A Few Words In Defense of the Bad Call

Written in November 2014

The year was nineteen ninety something. It was late in the season and I was at Shea Stadium. The Mets were out of the race – and so was the visiting team. (Was it the Expos?) It was not a remarkable game. No one was going for any records or milestones. There was no towering star on his last tour through the league. It was just a baseball game.

I had a pretty good seat – second deck, behind third base. But if you’re like me and you are watching major league baseball, regardless of which teams are playing, what the standings are or where in the ballpark you’re sitting, you’re convinced when you hand in your ticket that you are going to see something extraordinary. It isn’t only about wins and losses, strategy and statistics. There is something much more important at stake.

The Mets had been trailing all day. Then they staged a ninth inning rally. One run down with two outs and one on, somebody (don’t ask me who) hit a double into the left centerfield gap. The runner on first came barreling around third and the coach waved him in. The relay from the opposing team’s shortstop was smack on target. The catcher blocked the plate. The umpire positioned himself perfectly – on the first base side, so as to get the best possible view of the catcher’s glove on a swipe tag, while still maintaining a good view of the sliding runner’s hand or foot as it touches (or misses) the plate. The runner came in hard, the game was on the line. The throw had him beat. Collision…

What happened next is etched in my memory forever. Unless some miracle happens and baseball decides to repeal the video replay rule, it will never happen again.

***

As the first season of the replay rule draws to a close, everybody agrees it’s a good thing. There’s a little grousing about the low-tech look of the headsets. Some announcers want to know which view caused the remote umpiring crew, located in New York, to reverse a call. The only serious misgivings – and the minor tweaks being suggested – are about the time it takes to review the plays.

And yeah, it takes too long. The first successful video challenge in the World Series, game 7 between the Giants and the Royals, took two minutes and fifty-seven seconds before Eric Hosmer was finally called out on the relay by Brandon Crawford, completing a remarkable double play started by Joe Panik. That’s just shy of three minutes neither MLB nor FOX could do much with. You can’t cut to commercial because the play might be decided any second. All you can do is wait, watch the play over and over again, from every possible angle, including the most inconclusive and obtuse. All you can do is stare at the funny retro headsets and the umpires waiting to be told whether they were right or wrong.

For all the talk about how it would be great to speed up the game, the video review undeniably slows it down. And not only when there is actually a video review. On virtually every close play at a base, managers now come jogging out of the dugout to stall – just in case their own video analysts decide a challenge might be warranted. They have an amiable discussion with the umpire while craning their necks around and looking for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from a coach who is on a phone to the clubhouse with someone looking at a video screen (or two or three).  Even if this only added, say, ten seconds per game on average, that’s 405 hours of excruciatingly boring and meaningless time per season. And that’s not including the time added by the challenges themselves.

Some have suggested ways to attenuate the tedium. Perhaps the New York crew could be permitted to review on their own and simply interrupt play with a call reversal? Or the New York crew might have a time limit? Or the manager might be given a time limit after a call, before which he either makes a challenge or holds his peace?

But all in all, it’s still a good deal. And hey, we’re also eliminating those sometimes protracted arguments between umpires on one side and players and managers on the other. So maybe it all balances out.

Um. Hang on a second.

Are those arguments really the moments we want to eliminate from the game? When Jackie Robinson stole home in the 1955 World Series, Yogi Berra turned and started screaming at the home plate umpire. Watch it again on YouTube and it’s easy to see that, absent Berra’s protest, the moment is hardly iconic. If it happened today, Yogi would merely flip up his mask, shake his head, put his hands on his waist and wait for Casey Stengel to come jogging out of the dugout to challenge the call in the most congenial terms. The fans would have stopped cheering (or booing) and everybody would have settled into their seats to wait for the decision. And if the umpire’s call had been upheld, Yogi would still have nothing to say. After all, the crew “in New York” had looked it over from every possible angle and they knew best.

Proponents of video review often point to an incident which occurred the last time the Royals were in the World Series, in 1985. Down three games to two and trailing 1-0 in the ninth, Jorge Orta led off for the Royals and dribbled a Todd Worrell fastball past the mound on the right side. Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark fielded the ball and shoveled it to Worrell covering. Two angles showed Orta clearly out, but first base umpire Don Denkinger called him safe.

Because the Cardinals lost the game and the World Series, Denkinger’s call has often been conflated into baseball’s “worst call ever”. Video review, it is argued, would make this egregious miscarriage of justice a thing of the past. People could finally stop throwing things at their TV sets.

