Replay won’t correct incompetent umpiring

31 10 2009

Umpires make horrible calls in the World Series, just like they do in the regular season. And champions keep on playing and win their championships.

Thursday’s World Series game included two bad calls at first base. And the umpiring didn’t affect the outcome of the game at all. The Yankees just kept taking care of business. They didn’t need the extra runs they might have scored in the seventh inning. And Mariano Rivera would have gotten another out if the umpires hadn’t helped him in the eighth.

The most famous bad World Series call that I can remember is Don Denkinger’s blown call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, calling Jorge Orta of the Kansas City Royals (back when they were a perennial contender) safe at first leading off the ninth inning. St. Louis Cardinals fans lament that call decades later and still think they lost the 1985 World Series because of that call.

But here’s the truth: Bad calls happen and they generally even out, and they seldom have a bigger influence on the outcome than bad (and good) plays.

Earlier in Game 6 of 1985, the Royals’ Lonnie Smith was called out on a close play at second base. Replays clearly showed he was safe. That’s a tough call and umpires sometimes miss it. And the next batter got a single. The speedy Smith would have scored and the Royals would have scored their first run. Who knows how that would have affected the flow of the game, but it certainly would have given the Royals at least a tie long before the ninth.

And in the ninth, the Cardinals blew a catchable pop foul, gave up a single to strikeout-prone Steve Balboni and threw a wild pitch. Then, of course, they gave up the pinch single to Dane Iorg that Royals fans (I lived in KC then and the Royals are my second-favorite team) will always remember.

The winning run scored with one out. So you can’t say that cost the Cardinals the Series. Their lost composure (and the Royals’ scrapping) cose the Cardinals that game, which only tied the Series.

The Cardinals continued losing their composure the next day, giving the Royals a comeback Series win.

That was nowhere near the worst call of all time, even in baseball or even in World Series play. At best, it was a tie for the worst call of that game. It became a bad call because of the whining of Cardinals fans and because the media embraced the whining of Cardinals fans.

Bad calls are a part of baseball. Champions play through them and win.

That doesn’t mean we should continue to accept bad calls. It’s time for instant replay. But more than that, it’s time (past time, actually) for baseball to evaluate umpires and punish incompetence.

Umpires will always blow some bang-bang first-base calls. You have to see the ball going into the glove and the foot hitting the bag at the same instant, and those two events are eight feet apart. Denkinger blew that call in ’85 and Brian Gorman blew it in Game 2 this year (calling Chase Utley out on an eighth-inning double play that should have been a force out). But both umpires were in place to the make the call and called it as they saw it.

But the call on Johnny Damon’s short hop to Ryan Howard was a matter of incompetence by Gorman. He was behind Howard and couldn’t possibly see whether Howard short-hopped the ball or caught it cleanly. He should have asked the home-plate umpire (or possibly third base) for help. Except he didn’t need help. Howard showed what happened by throwing to second base.

Jorge Posada, a slow runner, was already well on his way to second base. If Howard caught that cleanly, his move would have been to trot to first for the unassisted double play. Now, if he does go to first (he  did take a step or two toward first before firing wildly to second), the umpire can’t be sure what happened. Maybe Howard caught the ball cleanly. Maybe he just thinks he caught the ball cleanly. Maybe he’s trying to game the umpires into thinking he caught the ball cleanly. Maybe he’s going to first to get Damon for the sure out and then go to second to see if they can catch Posada, rather than hoping to double up the speedy Damon.

But Howard’s throw to second base could mean only one thing: Howard short-hopped the ball and he knew it. Umpires who couldn’t get that call right in the first instance, and especially after huddling, are incompetent and should not be calling major-league baseball, let alone the World Series.

We saw the same thing in the playoffs, when Tim McClelland, long despised by players and fans for his slow, deliberate strike calls, called Nick Swisher out for failing to tag up at third base on a fly ball. Again, the replays clearly showed Swisher did not leave third base early. More important, the replays showed McClelland wasn’t even looking at Swisher and wasn’t in position to see both the catch and the runner’s departure.

McClelland later said he didn’t believe the replay “because in my heart I had him leaving too soon.”

Umpires who call plays they didn’t see based on their hearts or guesses or assumptions are incompetent and should be suspended or fired.

McClelland did admit blowing another incompetent call, when Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano were tagged, both clearly off third base, in a horrible base-running play, but McClelland again wasn’t paying attention to whether runners were actually on the base. (That was the 10-1 Yankees’ win, so the calls didn’t make any difference.)

Of course, the Swisher call wiped out a bad call by Dale Scott at second, where Swisher had clearly been picked off. And Gorman’s call on Utley sort of offset his horrible call the inning before (not that Joe Buck remembered that when he called it a “huge” mistake). So bad calls do eventually even out. But if umpires are actually doing make-up calls, the incompetence is worse than I thought.

Baseball needs to make the no-brainer call here (and baseball’s leadership certainly has the equipment for a no-brainer call): Instant replay for post-season play at least on safe-out calls on the basepaths and for caught-trapped calls. And baseball needs to fire or discipline umpires who consistently make calls based on their hearts.

And teams need to play through the bad calls and win championships.

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3 responses

12 12 2009
befulgale

Oh my god enjoyed reading your article. I added your rss to my google reader!!

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7 04 2010
Our community engagement team is taking shape « Pursuing the Complete Community Connection

[…] favorite team). Don Denkinger, by the way, didn’t cost the Cardinals that World Series; they blew it and the Royals beat them fair and […]

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2 11 2013
Wrapping up the 2013 season: Congrats to Red Sox, Mo, Pettitte | Hated Yankees

[…] champions shake off the bad calls and the tough calls, as I’ve noted before here (and as the Yankees didn’t do after that Arroyo-A-Rod call in 2004). Game 3 was the last […]

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