Column: MLB Ump Sues League For Racial DiscriminationJuly 13, 2017
Hernandez’ suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, comes on the heels of two discrimination charges he filed against MLB with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June. Why Hernandez chose to go public with his complaints at this time is unknown.
What we do know for certain is Hernandez should consider himself extremely fortunate to still have a job as one of MLB’s 92 umpires. The Cuban-born Hernandez, 55, began his MLB career as a part-time umpire in1993 and was promoted to a full time position in 1995. Throughout the past 25 years, he has consistently been rated among the five worst umpires in the league.
In a 2010 ESPN survey of players, Hernandez was chosen as the third worst umpire in the league. To prove that ranking wasn’t a fluke, a year later Hernandez again finished third from the bottom in another player poll conducted by Sports Illustrated. Informal polls over the years have rated him the worst umpire in the league. Even when other umpires trump Hernandez in incompetence, they tend to exhibit a better personality and demeanor.
Hernandez claims in his suit that MLB discriminates against minorities in promotion and post season assignments, which carry additional compensation and prestige. Hernandez says he has been passed over several times for a chance to work the World Series despite high marks on evaluations. The suit also charges that although Hernandez was made a temporary crew chief in 2005 and 2012, he was passed over for a permanent assignment even though he applied four times. As a result, Hernandez is seeking back pay and unspecified compensatory damages from the league.
One allegation in the complaint is MLB has only promoted one minority umpire, a Hispanic, to permanent crew chief in the history of the game and claims only one non-white umpire has worked a World Series since 2011.
In his lawsuit, Hernandez says he has seen “other, less experienced, generally white umpires” promoted ahead of him. However, by any standard of measure those same umpires were more qualified than Hernandez. Ironically, Hernandez was selected to umpire first base in this year’s All Star Game in Miami, his third such assignment. He also worked the 2002 and 2005 World Series. Last season Hernandez was part of a League Championship Series crew for the seventh time.
You might think since the introduction of instant reply, an umpire’s effect on the outcome of a game has been minimized. However, that isn’t necessarily the case. Not all calls are reviewable, including ball and strike calls, which means an umpire’s impact on the outcome of a game remains huge. In the suit, Hernandez states his performance ratings were solid until 2011 but declined thereafter. That's when former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was named MLB's chief baseball officer, a position that includes oversight of the league’s umpires. Hernandez and Torre have history and Hernandez says in his complaint that “Torre's general negative attitude” towards him “permeated (the umpire’s) yearly evaluations."
Hernandez may be right on one count. In a league where 31.9% of players are of Latin descent and 42.5% are of color, only 10 of the 92 umpires are black or Hispanic. But unlike players, whose average MLB career lasts six years, umpires are similar to Supreme Court judges: They are employed for life. No umpire has ever been terminated for poor performance, although a number of them have been fined and suspended for letting their ego run wild or for forgetting the rules.
The lawsuit states, "The selection of these less qualified, white individuals over Hernandez was motivated by racial, national origin and/or ethnic considerations.” However, even if Hernandez is right that racial discrimination exists in evaluating umpires, he’s hardly the one to be making such a charge.