Jon Miller asks whether he is talking about West or Bumgarner.

We’ve talked about the #umpshow hashtag before. Sometimes umpires forget and think that they are the show the fans came to see. Unfortunately, Joe West is probably the worst offender in this regard. An umpires job is to officiate the game, not the emotions of the players. And perhaps if West spent less time worrying about the emotions of the players, he might actually be better at his actual job. But alas, the umpires union is strong, and West is the president.

Bumgarner, when asked about the confrontation after the game, had the perfect response: “Joe was behind the plate? I don’t pay attention to the umpires. I didn’t even realize he was back there.”

A few hours earlier, up the freeway in Los Angeles, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had the emotions of a fiercely competitive lefty to deal with, too. With the Dodgers trailing 3-0 heading to the bottom of the fifth inning, Mattingly had a tough call to make. Kershaw had allowed three runs through five innings, and while he had shown flashes of dominance with nine strikeouts, he had thrown 80 pitches already. On a hot, 88-degree day without a cloud in the sky, and with Kershaw due to lead off the fifth, Mattingly made the decision to pinch-hit for him and end his day on the mound.

That led to this angry confrontation between Kershaw and Mattingly in the Dodgers dugout:

Let’s note some differences between West’s response to Bumgarner and Mattingly’s response to Kershaw. West’s goal was to match Bumgarner’s intensity, to show him who was the boss. Mattingly, on the other hand, actually is the boss of Kershaw, but his demeanor was calm and mellow. He allowed Kershaw to vent, understanding that he was dealing with a world-class competitor who was understandably upset. He did not escalate the situation; you could say he handled it like an adult, which is a sentence no one would ever write about Joe West.

After the game, Kershaw did not answer any questions about the confrontation, saying that it was between him and Mattingly, but was happy to praise his teammates, who had picked him up by scoring six runs in that fifth inning to give him a victory in a game where he struggled. Because of Mattingly’s calmness and (let’s face it) good decision making, Kershaw vented and then was rewarded with a win for himself and for his team.

Here’s what Mattingly said about it after the game:

“He doesn’t ever want to come out. … Those guys being competitive, wanting to stay in the game — that never bothers me.”

What a refreshing contrast between Mattingly, an actual leader who is comfortable and confident in his position of authority, and West, who takes every opportunity to remind players and coaches that he is in a position of authority.

Say what you will about Mattingly’s decisions as a manager — and for the record, as a Dodger fan I am on the side of “no one is perfect, but he has shown a willingness to learn from the front office ‘Geek Squad’ that is very rare in former players” — but his interpersonal relations — his people skills — are among the best of any MLB manager.

Joe West is not among the best of MLB umpires in any regard. In fact, he is an embarrassment who should have lost his job a long time ago. Unfortunately, the fact that he is still around probably means that we are stuck with him.

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