Does lightning-rod umpire Angel Hernandez deserve his villainous reputation?


Standing at second base, Adam Rosales knew. So did the fans watching on TV and the ticket holders in the left-field bleachers. They knew what crew chief umpire Angel Hernandez should have known.

This was May 8, 2013, the game in which Hernandez became baseball’s most notorious umpire. He’d made many notable calls before this, and he’s certainly had plenty since. But this particular miss did more than any other to establish the current prevailing narrative: That he’s simply bad at his job.

Rosales, a light-hitting journeyman infielder for the A’s, did the improbable, crushing a game-tying solo homer with two outs in the ninth in Cleveland. The ball clearly ricocheted off a barrier above the yellow line. But it was ruled in play. The homer was obvious to anyone who watched a replay.

“All of my teammates were saying, ‘Homer, homer!’” Rosales recently recalled. “And then (manager) Bob Melvin’s reaction was pretty telling. The call was made. Obviously it was big.”

Back in 2013, there was no calling a crew in a downtown New York bunker for an official ruling. The umpires, led by Hernandez, huddled, and then exited the field to look for themselves.

After a few minutes, Hernandez emerged. He pointed toward second base. Rosales, befuddled, stayed where he was. The A’s never scored the tying run.

That moment illustrates the two viewpoints out there about Angel Hernandez, the game’s most polarizing and controversial umpire.

If you ask Hernandez, or those close to him, they’ll point to the cheap and small replay screens that rendered reviews nearly worthless. Plus, there were other umpires in the review — why didn’t they correct it? In this scenario, it was just another chapter in this misunderstood man’s career.

Then there’s the other perspective: This was obviously a home run, critical to the game, and as crew chief, he should have seen it. Hernandez, even in 2013, had a history of controversy. He had earned no benefit of the doubt. MLB itself said in a court filing years later, during Hernandez’s racial discrimination lawsuit against the league, that this incident, and Hernandez’s inability to move past it, prevented him from getting World Series assignments.

In this scenario, Hernandez only reinforced the negative perception of him held by many around the sport.

He has brought much of it on himself over his long career. Like the time he threw the hat of then-Dodgers first base coach Mariano Duncan into the stands following an argument in 2006. Or, in 2001, when he stared down ex-Chicago Bears football player Steve McMichael at a Cubs game after McMichael used the seventh-inning stretch pulpit to criticize Hernandez.

On their own, these avoidable incidents would be forgotten like the thousands of other ejections or calls that have come and gone. But together, they paint a portrait of an umpire who’s played a major role in establishing his own villainous reputation.

“I think he’s stuck in, like, a time warp, you know,” Mets broadcaster and former pitcher Ron Darling told The New York Times last year. “He’s stuck being authoritarian in a game that rarely demands it anymore.”

“Angel is bad,” said then-Rangers manager Ron Washington in 2011. “That’s all there is to it. … I’m gonna get fined for what I told Angel. And they might add to it because of what I said about Angel. But, hey, the truth is the truth.”

“I don’t understand why he’s doing these games,” former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said in 2018 after Hernandez had three calls overturned in one postseason game “…He’s always bad. He’s a bad umpire.”

“He needs to find another job,” four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler said in August of 2017, “he really does.”

Those who know Hernandez, and have worked with him, tend to love him. They say he’s genuine, that he checks up on his friends and sends some of them daily religious verses. That he cares about calling the game right, and wishes the vitriolic criticism would dissipate. They point to data that indicates Hernandez is not as bad as his reputation suggests.

Or at the very least, they view him in a more nuanced light than the meme that he’s become.

“Managers and umpires are alike,” said soon-to-be Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland. “You can get out of character a bit when you have a tough situation on the field. I think we all get out of character a little bit. But I’ve always gotten along fine with Angel.”

But those who only know his calls see an ump with a large and inconsistent strike zone. Someone who makes the game about him. Someone who simply gets calls wrong at far too high a clip.

