When Derek Jeter got called out on an attempted steal of third base on Monday afternoon, it really didn't seem like that big of a deal. Sure, it was a close play, but bad calls will happen and life goes on. Jeter argued, a bit more strenously than we're used to seeing and Joe Girardi got ejected, but there still didn't seem like anything all that significant.
Then Jeter revealed that umpire Marty Foster told him that he was out because the ball beat him, a ridiculous fabrication of a rule that doesn't exist, and the story got some legs. The umpire crew chief John Hirschbeck first seemed to back up Jeter but then said that Foster told Jeter that the ball beat him and he was tagged. Jeter responded to that on Wednesday.
"He didn't say that," Jeter said. "I know what he said and he didn't say that. I don't see why the story is still going on, but he didn't say that. There's no possibility I misheard what he said. Zero."
Well, obviously the story is still going on because Jeter's still talking about it and because it has now gone beyond a simple case of a bad call. A player is accusing an umpire of both applying a made-up rule and of lying about that rule, something that has to be dealt with by Major League Baseball. And dealing with it means that either Jeter or Foster has to be punished.
It's a difficult call, but that's the corner that the league office has been painted into by the tenor of the conversations and because Jeter isn't seen by the general public as just any player. If they fine Jeter, they're backing up an umpire whose own crew chief initially deemed capable of making up rules on the fly and/or being needlessly confrontational with a player to spark an umpire. That sends a message that umpires can do whatever they want on the field without any repercussions, a dangerous precedent to set.
If they discipline Foster, it would strike a blow against the confrontational style of umpiring that has seemed to be picking up of late. After the umpire's union failed in their 1999 power grab, there was a noticable drop in the amount of arguments touched off by freelancing umps picking fights. That's a positive for baseball, and a return to those days is not advisable.
Having Jeter as the face of the players in this dispute makes it harder to dismiss his claims out of hand, and makes it harder for the league to try and just let everything blow over. Jeter certainly didn't intend all of this when he argued that call on Monday, but things take on a life of their own sometime. Just ask the guy who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.