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Gregory HillisMay 30, 2024
San Diego Padres manager Andy Green, left, argues with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez on June 29, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The night before the official announcement was made, word spread on social media that Ángel Hernández—a Major League Baseball umpire infamous for his nebulous strike zone and ability to infuriate fans, players and managers alike—is retiring. The fact that one of the more controversial umpires in the history of baseball was leaving brought both rejoicing and jokes.

Multiple accounts tweeted some version of “This is the first correct call Hernández ever made.” “The end of an error,” Todd Radom, a jersey designer and frequent guest on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” podcast, tweeted. Another account wrote, “Angel Hernandez says he’s out, so we should take this with a grain of salt.” Even a company that promotes Lasik eye surgery joined in on the fun, tweeting “Imagine if the man just got Lasik.”

One need not look far online to find examples of Hernández’s inconsistencies as an umpire. Perhaps the most famous moment, broadcast to a national audience on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, was the time the Philadelphia Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber lost it on Hernández after being called for strike three on a pitch that was clearly outside the strike zone. Hernández had been calling those pitches strikes all game, and Schwarber had had enough.

Throwing his bat and helmet onto the ground, Schwarber marched up to Hernández: “You’ve been [expletive] horse-[expletive] the whole game,” he yelled before showing the umpire all the places off the plate where pitches had been called strikes. Schwarber was tossed from the game, and the manager of the Phillies at the time, Joe Girardi, calmly said to Hernández: “It’s just so bad, Ángel, it’s just so bad. You have to do better. You have to.”

As a fan of the game, I have always found such Hernández clips enjoyable and funny. On display was a level of incompetence that we so rarely encounter on such a public scale (at least outside Washington), and—let’s face it—our smug selves love watching other people fail. At least I do, if I’m being honest with myself.

But as I’ve watched these clips of Hernández’s public failures and read all the jokes and rejoicing in the wake of his retirement announcement, I have to admit to some significant pangs of conscience. What strikes me about all the clips is how vulnerable he looks as he is berated by the players and managers and booed by the crowds. There are some umpires who, when challenged, will get right in the face of the player or manager and give as good as they get. Although I’m sure Hernández must have done this at least once, he generally just stood and took the abuse, occasionally offering a mild response that did little else but infuriate the ones berating him.

I can’t help but wonder how it must feel right now to be so reviled and despised as incompetent that people are celebrating your retirement. But Hernández is not stupid. For years, he has been aware of what everyone thought of him. Former Cleveland manager Terry Francona once asked him after a particularly bad game, “Why’s it always happening when you’re here?” “Every year, it’s the same story,” Phillies player Bryce Harper said last year. If that’s what people were saying publicly, what were they saying to him privately?

Moreover, in 2017, Hernández—who was born in Cuba—sued Major League Baseball for racial discrimination because they refused to make him a crew chief and didn’t allow him to umpire in the World Series. MLB bluntly argued that race had nothing to do with it. Rather, the league pointed to various missed calls during his tenure, saying that Hernández needed to “gain greater mastery of the official playing rules and replay regulations, continue to improve situation management, and display an ability to refocus and move forward after missing calls or receiving constructive feedback from the office.” Hernández’s lawsuit was summarily dismissed. Ouch.

What must it feel like to take the field day in and day out, doing a job that you’ve worked your entire life to attain, knowing that everyone—from the fans in the seats to the broadcasters in the booths to the players in the dugouts—is waiting for you to fail because they believe you are a failure at the very thing you love doing? How must it feel to know that your bosses at Major League Baseball think so little of you that they’re willing to argue in open court that you’re terrible at your job? What must it be like to read all the reactions to your retirement in the media, most of which are reiterating just how little the profession thought of you?

All of this when, as he said in his public statement about his retirement, it was his childhood dream to umpire in the Major Leagues.

While I think the game of baseball is better off without Ángel Hernández as an umpire, I don’t think we’re better off as baseball fans or as people for disparaging and degrading a person so publicly. There’s a perverse joy that humans seem to take in celebrating others’ foibles and errors. It makes us feel better about ourselves.

However, it was precisely this attitude that Jesus condemned in his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” the Pharisee prays, “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Jesus would have none of this kind of hypocrisy. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

I think Ángel Hernández was not particularly good at being an umpire. But I know for a fact that I would perform even worse. Moreover, can we not think of times in our work or family lives—as well as in our spiritual lives—when we have made mistakes on a colossal scale? I can, and I thank God that my errors in judgment and action were not on display for the world to see. Instead, I thank God for the mercy shown to me by those affected by my errors.

For us diehard baseball fans, Ángel Hernández's retirement should not be a moment to revisit his past errors and sneer. Instead, it is a chance to express mercy in a world that, as Pope Francis reminds us, is in dire need of it.

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