Don’t Murder the Ump!

Baseball, replays, history and humans  

Baseball is a game – I have always hesitated to call it a sport. The physiques of many of its colorful characters through the years certainly do not convey athleticism. Babe Ruth, Terry Forster, Rich Garces and David Wells come to mind. They were good (Forster and Garces), excellent (Wells) and the best (Ruth.) You do not need to be Carl Lewis or Rajon Rondo to excel at this game. The history of baseball is rich with its own folklore and amazing stories that always have a human element involved. Right or wrong this element is a crucial part of the history of baseball. 

Umpires have long been a storied part of the game alongside the players, managers and owners. Umpires have influenced many games – not always correctly. At least three World Series games, and perhaps two World Series went the way of one team because of the calls of the umpires. It is widely believed that Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series was helped by a soon to be retiring umpire who wanted to end his career on a historic note, Babe Pinelli. 1 Pinelli would umpire two more games during the 1956 World Series, but this would be his last game behind home plate. Game 3 in 1975 found a controversial call front and center of this pivotal game. Umpire Larry Barnett did not make the interference call when the Red’s Ed Armbrister was in the path of Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk who was trying to make a play at second on the advancing Cesar Geronimo after Armbrister’s bunt. 2 The Red’s went onto win the game in extra innings and to eventually win the World Series in seven memorable games. Perhaps the most influential call that quite possibly turned the tide of the World Series in 1985 was the blown call in Game 6 by umpire Don Denkinger at first base. 3 This call enraged St. Louis and turned the game in the Royals favor – they won 2-1.  The Cardinals never recovered from the call and were out of sorts in Game 7, losing the game 11-0 and the World Series 4-3. 

Over the years bad calls have been part of the game. On occasion as we have seen the bad call can cost a team a championship. Does this mean that with the technology that is readily available to us we should remove the human element of umpiring and use technology to make the calls or override the calls? Recent years have found the use of instant replay on borderline home run calls – should this be expanded into other areas of the game? Foul balls? Balls and strikes? Out or safe? Use of replay and technology would be great for making the game perfect – but is perfection on a daily basis what baseball is all about? 

This past week’s events in Detroit have highlighted the human element of baseball and have clearly shown how technology could improve a mistaken call. Umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call cost Tiger’s pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game – one of the rarest of all feats in baseball and what would have been the third perfect game in 25 days, and the first time there had been three perfect games in one season. Perfect games occur when a pitcher gets all twenty seven opposing batters out in order with no one reaching base – there have been 20 perfect games thrown in the Major Leagues since 1880 4. The other feats that compares to the rarity of the perfect game are unassisted triple plays and the four home runs in a game, both occurring 15 times in the history of baseball. 5, 6. Galarraga, a young pitcher who was not on the opening day roster should be commended for his effort, and more so for the cool he displayed at the time of the blown call. Even more so, umpire Jim Joyce was outstanding in his handling of the situation. Of course, with perfect video evidence he had little choice, but his admission of his mistake was heartfelt and welcome to see, especially when  compared to how Denkinger handled his blown call. Kudos to Galarraga and Joyce. 

So it would appear your humble author would like to see it both ways – no mistakes from the umpires and retaining the ever-present human trait of erring. What I do not want to see is the average game time to increase as I think that harms baseball and its fans. When an umpire clearly blows a major call I favor a review and over turning of the decision, perhaps by a booth official (let’s avoid the NFL practice of field review which is to time consuming. A booth review and a limited number of calls allowed to be ruled upon a game would be the fastest way to get the call correct and keep the game moving. Managers, like NFL coaches would have a limited number of times per game to challenge a call and possibly the post season, or late innings would only have booth initiated reviews. What I do not want to see is every out and every strike challenged – this would see our national pastime become passe when games approach four hours. Balls and strikes should not be challengeable – if baseball needs to go that route then they should eliminate umpires from the equation and go with electronics – which would be insulting to the history of the game. Oh, and Commissioner Selig – if you are reading – reverse the call and give the kid the perfect game – it was the last out and he earned it. 









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