Something Worse Than the Pitch Clock Fiascos Happened in MLB This Weekend

With automated balls and strikes on the way, C.B. Bucknor refusing to shake Oli Marmol’s hand could be the last time there’s this much drama between umpires and managers. And that sucks.

Oliver Marmol of the Cardinals argues with umpire CB Bucknor in 2022.
Oliver Marmol of the Cardinals and umpire CB Bucknor still don't get along.
Norm Hall/Getty

To all the MLB fans who completely lost their minds over an opening-weekend spring training game being decided by a pitch clock violation, allow me to repurpose two iconic quotes from all-time great non-baseball players who should perhaps explore second careers as inspirational speakers:

First, “We’re talking about practice. Not a game! Practice.”

And second, “R-E-L-A-X. Relax.”

As my colleague Tobias Carroll wrote, the issues with the pitch clock that revealed themselves over the weekend will sort themselves out. In the next few weeks, players will learn and adjust to the new rules, during games that are partly being played by non-Major Leaguers and do not count. No, a playoff game in all likelihood won’t be won or lost on a call like the one Atlanta Brave Cal Conley had go against him. By then, Conley and all the other MLB batters will better know the pitch clock cadence and avoid a third strike by stepping into the box in shorter order. With three balls on the hitter and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth during a tie game — the conditions Red Sox pitcher Robert Kwiatkowski faced — pitchers will make sure they deliver the ball to the plate on time, too. If they don’t, and ball four is called to force the winning run in, is that any different than a game ending on a walk-off balk

A rule is a rule is a rule, and these pitch clock rules are in place to make baseball move at a quicker pace and be more entertaining, which is sports’ number-one value proposition. 

Something far more compelling happened during MLB’s first spate of games since the World Series — something fans will probably never see again upon another inevitable update to the game. On Saturday, St. Louis Cardinals manager Oli Marmol approached the umpire team at home plate along with opposing manager Dave Martinez of the Washington Nationals for a standard pre-game conversation. According to The Athletic, Marmol shook each umpire’s hand, but when he extended his hand toward C.B. Bucknor, the umpire “declined to reciprocate.”

Then, after the game, Marmol discussed the incident with St. Louis reporters, saying that Bucknor’s snub “shows his lack of class as a man.”

What prompted such a blatant display of disrespect? The Athletic narrowed it down to a Bucknor ejection of Marmol last season. On August 21, 2022, Bucknor made such a bad strike call on a Cardinals hitter, Nolan Arenado, that it sparked laughter in the broadcast booth. As the play-by-play man speculated that Bucknor was probably making up for an earlier blown call that went against the Cardinals’ opponent, Marmol got tossed. Figuring he might as well get his money’s worth, he went to home plate to confront Bucknor face to face. While Bucknor maintained a wry smile, Marmol issued an animated tongue-lashing. It eventually crossed a line for Bucknor, who then jawed back at him.

“I didn’t like [his] smirk when I got out there,” Marmol said later. “And then he questioned my time in the league, so I returned the favor and questioned his time in the league.”

Rarely does strife between an umpire and manager seem to extend beyond a single game or a single series. (Marmol, for one, certainly didn’t expect that to be the case on Saturday.) So to see Marmol and Bucknor — who’s been hotly criticized for years by managers and sportswriters — carry on like seventh graders, six months and a whole new season after their last run-in, is especially fun to see.

We won’t be seeing it ever again when MLB institutes “robot umpires,” something that could happen as early as next year. Instant replay’s arrival to the league “tempered the days of genuine contempt” for umpires on the part of managers, as The New York Times wrote in 2019, and robo-umps will further dull this long-standing element of the sport, cutting deeper into professional baseball’s value proposition as a vehicle for entertainment.

Congratulations, Commissioner Rob Manfred. You artificially legislated excitement into the game this season — with the pitch clock and a series of other rules changes — and you’ll take a large swath of it out of baseball next season.

If only he’d “R-E-L-A-X” and let balls-and-strikes drama play out on its own, with epic tirades, finger-pointing, chest-bumping, dirt-kicking and more exhibitions of grown men behaving like children. 

Then, maybe we’d be talking less about practice, and more about the game.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!