Umpires do a great job in Major League Baseball, usually in a thankless way. They're expected to be perfect, and when they're not, we complain. Bad calls happen — not very often, actually — but they happen. And every once in a while, an ump will make a call that just makes us go "huh?"
One such call happened to everybody's favorite controversy magnet, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, on Thursday night. In the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins, umpire Tim Welke called Puig out after he made a phantom "lean" toward second base after an infield single. Puig's reputation for reckless baserunning had preceded him — though it was Welke's mistake, not Puig's, in this case.
With one out, Puig beat out a chopper up the middle that second baseman Brian Dozier threw in the dirt to first base. Chris Colabello couldn't pick it and the ball hopped past him, with catcher Yosmil Pinto backing up the play. After he ran through the bag, Puig sharply turned his head to the right to check for the ball's location. It was evident from Puig's body language that Puig wanted to take an extra base, but when saw Pinto with the ball, he applied the brakes. If Puig's left shoulder began to dip toward second, the rest of his body actually leaned right. He never left the baseline, never crossed the foul line. He stopped, turned around clockwise (that's away from second base), and started walking back to the bag like an innocent man who just had hit an infield single.
Alertly — as Twins announcer Dick Bremer noted — Pinto went to tag Puig just in case he had made a break for second base, which would have made him vulnerable. Had he broke for second. Incredibly, or perhaps not because it's Puig, Welke called him out. It had to be one of the worst calls of a career that spans 29 seasons in the majors. Puig looked around incredulously, as though someone had picked his pocket. Coach Davey Lopes asked Welke what the deal was, and he pointed with his thumb toward second, as if to say Puig had turned that way. Lopes told Puig to go back to the dugout. Thanks a bunch, coach.
Bremer, for his part, made it seem like a mass hallucination was happening by saying that Puig had "squared his shoulders toward second." Not true, Bremer, not close to true. Had everyone gone crazy?
Puig being sent off didn't ruin the day for the Dodgers. They swept the doubleheader and Puig went 6 for 10 over both games. No matter about that; Puig was done wronged.
Here's how the play was described by MLB.com:
...Welke apparently felt Puig attempted to run to second, because he demonstrated to manager Don Mattingly that Puig's upper body leaned toward second base. ...As a judgment call, the play was not reviewable.
"Leaned"! Imagine if this happened in a playoff setting and had cost the Dodgers something. "Lean Times For The Dodgers," the headlines might read. "The Leaning Tower Of Puigza." OK, that wouldn't be a headline.
Here's what MLB rule 7.08 (j) says about plays like this:
He fails to return at once to first base after over-running or over-sliding that base. If he attempts to run to second he is out when tagged. If, after over-running or over-sliding first base he starts toward the dugout, or toward his position, and fails to return to first base at once, he is out, on appeal, when he or the base is tagged.
Not one of those things happened. No matter which way Puig leaned, he returned to the base immediately. Welke — while we're in the mind-reading business — seemed to be looking for a reason to call Puig out. It's also a play that should be reviewable by video replay. "Judgment" is a meaningless word in this context. Everything an umpire does, to some degree, is guided by judgment.
Welke's was off.
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