Thursday, June 3, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World -- The Blown Call

I always look forward to writing these installments. And after last night (Wednesday, June 2) there's no shortage of topics to cover.

I bow to no one in my dewy-eyed admiration of Ken Griffey Jr., and his retirement not only makes me incredibly sad over how fast these last 22 years have gone, but -- naturally -- makes me feel very old. It's moments like these when I want to go grab the shawl and wrap it around myself. The chill of senior citizen-hood is creeping up on me. I already qualify for the specials at I-HOP.

But that's not the most paramount thing on my mind today. That would be umpires, officials, and referees who ruin great moments with horrible calls. You can thank Jim Joyce for what follows. He stuck himself in the middle of baseball history last night by absolutely screwing up the 27th out of a perfect game ... calling a runner safe on an infield grounder when all 226 replays I've seen since prove he was out.

Thus, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was denied his spot in history. Joyce, at least, had the stones to admit afterward that he'd messed up. To which I say BFD. Don Denkinger did the same thing after he butchered a crucial call in the 1985 World Series -- one that cost the St. Louis Cardinals World Series. Doesn't matter. The Royals are on the books as having won that World Series; and Armando Galarraga pitched a one-hitter.

Two things. First, the only reason Joyce calls the runner safe is because he's telling himself, as the play unfolds, that he cannot, under any circumstances, allow the moment to detract for his job. It's like the football official who decides, right before the offensive team makes the play of the game, "gotta make sure no one's holding."

Nine times out of 10, if you have it on your mind, you're going to screw up. You're going to throw a flag on some phantom holding infraction, or whistle someone for a phantom foul, because you think it's your duty to play it straight, and because you'll be damned if you let the moment cloud your judgment.

Second, if I were Joyce, I'd do anything in my power not to have Jim Leyland (Tigers manager) in my face. He smokes about 12 packs of cigarettes a day, and his breath must smell like an ash tray with three weeks worth of butts toppling out of it.

But more to point No. 1, how many times have we seen potentially great moments in sports ruined by officials? Either that, or how many times have we seen officials make calls they had no business making? The Patriots are 1-for-1 on this front. In 1976, they got hijacked on their way to the Super Bowl when Ben Dreith called Ray Hamiton for a totally unnecessary unnecessary roughness penalty in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.

A quarter of a century later, in January 2001, the scales finally evened when Walt Coleman applied the "tuck rule" to Tom Brady's fumble. In both cases, the beneficiary of referee largesse went on to win the Super Bowl (which is why my reaction whenever Oakland fans bring up the tuck rules is "save it, you won one you didn't deserve to win").

By the way, non-calls count in this harangue too. Such as the egregious non-call that resulted in the popularly-coined "Immaculate Reception" that cost the Raiders a playoff victory.

At the time, the rule stated that the ball, on a forward pass, could not touch the hands of two offensive teammates, on the same play, consecutively (it has since been changed). Yet from every replay we've been able to see, the pass clearly bounced off Frenchy Fuqua as he collided with Oakland's Jack Tatum. Before it could touch anyone else, Franco Harris of the Steelers picked it up -- almost off the ground -- and ran it in for the winning touchdown with less than a minute left.

Being one of the great Raiders non-fans (hate them as much as I hate the L.A. Lakers, which is a lot), none of this chagrined me too much. But in the interest of integrity and honesty, I have to admit the Raiders got jobbed.

And, yes, they got jobbed again in 2001. But if we're going to be fair, we also have to acknowledge their incredible good fortune in 1976 -- which is something Raiders fans refuse to do.

All I can say, further, about Jim Joyce is that had he been umpiring in 1956, he'd have squeezed Don Larsen and given Dale Mitchell a base on balls, rather than call him out on a pitch that would have been high if Shaquille O'Neal was hitting. Not to mention juuuusssssst a bit outside, too.

But for my money, the worst officiating travesty I've ever seen didn't involve pro sports, didn't involve college, didn't cost anyone any money, or immortality, or anything like that. It did, however, cost my niece (and her teammates) a high school softball championship.

And that's why I'm not for instant replay, have no use for "upon further review," and sincerely hope that baseball commissioner Bud Selig doesn't inject himself into the mix and change the call. You can't do that. The human element is just as much a part of competition as anything else is. Bill Buckner didn't get to field Mookie Wilson's ground ball all over again. Matt Holliday didn't get another chance to catch that easy line drive in last year's National League playoffs. Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green didn't get another chance to tackle Eli Manning instead of letting him out of their grasp in the 2008 Super Bowl, right before he completed that lucky pass to David Tyree.

These guys had to live with their mistakes. They were all singularly responsible for their team losing games. There was no do-over. No crying in baseball. It is what it is. Awful though it may be.

