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Yankees vs. The Umpires continues to be a story, but when will it end?

New York Yankees first base coach Reggie Willits

New York Yankees first base coach Reggie Willits holds back Brett Gardner as he argues with first base umpire Phil Cuzzi during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

OAKLAND, Calif. — An old baseball story about umpires, as told in the 1980 book "The Men in Blue." went like this:

“One day the Devil challenged the Lord to a baseball game. The Lord, smiling, proclaimed: ‘You don’t have a chance. I have Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and all the great players up here.’ ‘Well,’ snickered Satan, ‘I’ve got all the umpires.’ ”

The 2019 Yankees can relate. 

They’ve had a rough month or so with the men in blue, this past weekend only the most recent episodes. And it’s a battle, as any experienced player, manager, coach or executive will tell you, that can’t be won and ultimately can be counterproductive.  

Saturday plate umpire Ben May ejected Aaron Boone, which led to the sequence of first base umpire Phil Cuzzi throwing out Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia.

Cuzzi worked home plate Sunday and heard consistent critiques throughout from both dugouts, though more forcefully from the home team’s.

“I don’t want to talk about that, sorry,” Sabathia said Sunday before his team left for a nine-game, three-city trip west that starts Tuesday against the A’s.

There, of course, was plenty of talk from two earlier incidents with umpires – July 18 when Boone had his viral “our guys are [expletive] savages in the box” rant at plate umpire Brennan Miller, and then Aug. 9 in Toronto when plate umpire Chris Segal mistakenly threw out Gardner instead of Cameron Maybin (who had said something, not Gardner).

Gardner, as most remember, aggressively banged his bat against the roof of the dugout in Toronto after a borderline strike call went against Maybin, which did not cause him to be ejected. When told by the umpire the ejection was because he “said something,” Gardner responded by calling Segal “a liar” to the media, which no doubt grabbed the attention of fellow umpires.

So when Gardner reprised his bat-to-dugout-roof act Saturday, Cuzzi made like Usain Bolt in getting to the Yankees’ dugout to eject Gardner, mimicking the act just to be sure the message was sent. Sabathia quickly was tossed reacting.

“I didn’t think I did anything to warrant getting ejected,” Gardner said. “I feel like today I kind of had a target on my back.”

The latter is unquestionably true, but the first part of Gardner’s statement has some gray area to it.

It is correct that nothing in the rulebook explicitly prohibits hammering a bat into the dugout roof. But it is covered under Rule 6.02 – titled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” – a section that includes actions that are subject to ejection at the umpire’s discretion. Gardner’s actions certainly fit under subsection ( e ) (4.08) of 6.02 that states, “When the occupants of a player’s bench show violent disapproval of an umpire’s decision,” he could be ejected.  

All or some of which would be best explained by the umpires themselves if they did better than sending out the crew chief, who many times had nothing to do with a given controversy, to speak to a pool reporter in mostly generalities about details that “will all be in the report” filed to MLB.  

There was barking at Cuzzi Sunday but nothing out of the ordinary and hardly anything that brought anyone back to the day before – except when Aaron Judge reached base.

Judge, who despite having an inordinate number of low strikes called on him, is Jeter-esque in his dealings with umpires – Jeter was never ejected in his 20-year career – twice replicated the Gardner dugout bat routine after both of his hits Sunday.

Boone somewhat comically tried to leave open the possibility it wasn’t related to the previous day’s ejections, but Judge stated the obvious.

“He’s one of the leaders of this team, so we’re just supporting him with that,” Judge said.

He didn’t rule out the possibility of that becoming this year’s “Thumbs Down” teamwide routine from 2017, but it’s fair to question how wise it is to spend the rest of the season repeating an action umpires now feel antagonized by, especially given the last month. 

Judge said he did not have concerns in general going forward about potential repercussions from the club’s recent run-ins with umpires.

“We have a job to do just like they do,” Judge said. “That’d probably be a better question for them. We have a job to do; we’re going to keep going out there and playing. It doesn’t matter who’s umpiring or not. That’s not our job.”

The devil, as always, will be in the details. 

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