A bad call didn’t ‘rob’ the Cardinals of the 1985 World Series

27 10 2015

replayI generally write about matters of media accuracy on my journalism blog, The Buttry Diary (occasionally picking on the New York Times). But I’m addressing this matter in my baseball blog because it’s as much a matter of baseball legend as a failure of accuracy by the New York Times.

The Times published an otherwise good (and, I presume, accurate) story by Billy Witz about instant replay in baseball that includes this sentence, in which I have italicized the passage that is absolutely inaccurate (but I don’t expect the Times to correct it):

And so, it seems, baseball will never have to worry about controversies like Don Denkinger’s call at first base that robbed the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1985 World Series or Jim Joyce’s missed call at first that foiled Armando Galarraga’s perfect game in 2010.

Before I elaborate on the Don Denkinger call, I should note that I blogged on The Buttry Diary, including a call for instant replay, about the Jim Joyce missed call.

But, as the Kansas City Royals embark tonight on their second World Series since the Denkinger call, and since the Times was inaccurate on that point, I will focus here on Denkinger: Of course he missed the call at first base, calling pinch-hitter Jorge Orta safe, leading off the ninth inning of Game Six of the 1985 World Series, 30 years ago today. Bad call, no one’s arguing that, including Royals fans or Denkinger.

Here’s the pre-replay truth about umpiring: In real time at full speed, it’s almost impossible to see which happens first on bang-bang plays: the ball hitting the glove or the foot hitting the bag about eight feet away. Human eyes can focus one place, but not both, and the action happens fast. Umpires get the call right the vast majority of the time, but that call gets blown probably more often than any call in baseball, except balls and strikes. Plays at first base accounted for 32 percent of replay reviews this year.

And the blown call at first base — either way — usually is not that big a deal. Maybe a bad call breaks up a perfect game, but unless the tying run scores when the guy at first should have been the final out of an inning, a bad call at first can’t rob you of the World Series. A bad call at home, yes. A bad call on whether a ball was a homer or a foul ball, absolutely, especially with men on base. But a bad call that puts the leadoff man on first base requires at least one more event — usually two — to result in a run.

If it’s the ninth inning and you have a one-run lead, you need to give up a home run or have multiple things happen to lose the game. The umpire has just let the tying run get on first base. Either mistakes by the defensive team or hitters beating pitchers need to account for seven more bases before this one base even contributes to losing the series. It can’t possibly rob a team of the World Series. The Cardinals got robbed of one base and the Royals needed eight bases to extend the World Series to a seventh game.

Bad calls are part of baseball. As I noted in a post about 1985’s Game Six last year, the Royals got robbed in the fourth inning of Game Six — the same game when Denkinger blew his call — when Frank White stole second and slid in ahead of the tag by Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith. Replays clearly showed White was safe (as former Cardinal catcher and broadcaster Tim McCarver, a longtime Cardinal homer, noted). White would have scored easily on the Pat Sheridan single that followed.

The White call was bigger than the Orta call on multiple levels:

  • The blown call on White involved a runner in scoring position, not just at first base.
  • If you replayed the two innings without the bad calls (as much as you can do that), the Royals definitely score in the fourth. The Cardinals would have given up the tying run with two outs. The only out after the bad call was on a sacrifice bunt that wouldn’t have taken place if the Royals had an out. Even if Denkinger makes that call right, the Cardinals needed two more outs to win the game, and they didn’t get them.
  • If the Royals lost the game because of the bad call against them, they lost the Series. The Cardinals had another shot in Game Seven (more on that later).

The next team to win a World Series without overcoming a bad call will be the first.

Players don’t play perfectly. Managers don’t manage perfectly. Umpires don’t call games perfectly. Champions are the teams that overcome their own mistakes and mistakes by the umpires. Champions are teams that make opponents pay for their mistakes and take advantage of umpires’ mistakes. Losers too often blame someone else rather than accepting defeat gracefully and accountably. The 1985 Cardinals and their fans were perhaps the worst ever at accepting their team’s role in their own defeat. And the Cardinals might be the sports media’s favorite baseball team — at least one of the four or five favorites — so the sports media helped cement the legend of the Cardinals being robbed.

With White’s potential run erased, the Royals trailed 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, with Cardinals relief ace Todd Worrell coming in to close the game and, they hoped, the Series, which St. Louis led 3-2.