If Selig sticks his nose in here, where does he stop? Does he to back and rewrite history, and tell the world that, yes, the Cardinals did get that out at first base, that the play wasn't even close, and that Denkinger flat-out messed it up? Do we go back and replay the game from that point on, with players who are -- by now -- pushing 50?

It's awfully tempting. It was the last play of the game. Mercifully, Detroit still won it, and it was still a shutout. All you'd have to do is say "ooops. He was out. Strike that last at-bat off the boards. Never happened." But what kind of a can of worms would you open up in the process?

But more to the point, we have to things to consider. First, as much as I dislike replays being a part of the game, there's no denying that we could certainly use them sometimes. This would have been one of those times. We already have them to make sure home runs are, indeed, home runs. I ask what's the difference between that and close play on the bases? None that I can see. They all affect games in one way or another.

So do it, if it must be done. Make this your clarion call if you're for it. Push Selig and the owners into making this decision. Shame them if you have to.

The second point to ponder is this: Kids all over the country -- who don't get paid a dime for putting all their hard work and dedication out there -- are victims of umpire/official incompetence too. It's not just a problem in pro sports. There's no million-dollars worth of technology protecting them. Nobody's placing bets on the St. Mary's-North Reading Division 3 North softball final. These cames aren't cash cows. So it's quite natural, I suppose, to feel that they don't matter as much.

We can exhaust 15 minutes of everyone's time to make sure the tip of the football isn't scraping the ground on a pass reception. But forget about the teenage kids who have just had the crowning achievements in their lives ripped away from them because the umpires couldn't make a call ... or made the wrong one.

What makes Armando Galarraga any more important than any of these kids? Their games are just as important, in their realm, as his was.

I know ... I know. It's pro sports. It's their job. But I still don't buy it. Either you concede that the human element absolutely rules sports at all levels, including officiating, or you set up the best vehicle you can, depending on the level and the technology available, to appeal calls that are obviously wrong.

And you build whatever you have to into the rules so that the privilege of appealing calls isn't abused. Just understand that any system you put in place -- and even with the best technology available -- is going to be flawed.

Since you're probably wondering, here's the situation in that St. Mary's-North Reading softball game I describe above. St. Mary's -- my niece's team (she was the pitcher) -- had a 3-2 lead going into to the bottom of the eighth inning of the 2007 sectional championship game.

With one out, a North Reading girl reached on an error that wasn't an error (bad call; the throw to first was high, but the first baseman was a very tall girl, and she was able to catch it and maintain contact with the bag; bad call, but not the worst one of the inning).

The girl stole second, and the St. Mary's coach chose to walk the next girl (who was hitting something like .700) intentionally.

The next batter hit a slow roller that kind of slowed down and died before it could ever reach an infielder. It's quite possible that the St. Mary's second baseman had no play, but it's also quite possible she did. The point is it's one of those things you can't just assume.

Before the St. Mary's second baseman could field the ball, however, the runner on first barreled into her. And I mean barreled. There was quite a disparity in size between the North Reading senior and the petite St. Mary's freshman, and the St. Mary's girl went down like a sack of cement.

The obvious call here is interference, baserunner out, all other runners return to their previous bases, batter gets first. The rule doesn't render the umpires the judgment as to whether or not the runner would have beaten out the slow roller. It merely states that the fielder, in that situation, must have an unobstructed path to the ball. It's up to the runner to avoid contact.

The umpires never called it. They gathered together, all three of them, for what seemed to be an eternity, but the call stood. So instead of first and second, two outs (the way it should have been), it was bases loaded, one out.

The next batter hit a fly ball to right ... deep enough to allow the tying run to score. But the right-fielder made a nice throw to the plate trying to nail the runner, but it bounced just shy of the catcher ... and ricocheted crazily toward third base, allowing the winning run to score too.

In my absolute shock and rage, all I could hear was Vin Scully, "here comes Knight ... and the Mets win it."

You know, it's bad enough to lose. But to lose like that? Worse. Horrible way to lose. And as far as I know, nobody there thought it the least bit possible that the egregious non-call could be overturned. The ship had sailed. The horse was out of the barn. Elvis had left the building. Game over. Season over. And, in the case of my niece, career over.

I use this (and will probably always use it ) as my capo-de-tutti-capo of horrible calls. And it always leaves me to ponder the conceit of professional athletes, who make zillions of dollars for doing essentially the same thing as my niece was doing for zero, and the conceit of gamblers who voluntarily piss their money away betting on games.

If high school kids have to live with these things, then they should too. Either that, or fix the problem -- at all levels -- so that it never happens again.

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