But one need only watch the rest of that inning in order to realize that the truth is never so simple.  Saint Louis manager Whitey Herzog and four Cardinal defenders argued the call vehemently, then play resumed, exactly one minute and forty-four seconds after Orta’s foot hit the first base bag. There was no one out and a runner on first.

Royals power hitter Steve Balboni hit a foul pop-up – which Clark misplayed and let drop in front of the camera at the end of the Royals dugout. After Balboni singled, Jim Sundberg attempted a sacrifice bunt.  Worrell’s daring and deadly accurate throw to third cut down the lead runner.

But then, with first and second and one out, Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter boxed a slider, allowing the runners to advance.

So it took two defensive miscues in addition to the umpiring blunder to set up Dane Iorg’s dramatic two-run single to right that sent the series to a seventh game. (The play at the plate on Sundberg scoring from second, by the way, was probably close enough to warrant video review.)

Denziger’s mistake – and, you might say, the baseball gods – had tested  the Cardinals’ mettle.  The Cardinals failed the test. They finished one bad call, one missed pop-up and one pitcher-catcher cross-up short of a championship that year. Sure, take away the bad call and maybe they win. But if you take away the bad call you’re also taking away part of an intricate struggle and drama which is precisely what makes these games epic.

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Video review is not epic. It’s boring and everyone agrees it’s boring. But I’m not saying video review is bad because it’s boring.

I’m not saying video review is bad because it’s being overused and abused either, although it is. Calls are supposed to be reversed when there is “clear and convincing evidence” they were wrong but, quite obviously, as in the case of the Giants double play, it is being used to make the best possible call based on all available video evidence, whatever the call on the field, whenever a challenge is made.

I’m saying video review is bad because the bad call is part of what’s good about baseball. And the more the bad call is demonstrably bad, the more we can all see on our TV sets that the umpire blew it, the better it is. The bad call, like the bad hop, is part of what destiny deals to baseball players and their fans. But unlike the bad hop, the bad call is human – it might be the result of nerves, inattention, incompetence, prejudice or malevolence.  That adds to the drama. Taking it away reduces the drama.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is an incident which at first blush seems to argue most compellingly in favor of video review: On June 2, 2010, a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. On a play remarkably similar to the Denziger blunder, Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald, batting with two outs in the ninth of an otherwise perfect game, hit a slow grounder to the right side. First baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged well into the hole to gather the ball, took careful aim and made a good throw to Gallaraga covering. Donald was clearly out, Joyce called him safe.

After seeing the replays, Joyce said publicly, “This isn’t a call. This is a history call and I kicked the shit out of it. And there’s nobody that feels worse than I do.”

The next day, tears in his eyes, the penitent umpire emerged from the clubhouse to call balls and strikes in the following game and accepted the lineup card from Gallaraga, who forgave him for being human and making a mistake. Both men were ennobled.

If Joyce had gotten the call right, Gallaraga would have been the 21st man in baseball history to pitch a perfect game. Because Joyce got it wrong, he and Gallaraga are forever enshrined as the heroes of a moment unique in the annals of sport.

Baseball is about redemption, not review. It is great because there is no going back. Like life itself, everything that happens is for keeps.

***

Bottom of the ninth, two out. The runner comes barreling around third and the relay is smack on target. Collision. Unseen by the umpire, the ball is jarred loose from the catcher’s glove. For an instant, it is lying in the dirt near his chest protector. The runner can’t see this – he has already slid past the plate. No one in the Mets dugout can see it. The catcher’s body is blocking their view just as it is blocking the umpire’s view. The umpire calls the runner out. The Mets lose.

Everybody on the third base side of Shea Stadium could see the ball on the ground and knew it was a bad call. The score should have been tied. The Mets might have won. I saw the replay on a video monitor at a hot dog stand on my way out. No, I hadn’t dreamed it. This really happened.

That game didn’t matter to many people and it didn’t matter for long. But I carry it with me every day of my life. It is part of who I am.

OK, now close your eyes. If you’ve been watching baseball for the last fifty years, you can conjure images of Earl Weaver, Leo Durocher, Tommy Lasorda, Berra, Stengel, Joe Torre, Billy Martin, Larry Bowa, Frank Robinson, Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson and many others. Screaming, jumping up and down, cursing, spitting, pounding their caps into the dirt, nose-to-nose and chest-to-chest with umpires great and small. Those managers expressed rage against perceived injustice. Whether they were right or wrong, that rage was part of what made watching a baseball game a breathtaking  – and sometimes cathartic – experience.

The “bad call” has always been part and parcel of the passion play we call baseball. I’m going to miss it.

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