With Hernandez, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Major League Baseball declined an interview request for Hernandez, and declined to comment for this article.

“Anybody that says he’s the worst umpire in baseball doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” said Joe West, who has umpired more games than anyone ever, and has himself drawn plenty of criticism over the years.

“He does his job the right way. Does he make mistakes? Yes. But we all do. We’re not perfect. You’re judging him on every pitch. And the scrutiny on him is not fair.”

Of course, even West understands that he might not be the best person to make Hernandez’s case. “As soon as you write that Joe West says he’s a good umpire,” he said, “you’re going to get all kinds of heat.”

Angel Hernandez is perhaps the best-known umpire in Major League Baseball — and the most criticized. (Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

Hernandez’s family moved from Cuba to Florida when he was 14 months old in the early 1960s. His late father, Angel Hernandez Sr., ran a Little League in Hialeah. At 14 years old, the younger Hernandez played baseball in the Hialeah Koury League, and umpired others when his games finished. At his father’s urging, Hernandez went on to the Bill Kinnamon Umpiring School, where he was the youngest of 134 students. He finished first in the class.

When he was 20 years old, Hernandez was living out of a suitcase, making $900 a month as he traveled up and down the Florida State League. It was a grind. Each night, he’d ump another game alongside his partner, Joe Loughran.

The two drove in Loughran’s ’79 Datsun. They shared modest meals and rooms at Ramada Inns. They’d sit by the pool together.

“There was a real camaraderie there, which was a lucky thing because that’s not always the case,” Loughran said. “Maybe you have a partner who isn’t as friendly or compatible, but that was not an issue.”

Hernandez did this for more than a decade. He drove up to 30,000 miles each season. He worked winter jobs in construction and security and even had a stint as a disc jockey. He didn’t come from money and didn’t have many fallback options.

“He was very genuine through and through,” said Loughran, who soon left the profession. “(He) knew how to conduct himself, which is half of what it takes.”

But even then, Hernandez umpired with a flair that invited blowback. Rex Hudler, now a Royals broadcaster, has told a story about Hernandez ejecting nearly half his team. Players had been chirping at Hernandez, and after he issued a warning to the dugout, they put athletic tape over their mouths to mock him. Hernandez tossed the whole group.

By the time Hernandez was calling Double-A games across the Deep South, he was accustomed to vitriol from fans, including for reasons that had nothing to do with baseball.

“I remember my name over the public address, and the shots fans would take. ‘Green card.’ ‘Banana Boat,” Hernandez said in a Miami Herald article. “Those were small hick towns. North Carolina. Alabama. These were not good places to be an umpire named Angel Hernandez.”

In 1991, he finally got an MLB opportunity. This was his dream, and as Loughran said, he achieved it on “blood and guts.” But once he got to the majors, it didn’t take long for controversy to follow.

Take the July 1998 game when a red-faced Bobby Valentine, then the Mets manager, ran out of the dugout to scream at Hernandez.

Valentine claims he knew before the game even started on this July 1998 afternoon that Hernandez would have a big zone. He said he had been told that Hernandez had to catch a flight later that day — the final game before the All-Star break. Valentine’s message to his team that day was to swing, because Hernandez would look for any reason to call you out.

“He sure as heck doesn’t want to miss the plane,” Valentine recalled recently. “I’m kind of feeling for him in the dugout. You miss the flight, and have to spend a night in Atlanta. Probably miss a vacation.”

As luck would have it, the game went extras, the Mets battling the division-rival Braves in the 11th inning. Michael Tucker tagged up on a fly ball to left. The ball went to Mike Piazza at the plate, and Tucker was very clearly out.

That is, to everyone except Hernandez, who called him safe to end the game.

Valentine acknowledges now that he likes Hernandez as a person. Most of their interactions have been friendly. On that day, Valentine let Hernandez hear it.

“He didn’t mind telling you, ‘take a f—ing hike. Get out of my face,’ that type of thing,” Valentine said. “Where other guys might stand there and take it until you’re out of breath. He didn’t mind adding color to the situation.”

