FARMINGTON — Baseball is a game full of judgement calls.
With a Connie Mack World Series bid on the line, the stakes are even higher for umpires to get those calls correct. Every call comes under scrutiny, and when an umpire appears to miss one, it can stir controversy.
While in most cases a missed call is simply a mistake, Naa'taanii coaches believe it was more than mistakes that led to their team's 4-3 extra inning loss to 4-Corners on Saturday.
Naa'taanii head coach Dineh Benally and assistant coach Bobby Byrd allege the umpire crew — consisting of Farmington Amateur Baseball Congress Umpire-in-Chief Phil Salazar, Dave Toledo and Ray McCann — was biased against Naa'taanii in the loss. The coaches claim Toledo's inconsistent calls in the strike zone and incorrect calls on the base paths by Salazar and McCann cost them the game.
After the game, Naa'taanii filed a protest of the game's results. While the coaches have yet to decide what steps to take next, Benally did not rule out a lawsuit against the FABC. He said Naa'taanii is still weighing its legal options and hasn't made any formal decision on what action to take yet.
Benally provided The Daily Times screenshots of text messages that appear to be sent by Salazar to back up his claim.
The messages, which are dated June 14, are sent from a phone number matching Salazar's contact information on the FABC website. The texts instruct his umpires not to work a tournament hosted by Naa'taanii on June 18 to 21 at Ricketts Park or risk disciplinary action.
The messages state: "Next week tournament Jube (sic) 18th-21st that Dineh and and (sic) his group is putting on. This is a warning. None of our group umpires will help them out even if they get in a bind. If I find out a umpire(s) in our group is seen umping in this tournament, they will no longer umpire in the tri city. Its up to you, you can make your own choices. May be a little harsh but that's how I feel."
Benally said the text messages show Salazar and his crew couldn't have called an unbiased game because of their dislike of the Naa'taanii coach. He showed the text messages to FABC Connie Mack Division Vice President James Cordova and FABC Vice President Brad Campbell prior to the start of the Connie Mack City Tournament.
"They shouldn't have been out on the field," Benally said of the umpires. "When I showed Brad the texts, he informed me they would get out-of-town umps. They knew two or three weeks prior to the tournament."
Byrd also claims Cordova made a racist remark to him about Benally.
"Cordova said to me that (Benally) is the only one who complains about the umpires every year, and he's the only Navajo," Byrd said. "He's implying that Dineh only complains because he's Navajo."
Cordova declined to comment and referred all questions to FABC President Nick Chavez. Chavez declined to comment, citing concerns about the threat of a lawsuit.
Salazar declined to answer questions about the situation. He said two of his umpires — Delbert Thomas and Jim Ruybalid — worked Benally's tournament in June without any repercussions and were also allowed to umpire games during the city tournament. He said his crew is in no way biased against Naa'taanii.
"I have worked very hard through the years to get where I'm at to have my name bashed," Salazar said. "The group (of) umpires I have are good guys and umpire a good game all the way from the little Roberto (Clemente League) umpires to Connie Mack umpires. Yes, there might be a missed strike here or there or a close play that may not go the way others want, but let's face it, we're all human and umping isn't an easy job. But in the judgement of the umpires, I put full trust in them that they will umpire a game fairly."
Brett Alexander, head coach of 4-Corners and Aztec High, said it was more than a couple of questionable calls that cost Naa'taanii the game.
He described Naa'taanii's starting pitcher Victor Chavez as "effectively wild" and said Chavez's catcher — Felipe Senora — would try to "frame up" pitches on the inner half of the plate. When Chavez missed toward the outer half of the plate, Senora brought it back toward the inside, leading to the ball calls that Naa'taanii's staff disagreed with.
"The catcher was trying to frame up everything, and the umpires notice that," Alexander said. "You're not going to get those calls."
Alexander said his team also faced a questionable batter's interference call in Sunday's title game against Strike Zone.
Byrd, Naa'taanii's assistant coach, disagreed with Alexander's assessment of the calls and said Toledo was "squeezing" Chavez, forcing him to throw down the middle of the plate.
"He had no choice but to throw a meatball out there," Byrd said, following the loss on Saturday. "We've had this experience in the past when we get ahead of a team. We will start not getting calls on pitches. As the game gets closer, they'll start not making calls that have been fine throughout the game."
There were also two plays in the field — a Matt Martin bunt and Hayden Sill's walk-off ground out — that appeared to go against Naa'taanii.
Martin was called safe at first after a bunt when it appeared he was out by a step on the play. The Club Sox went on to score their first run of the game in the inning. Then Sill's walk-off ground out to first base appeared to have been fielded in foul ground but was ruled fair, bringing the game-winning run home from third base.
Alexander said poor positioning by Naa'taanii first baseman, Devin Ortiz, made the call on Sill's ground out a difficult one.
"He was standing in fair territory when he fielded it," Alexander said. "His glove was in foul ground, but he was standing in fair territory and that hurt him.
He said he spoke to Cordova after the game and told him the three umpires were "the best three we could ask for."
"They are the most seasoned, veteran umpires we have here," Alexander said. "At the end of the day, they're amateur umpires. Multiple times, (Naa'taanii) had runners in scoring position and didn't get the job done."
Questions also arose throughout the tournament about the eligibility of Naa'taanii player Brandon Detrick and whether the team met the requirement for local players.
Detrick was listed on the roster early in the season for Bloomfield before playing for Naa'taanii during the tournament, going 2-for-3 with an RBI and double in a 5-4 win against the Sting on Friday.
Normally, a player can't switch teams during the season, but there is a way for a coach to release a player to another team, said Nick Chavez, with the FABC.
The FABC is investigating whether Bloomfield and Naa'taanii went through the proper procedures to release Detrick to Naa'taanii's roster.
Cordova said Naa'taanii's master roster listed nine or 10 local players, but players quit or were dismissed throughout the year.
To be eligible for the Connie Mack City Tournament, a team must list at least nine local players from certain portions of the Four Corners on the master roster.
Naa'taanii's roster never featured more than six local players for any game during the city tournament.
Benally said he wasn't concerned with questions about his roster. And, he added, he followed the eligibility rules.
"They need to focus on the umpires," Benally said. "Anytime that comes up, they try to change the subject."