The bad call placed the tying run on first base. That’s all it did. For the Royals to tie the game, the Cardinals had to let that guy score. For the Royals to win the game that inning, the Cardinals had to let another guy get on base and score. Here’s what the Cardinals did in the ninth inning of Game Six, each of which mattered more than Denkinger’s blown call:

  • First baseman Jack Clark misjudged a catchable pop foul by Steve Balboni, who followed Orta at the plate. Bonesy would have been the first out of the inning, even with the blown call.
  • Instead, Worrell gave up a ground-ball single to Balboni, putting the potential winning run on base with no help from Denkinger. And, of course, the Balboni hit moved the tying run into scoring position.
  • After Jim Sundberg bunted into a force play at third base (he wouldn’t have bunted if either or both of the Orta or Balboni outs had been recorded), Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter allowed the runners to advance anyway on a passed ball, placing the winning run, for which Denkinger had no responsibility, in scoring position.
  • Worrell gave up a single to Dane Iorg, the fourth pinch-hitter of the inning (Darryl Motley was introduced as a pinch-hitter leading off the ninth, but Orta hit for him after a pitching change, and the Cardinals intentionally walked pinch-hitter Hal McRae after the passed ball).

In that inning, the Cardinals didn’t face George Brett or any of the Royals’ most dangerous hitters, except McRae, who didn’t get a chance to hit.  If you replay the inning with Orta being called out, the Royals’ dangerous top of the order would have been coming up in a tie game with runners on base.

There truly have to be dozens of bad World Series calls that were more consequential than the Denkinger call. It wasn’t even the most consequential bad call in that game. The bad calls in that game evened themselves out, as they usually do. The Denkinger call was dwarfed in importance in that inning by a botched pop foul, a passed ball and the closer’s failure to retire two batters who hit less than .250 in the regular season.

Moving to more recent Royals history, a home plate umpire in the Blue Jays series this year made an awful call against a Royal pitcher. Replays clearly showed the ball was in the strike zone and the batter failed to check his swing. But you play on. Later in the series, Wade Davis got a generous call on a strike (it wasn’t even strike three, but Davis later struck the batter out) that was outside. I don’t remember the umpires or the batters, and only remember one of the pitchers, because most bad calls aren’t big deals and they even out over the course of a game or a series.

Back to 1985: Remember, this wasn’t Game Seven. A truly consequential bad call in Game Six can only rob a team of a World Series if that’s the final game of the Series. The Cardinals, if they were truly championship material, had another chance to win the next day. But they completely melted down in an 11-0 blowout that confirmed for the whole world outside St. Louis that the Royals were the true and legitimate champions that year. Every one of those 11 runs the Cardinals gave up in Game Seven, and their failure to get more than five hits off Bret Saberhagen were all bigger factors in the outcome of the World Series than the Denkinger call.

But baseball legends don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. And Cardinals fans — the “best fans in baseball,” as they like to keep telling us — have whined about that call for 30 years now. So the legend has become accepted as fact: Don Denkinger robbed the Cardinals of the 1985 World Series.

Legends are preferable to accountability for some teams and fans.

Don’t look for a correction in the New York Times, but here’s how that paragraph should have read:

And so, it seems, baseball will never have to worry about controversies like Don Denkinger’s call at first base that started the Kansas City Royals’ comeback win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series or Jim Joyce’s missed call at first that foiled Armando Galarraga’s perfect game in 2010.

That’s a factually accurate description of the importance of the call. I’ll send a copy of this blog post to the Times’ Standards Editor. Will update if the Times corrects. But don’t count on it.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Steve Fehr for an email that called the Times’ error to my attention and for making some of the same points I’ve made here in our Twitter direct-message exchange. Update: Steve corrected my memory on the score of Game Seven: It was 11-0, not 10-0, as I originally wrote. My memory from 30 years ago failed me on that, and I should have double-checked. But I double-checked all the Game Six details. They were right, and Denkinger’s role in the inning was a minor as I noted.

