One of the things that human beings value the most is consistency. It makes us feel safe by helping us know, to some extent, what we can expect. We can never be fully assured of it, but especially in a baseball game, the players need it.
After home plate umpire Jordan Baker was demonstrably inconsistent in his administration of the strike zone during the early innings of yesterday's game, both John Lackey and Willson Contreras let him know how they felt.
The Carlos Martinez single that should have been a strikeout was the tipping point, but Lackey yelled in Baker's face and Contreras threw down his mask in frustration. Both were tossed, and as we know, the Cubs went on to win anyway.
But today, just hours before their next game against the Cardinals---in the midst of an ultra-important September stretch to decide the division---news has come from MLB that Lackey has been fined and Contreras suspended. The former might be warranted, but the latter is an asinine display of power.
Contreras, having just returned from an injury, has been an immeasurably valuable part of the Cubs offense this season, and especially in the games preceding his injury. The actions that earned him the suspension were as arbitrary as the punishment itself.
He threw his catcher's mask down in frustration, and it happened to bounce and make contact with Baker's leg. Physics are sometimes fickle, and in this case they helped cause the mask to careen in just the right direction. Call it a symbol of the Cubs' season---two steps forward, one, maybe two steps back---but in the immediacy of this series, it's just plain stupid. What the league is suggesting, directly or not, is that if the mask had bounced in a slightly different direction, Contreras would not be facing suspension. Is that what passes for reasonable?
The punishment is arbitrary because the guidelines for these things are as blurry as Baker's strike zone was yesterday afternoon. In a season when umpires staged a bizarre and pathetic protest claiming that players were speaking too harshly to them and have even gone so far as to accuse a major league pitcher of intentionally throwing at an umpire, this punishment comes across like they seized the chance to come down hard on a high-status player on a high-status team.
Whatever the rationale, it's true that Lackey and Contreras probably failed to react as rationally as they should. Sure, in the midst of a tight division race against a longstanding rival, they should probably have stood stoically as Martinez, instead of sitting down in the dugout like even he thought he deserved, drove in a run to give the Cardinals the lead. And this after sliders from the hand of Martinez were being called for strikes, and the same pitch from the and of Lackey were not---an issue that persisted even after Lackey was ejected from the game.
But it's also true that MLB has as much of a responsibility to protect its players---the real product on the field---as it does the men who make the calls. This decision is tilted too far in favor of the umpires, and it attempts to harness the emotions of the players in a way that hinders them.
Contreras is appealing, and the obvious hope for Cubs fans is that he wins this appeal, but it is already too late. The league failed him by putting him in this position at all.