It’s not a coincidence that Hernandez often finds himself at the center of it all. He seems to invite it.

He infamously had a back-and-forth with Bryce Harper last season after Hernandez said the MVP went around on what was clearly a check swing.

Harper was incensed. But Hernandez appeared to respond by telling him, “You’ll see” — a cocky retort when the video would later show that it was, in fact, Hernandez who was wrong.

“It’s just bad. Just all around,” Harper later told the local media. “Angel in the middle of something again. Every year. It’s the same story. Same thing.”

In 2020, there was a similar check swing controversy. Hernandez ruled that Yankees first baseman Mike Ford went around. Then he called him out on strikes on a pitch inside.

Even in the messiest arguments with umpires, the tone and tenor rarely get personal. But Hernandez seems to engender a different type of fight.

“That’s f—ing bull—-,” then-Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin yelled. “We all know you don’t want to be here anyway.”

Plenty of fans might understand why Nevin would feel that way. When Hernandez is behind the plate, it can seem that anything might be a strike.

Early this season, Wyatt Langford watched three consecutive J.P. France pitches land well off the outside corner — deep into the lefty batter’s box. None of the pitches to the Rangers rookie resembled a strike.

“You have got to be kidding me,” said Dave Raymond, the incensed Texas broadcaster. “What in the world?”

When it comes to egregious calls, it feels as though Hernandez is the biggest culprit. But is he the game’s worst umpire? The answer to that, statistically, is no.

According to Dylan Yep, who founded and runs Umpire Auditor since 2014, he’s ranked as the 60th to 70th best umpire, out of 85-to-90, in any given season.

“It sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and there’s also a lot of confirmation bias,” Yep said. “When he does make a mistake, everyone is immediately tweeting about it. Everybody is tagging me. If I’m not tweeting something about it, there are a dozen other baseball accounts that will.

“Every single thing he does is scrutinized and then spread across the internet in a matter of 30 seconds.”

Even on April 12, the night he called Langford out on strikes, two other umpires had less accurate games behind the plate. Only Hernandez became a laughingstock on social media.

Yep finds Hernandez’s performances to be almost inexplicable. He’ll call a mostly normal game, Yep said, with the exception of one or two notably odd decisions — which inevitably draw attention his way.

“He consistently ends up in incredibly odd scenarios,” Yep said, “and he seems to make incorrect calls in bizarre scenarios.”

Many of his colleagues have come to his defense over the years. After Kinsler made those aforementioned comments in 2017, umpires across the game wore white wristbands as a show of solidarity against the league’s decision not to suspend him.

Longtime umpire Ted Barrett recently posted a heartfelt defense of Hernandez on Facebook.

“He is one of the kindest men I have ever known,” Barrett wrote. “His love for his friends is immense, his love for his family is even greater. … His mistakes are magnified and sent out to the world, but his kind deeds are done in private.”

A confluence of factors have put umpires in a greater spotlight. Replay reviews overturning calls. Strike zone graphics on every broadcast. Independent umpire scorecards on social media, which Hernandez’s defenders contend are not fully accurate.

It’s all contributed, they argue, to Hernandez being the face of bad umpiring, even if it’s not deserved.

“He’s very passionate about the job, and very passionate about doing what’s right, frankly,” longtime umpire Dale Scott said. “That’s not true — the perception that he doesn’t care. That just doesn’t resonate with me.”

Still, Hernandez generally does not interact well in arguments. And his actions, including quick or haphazard ejections, don’t de-escalate those situations.

These interactions were likely a significant reason Hernandez lost the lawsuit that he filed against MLB in 2017. He alleged that he was passed over for a crew chief position and desirable postseason assignments because of his race.

