The Angel of Doom, Retired

It's not impossible that the deep dive into the wherefore of Ángel Hernández by The Athletic's Sam Blum and Cody Stavenhagen was the pilot fish preparing for a major development involving baseball's arguable most controversial umpire. On Memorial Day, USA Today's Bob Nightengale broke it: Hernández, who hadn't worked a game since May 9, retired.

Nightengale had barely posted his story to X when all hell broke loose aboard the platform. At least 85-90 percent of it was in the happy-days-are-here-again mood. The rest was divided somewhat delicately among those who believe that the Angel of Doom hasn't been the absolute worst of his profession despite his knack for attention-getting and those who wonder whether baseball's umps aren't getting even a small dollop of a bum rap.

To say that a small majority of major league umpires are reasonably competent at their jobs isn't unfair. To say that those who aren't make it hell-if-you-do/hell-if-you-don't for those who are isn't unfair, either, especially when speaking of those umps who seem anxious to make themselves the focus. To say that there are those umpires who believe to their souls that they are the game itself is both troublesome and sobering.

Over long decades of baseball's labor struggling it became apparent to all but the witless that no fan had ever paid his or her hard-earned money to attend a major league baseball game in order to see a team's owner.* Over much of this century and a fair portion of the previous one's closing years, there's come wonder over whether some umpires, Hernández and his recently-retired patron Joe West included, think Joe and Jane Fan should be paying their hard-earned money to see them prove who is the game around here.

The long-time presumption was that the umpires were the proverbial adults in the room, keeping the heat-of-the-moment tempers among players, coaches, and managers from turning a baseball game into something equivalent to today's nursery school riot style of Congressional deliberation. But those who think too many umpires today have pioneered the concept of the ump as the game's supreme being should know that that isn't exactly a contemporary concept.

"I've heard it said that umpires are a necessary evil. Well, we're necessary but we're not evil," wrote the late Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey. "We're the backbone of the game, the game's judge, jury, and executioner. Without us, there's no game."

Harvey's career as a major league umpire went from the Kennedy presidency to the first Bush presidency. His professional and personal reputations remain enviable. But this is also the man who called the memoir from which I just quoted They Called Me God. Harvey's is a splendid memoir if you don't count one or two entries of patent nonsense. He thought the 1999 calamity — which he called a umpires strike, erroneously** — meant the arbiters "have given up all their autonomy out on the field. They have none."

But Harvey also observed that umpires are hired to be the best and then expected to be even better. Nobody but a fool or an AI programmer believes umpires can be absolutely perfect, but there have been and there are umpires who have a difficult if not impossible time accepting that they, too, are human enough to get it wrong and ought to be adult enough to own it when they do. Such umpires are prime evidence on behalf of the advent of Robby the Umpbot. Umpires such as Hernández make Robby's advent a question of when, not if.

Hernández has had a game-wide reputation for rejecting both his own humanness on the job and the ownership of his errors, which have been abundant enough. Once upon a time, in 2017, he even sued baseball's government over his lack of World Series assignments and promotion to crew chief on the nebulous grounds of his ethnicity. (He is a Cuban-American, born in Havana, but raised from infancy in Florida.)

He worked only two World Series prior to his ill-fated suit (2002, 2005) and only three postseason sets (division series in 2018, 2020, and 2021) after first filing it. (He once blew three calls, all overturned on review, in the first four innings of a 2018 division series game between the Yankees and the Red Sox, costing himself one World Series chance.) Named an interim crew chief on one or two occasions, he blew it in June 2019 after staying on the line to eavesdrop upon another umpire's interview with baseball leadership over a 20-minute game delay involving a rules dispute.

For too much of his career the Angel of Doom gave the appearance that, whenever he faltered or failed, his likely stance was that it was either God's will or somebody else's fault. (His broad smile, which resembled a smirk too often, probably contributed to that, too.) This was so especially over his strike zone behind the plate. You have got to be kidding me! hollered Rangers broadcaster Dave Raymond in April, after Hernández called strike three on a pitch to Wyatt Langford that was wide enough outside to let a cruise missile pass through without scraping its sides.

Yet Blum and Stavenhagen also described a side to Hernández too fully obscured by his longtime professional reputation. The side that portrays a man who came up the hard way, is a good and loyal friend, a good and loyal husband and father, heavily and sincerely involved in charity work involving disabled children. A man you'd like to call a friend so long as he's kept away from umpiring your game.

The finest professionals can be found wanting as people, even as the finest people can be found wanting as professionals. Umpire Auditor has rated Hernández between 60 and 70 out of 85-90 umpires in any given season. That would mean Hernández wasn't the absolute worst of his profession. But it begs the question of why he so often seemed going out of his way to engage avoidable incidents that Blum and Stavenhagen described as "paint[ing] a portrait of an umpire who's played a major role in establishing his own villainous reputation."

The early news of Hernández's retirement included that he and baseball government reached a financial settlement to speed his retirement. The Angel of Doom, who'd worn out his welcome with fans, players, coaches, and managers long, long before, might finally have worn it out with baseball's powers that be.

The social media celebrations of his departure asked, mostly implicitly but often directly, what took so long.

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* The exceptions include 1980s Yankee fans fed up with George Steinbrenner's tyrannically impulsive and dehumanizing act, 1990s Reds fans who'd had it up to there with Marge Schott's carelessness and bigotry, 2010s Met fans fed up with Fred and Jeff Wilpon's malcompetence, and today's Athletics fans wishing John Fisher would sell the team he wants to hijack to Las Vegas, when not wishing to commit manslaughter upon him.

** The 1999 calamity that destroyed the original Major League Umpires Association wasn't the strike Harvey called it. It was an ill-conceived, brain-damaged mass resignation — and a flagrant end-run around the no-strike clause in their collective contract.

It was devised by MLUA leader Richie Phillips, when the commissioner's office actually sought to develop a degree of umpire accountability. It destroyed several umps' careers and the old union, which was decertified in favor of the umps forming what's now the World Umpires Association. You can get the complete story here.

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