As Steve notes, Missouri sports fans have some history with actually being robbed by officials:

Watch the ninth inning of Game Six here:

Watch all of Game Six here:

Focusing on the Royals again

Most of the time, this blog focuses on the New York Yankees, my favorite baseball team. But the Royals are my sons’ favorite team (I took them to the park regularly when we lived in Kansas City in the 1980s). I grew some fondness for the Royals myself while watching them (though I always cheered for the visiting team when the Yankees were in town). And I have even more fondness for my sons than for the Yankees. So last October, the Royals pretty much took over my blog for all of the post-season. I may blog another time or two this World Series (depends on what happens and whether I get inspired). But here’s a review of last year’s posts about the Royals and their run to the World Series (and almost a championship):

Guest post: Tom Buttry reflects on his life (and last night) as a Royals fan

The Kansas City Royals’ amazing 9-game post-season winning streak

Keeping a 29-year-old promise, I’m headed to the World Series

Decades of Royals (Kauffman) Stadium memories

Kansas City Royals’ ‘all-lost years’ team

Game Two was worth the wait for my sons and me

A team of the best who played for Yankees and Royals

Final thoughts on the Royals and Giants and the 2014 season





11 responses

27 10 2015
Stephen Fehr

To underscore the point, recall Game Six of the ALCS. Royals closer Wade Davis allowed a leadoff single and walk. Two runners on in a one-run game, no outs. Worse situation than what Worrell faced with a runner on first, no out. What are closers supposed to do in those situations? You close the game. If you’re Worrell, you get Balboni to pop up. He did that and the ball was not caught. So you get Balboni to do that again or hit into a double play. Instead Balboni gets a single, advancing the runner. That set the stage for the walkoff. Whitey Herzog left the Royals in part, he said, because they wouldn’t get him a closer. St. Louis got him one and Worrell blew the series. Contrast that with Wade Davis, who did what closers are supposed to do when facing adversity. You get three outs.


27 10 2015
Steve Buttry

Absolutely. This way the Royals don’t have to whine for decades about being robbed by a rain delay.


28 10 2015
In late and extra innings, the Royals win again and again | Hated Yankees

[…] a strong, but distant, tradition of late-inning excellence from a generation ago that includes the Game Six comeback in the 1985 World Series and George Brett’s memorable 1980 homer against Goose Gossage, trailing 2-1 and giving the […]


30 10 2015
Were the 1986 Red Sox better than the 2015 Royals? | Hated Yankees

[…] in the trash-talking spirit of good friends sharing sports fun and the fact-checking practice of this blog, I couldn’t let Jim get away with that “better team” […]


31 10 2015
You can’t win baseball arguments with friends, but still you try | Hated Yankees

[…] You never start or join a sports argument thinking you’re going to win. All the facts that I cited yesterday will never prevail over loyalty, emotion and memory in a sports argument, and Jim has those abundantly. 1986 was a great World Series with a good Boston team, and Jim has savored this achievement for 29 years. In his heart, that had to be a great team his Mets beat, even if that was the only World Series the Red Sox made in a stretch of, well, 29 years. I am similarly respectful of the 1985 Cardinals, which the Royals beat in seven games the year before (also after a Game Six meltdown by the other team that focused on a memorable play at first base). […]


1 11 2015
2015 World Series echoes Mets’ and Royals’ mid-’80s classics | Hated Yankees

[…] but Sundberg wins on experience, six Gold Gloves and his game-winning slide at home to cap that epic Game Six comeback. If d’Arnaud can match Sundberg’s ’85 heroics, Mets’ fans will cherish the […]


3 11 2015
Fond (and scary) memories of Kansas City’ 1985 championship parade | Hated Yankees

[…] Orta, Steve Balboni, Jim Sundberg and pinch-hitter Dane Iorg, the role-player heroes of the epic Game Six comeback, smiling and waving from the backs of barely moving […]


8 11 2015
Mike Buttry compares the 2015 and 1985 Kansas City Royals | Hated Yankees

[…] triple off the top of the wall in Game Seven against Toronto and scoring the winning run in Game Six of the 1985 World Series are probably the most excited I’ve ever been watching a baseball […]


9 11 2015
Comparing the 1985 and 2015 Kansas City Royals | Hated Yankees

[…] remembered and savored by Royal fans until death or dementia. For ’85 fans, the memory of the ninth-inning comeback in Game Six is the memory fans will always cherish. (I’m not counting memories of opponents, such as the […]


3 04 2016
The Royals’ greatest moments of championship seasons | Hated Yankees

[…] Don Denkinger blew the call. But bad calls are part of baseball. As I noted in a post last year, the call didn’t cost the Cardinals the World Series. The plays that followed — good plays by the Royals, bad plays by the Cardinals — moved […]


30 06 2016
A baseball trip filled with family, friends, food and fun | Hated Yankees

[…] Steve shares the Buttrys’ passion for the Royals, and appeared in this blog three times last year. In addition to wishing me well in Houston, Steve mentioned that he was going to be […]


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