The basis for the suit was a belief that MLB’s executive VP for baseball operations Joe Torre had a vendetta against Hernandez. The suit also pointed to a lack of diversity in crew chief positions, and attorneys cited damaging deposition testimony from MLB director of umpiring Randy Marsh, who spoke about recruiting minority umpires to the profession. “The problem is, yeah, they want the job,” Marsh said, “but they want to be in the big leagues tomorrow, and they don’t want to go through all of that.”

MLB contended in its response that “Hernandez has been quick to eject managers, which inflames on-field tensions, rather than issue warnings that potentially could defuse those situations. Hernandez has also failed to communicate with other umpires on his crew, which has resulted in confusion on the field and unnecessary game delays.”

The league also said his internal evaluations consistently said he was “attempting to put himself in the spotlight.”

Essentially, MLB contended that Hernandez wasn’t equipped to handle a promotion — and because of that, and only that, he wasn’t promoted. A United States district judge agreed and granted a summary judgment in MLB’s favor.

Hernandez’s lawyer, Kevin Murphy, says the lawsuit still led to positive developments in the commissioner’s office. “That’s another thing that Angel can keep in his heart,” Murphy said. “The changes, not only with getting more opportunities for minority umpires. But he changed the commissioner’s office. Nobody’s going to give him credit for that.”

Despite its criticism of Hernandez, the league has almost no recourse to fire him, or any other umpire it feels is underperforming. The union is powerful. There are mechanisms in place, such as improvement courses, which can be required to help address deficiencies.

Even Hernandez’s performance reviews, though, paint a conflicting portrait. From 2002 to 2010, according to court documents, Hernandez received “meets standard” or “exceeds standard” ratings in all components of his performance evaluations from the league. From 2011-16, Hernandez received only one “does not meet” rating.

His 2016 year-end evaluation, however, did hint at the oddities that can accompany Hernandez’s umpiring. “You seem to miss calls in bunches,” the league advised Hernandez.

But for better or worse, the league and its fans are stuck with Hernandez for as long as he wants the job.

Criticism comes with the job, but players haven been particular vocal in expressing their issues with Hernandez (right, with the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber in 2022). (Bill Streicher / USA Today Sports)

Hernandez isn’t on social media. By all accounts, he doesn’t pay much attention to the perpetual flow of frustration directed his way.

But, according to his lawyer, there are people close to Hernandez who feel the impact.

“What hurts him the most,” Murphy said, “is the pain that his two daughters and his wife go through when they know it’s so unbelievably undeserved.”

“I think it bothers him that his family has to put up with it,” West said. “He’s such a strong-character person; he doesn’t let the media affect him.”

It’s not only other umpires who have defended him. Take Homer Bailey, the former Reds pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 2012. Hernandez, the third-base umpire that night, asked for some signed baseballs following Bailey’s achievement. Bailey agreed, without issue. Hernandez would receive his one “does not meet” rating on his year-end evaluation because of it. But Bailey said the entire thing was innocuous.

“He didn’t ask for more than any of the other umpires,” Bailey said. “…Maybe there are some things he could do on his end to kind of tamp it down. But there’s also some things that get blown out of proportion.”

Hernandez is a public figure in a major professional sport, and criticism is baked into officiating. But how much of it is justified?

Leyland will turn 80 years old this year — just a few months after his formal Hall of Fame induction. His interactions with Hernandez are long in the past.

With that age, and those 22 years as a skipper, has come some perspective.

“A manager, half the games, he has the home crowd behind him. Normally, you’ve got a home base,” Leyland said. “The umpire doesn’t have a home base. He’s a stranger. He’s on the road every night. He doesn’t have a hometown.

“We all know they miss calls. But we also all know that when you look at all the calls that are made in a baseball season by the umpires, they’re goddamn good. They’re really good at what they do.”

Leyland has found what so few others have been able to: A nuanced perspective on Hernandez.

For almost everyone else, that seems to be impossible.

The Athletic’s Chad Jennings contributed to this story

(Top image: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: Jamie Squire / Getty Images; Jason O. Watson / Getty Images; Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images)

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