The Green Bay Packers got the shaft this past Monday night when a pair of NFL replacement referees awarded Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate a game-winning touchdown on a pass that appeared to be intercepted in the end zone before Tate got a hand on it to claim dual possession.
The play has America buzzing. People see it as the exclamation point topping off three weeks of subpar officiating by a crew of replacements. But as everyone waits for the referee's union and the NFL to strike a deal, it's worth remembering that experienced referees and umpires have blown their share of big calls, too, some of which have made a difference deciding games and championships.
In the spring of 2010, Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga lost a bid for a perfect game when umpire Jim Joyce called a Cleveland Indians' runner safe at first base with two out in the ninth inning on a play in which he was clearly out. The play spurred us to take a look at some of the most significant bad calls through out sports history. The current Packers-Seahawks fiasco makes for a good time to take another look.
The Tigers can take comfort in one aspect of Joyce's blown call - at least it only affected individual greatness, not the outcome of the game and the potential postseason money that goes with it. Who knows, the call may have cost the pitcher some would-be endorsement deals. And maybe Galarraga loses a chance to do the Letterman show. But for the Tigers, it was an early June game that they won anyway.
Other victims of bad calls can't claim to be as lucky. The St. Louis Cardinals lost the 1985 World Series--costing each player a winner's share--after umpire Don Denkinger incorrectly called the Kansas City Royals' Jorge Orta safe at first base in the ninth inning of Game 6, opening the floodgates for a game-winning rally. The Royals' win tied the series 3-3, and set them up for an 11-0 blowout in the decisive seventh game. Even though it's illogical to pinpoint the outcome of a seven-game series on one play--the Cards could surely blame themselves for plenty of mistakes--the blown call by the ump is what resonates in fans' memories.
Denkinger wasn't considered a bad umpire, he just missed that call. But since that time, Major League Baseball has tweaked its criteria for choosing post-season umpires. A rotating system that prevented umps from working the Series two straight years has been replaced by more of a merit-based system based on umpire evaluations.
"Now you would be allowed to work back to back World Series if you’re chosen," says MLB spokesman Michael Teevan.
Other notable bad calls: The New York Islanders taking a clinching Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals with the help of linesman Leon Stickle missing an obvious offsides call that would have taken away a goal, and baseball umpire Drew Coble calling Braves runner Ron Gant out at first base in Game 2 of the 1991 World Series when it appeared he was pushed off the bag by Twins' first baseman Kent Hrbek. Atlanta would lose the game by a run and the series in seven games.
Football has had its share of high stakes, controversial calls before this season. Oakland Raiders fans are no doubt still steaming over the team's famous "tuck rule" loss at New England in 2002, when officials ruled an incomplete pass and not a fumble when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lost the ball on a key possession. New England wound up kicking a tying field goal and winning in overtime. But to a Patriots fan, who saw his team go on to a Super Bowl title that year, the game was merely payback for New England's loss to Oakland back in the 1976 playoffs.
In that 24-21 heartbreaker, the Pats got the shaft from referee Ben Dreith, who capped a tough day of bad calls with a roughing penalty against lineman Richard Hamilton on Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler on a third-and-18 play to keep a late drive going. Replays showed very little contact on the play. Moments later, Stabler scored on a one yard run with 10 seconds remaining, giving Oakland the win.
The Raiders went on to take the Super Bowl over the Minnesota Vikings, a championship New Englanders thought was theirs if not for Dreith. Twenty-six years later, the refereeing gods returned the favor. Given the enormous growth of the NFL and the Super Bowl during that span, call it advantage Patriots. Sometimes it all works out in the end.