NEW YORK – Umpires added two more tick marks to their overflowing register of screw-ups Thursday night. These came in Game 2 of a World Series in which Major League Baseball broke from protocol and brought in a specific crew of veteran arbiters to ensure the miscues of the first two rounds wouldn't dare find their way into games of such importance.
So, uh, oops?
It's laughable at this point. It really is. It's confounding to see players and managers and executives pooh-pooh the idea of instant replay when MLB is approaching a dozen missed calls in its most important month of the season. And it's horrifying to see games turn not on the actions of players but of the men charged with enforcing the rules. And it's sad that only an epic World Series will save this month from being remembered for the dodgy eyesight of middle-aged men.
Welcome to Blindtober, where everything that's wrong is right.
"Utley was safe," Charlie Manuel said, and he said it out of nowhere. The Philadelphia Phillies' manager was trying to shake off his team's 3-1 loss to the New York Yankees that evened the series at a game apiece, and he couldn't get past the fact that Chase Utley(notes), his second baseman, had grounded into a double play. Because Utley hadn't. Oh, Brian Gorman called him out at first base – and since MLB is too pigheaded to expand replays beyond home run calls, the call stood, even though Utley's foot beat Derek Jeter's(notes) throw.
"Go look," Manuel said. "Yeah. He was safe."
Had Gorman determined so, up would've stepped Ryan Howard(notes), the world's best power hitter, with men on first and third base and two outs in the eighth inning of a two-run World Series game, to face Mariano Rivera(notes), the best closer baseball has seen, and certainly the most effective postseason pitcher. Bud Selig drools over such matchups. Of course, the commissioner spent a few minutes earlier in the day explaining why expanded replay doesn't fly in his world, so he retreated back to his cocoon robbed of an epic moment in waiting because we're supposed to accept human error as an excuse.
Never mind that technology allows us to fix it. Technology, in the antiquated world of baseball, is looked upon as a bogeyman. So, in that spirit, let's, for a moment, renounce it all. Spell check? Froget ti. Cars? America could use the exercise. The Internet? Shut it down. Except for MLB.com. Because that's worth a billion and change, and Bud wouldn't want to forfeit that in the name of some misguided maxim.
Umpiring this postseason falls under such scrutiny because technology spoils us with the right call almost every time. Sure, there are situations that are inconclusive. Most are rather clear. When something so obvious remains in place despite your eyes telling you otherwise, it feels wrong and unfair, and any sympathy toward the parties who allow their poor work to be supported by flimsy reasoning disintegrates.
Not that it makes things better, but bad calls did go both ways Thursday. In the sixth inning, Johnny Damon(notes) hit a sinking line drive to first base. Howard plucked the ball off the ground – the dirt in front of his glove kicked into the air – and fired to second base immediately, as clear a signal as possible that he hadn't caught the ball. His throw went wide. All runners were assumed safe. Except Gorman – him again – said Howard caught the ball, which made its way back to first base for a double play.
"Did I catch it?" Howard said. "Well, they called him out."
And he winked.
Now, maybe something got caught in Howard's right eye. Damn if it didn't look like a wink, though, a nod to those whose displeasure with bad calls demands more reaction from baseball than putting together a crew of veterans who still need a safety net. Nearly every call they make is correct, and yet they're like the long snapper, taken for granted and remembered for the ones they miss.
"I'm not saying nothing about the umpiring," said Manuel, who then did exactly the opposite: "I've probably never thought umpiring was good, if you want to know the truth."
Almost certainly the old-time umpires were no better than the newer ones. They just didn't have cameras and super-slow-motion replays to niggle their every call. It makes replay understandable, feasible, workable.
"Then you take away from the nature of the game," Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino(notes) said. "They're human. Everyone makes mistakes. It kills you, but again, how many times does it happen?"
Hmmm. Well, there was the non-call on a pitch that hit Brandon Inge's(notes) jersey with the bases loaded and the scored tied in a one-game playoff. And Joe Mauer's(notes) would-be double that landed about a foot inside the line but was called foul. Plus that time Jorge Posada(notes) and Robinson Cano(notes) were both tagged off the base during the ALCS but only Posada was called out. Oh, and when Nick Swisher(notes) was thrown out and called safe, then left on time during a sacrifice fly and was called out – that was Doublemint fun. Can't forget Ronnie Belliard(notes) clearly being tagged out and ruled safe. And two poor calls at first base against Boston in the ALDS. To come full circle, Utley fouled a ball off himself (dead ball), ran it out and got beaten by the throw to first anyway (out) and was declared safe.
"Well, are you going to replay every damn play?" Victorino said. "If you're going to do that every play, we're going to play seven-hour games."
No. No, no, no. That kind of extrapolation doesn't work here. A solution comes in moderation. A red flag. Twice a game. There usually aren't more bad calls than that, and if there are, MLB takes a long, hard look at that umpire. Use the challenge flags too early and it's a mistake that a manager will rue.
This is about the correct, accurate call. Everybody deserves it. If it takes a little longer, it is worth the time, the hassle, the aggravation. Go to the bathroom. Nuke a Hot Pocket. Clip your fingernails. Three minutes isn't long. Every one of these calls was quite obvious on replay, and almost all would affect the fortunes of the season's most critical games.
Instead, the World Series turns into a game as much of what-if as what was. For the brilliance of A.J. Burnett(notes) in the face of a potential 0-2 deficit, there was the foot of Utley touching the bag before the ball hit Mark Teixeira's(notes) glove. And for the clutch home run of Hideki Matsui(notes) off Pedro Martinez(notes), there was Howard's glove clearly not scooping the ball before it bathed in dirt. It's not yin and yang, either. The two don’t balance out.
They leave us wondering just how much more of this baseball can take before adopting the rational point of view. The game is too good to get broadsided by something so fallible as eyeballs. So long as replay tops the offseason agenda, such a good-faith gesture will help temporarily. Until then, a kind request of the men in blue, who really try to make the right calls, as the World Series moves to Philadelphia for Game 3 and the calendar turns.
Please, don't let it be Blindvember, too.
- Major League Baseball