Sensationally Sleazy Stories: Close Calls, Conspiracies and MLB Umpire Jim Joyce
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When first base umpire Jim Joyce missed a safe/out call at first base during Game 3 of the Cardinals-Nationals NLDS, the seemingly unwonted occurrence—ESPN once estimated umpires miss 20 percent of all close calls—exploded into a national headline that even The Associated Press saw fit to distribute.
The first sentence of the AP release?
It's another umpiring call that went the St. Louis Cardinals [sic] way this postseason.
Ah, there's the rub.
Implying that umpires, referees, judges and other sports officials are conspiring for or against certain teams is nothing new as fans often blame a team's misfortune on an impartial third party.
As I previously wrote, scapegoating is nothing new with multiple field experts concluding that passing the buck and blaming others is a psychological defense mechanism meant to shield oneself from acknowledgement of an unacceptable truth.
During Game 3 of the Giants-Reds NLDS, Twitter's Evil Umpire (@DarkSide_Umpire) pointed out this simple fact of scapegoating in practice, locating one Cincinnati and one San Francisco fan with completely identical—yet opposite—views of home plate umpire Gerry Davis' performance:
Yes, people enjoy a good controversy—especially those resembling the classic "us against the world" motif.
Even ESPN's highly-cited 20-percent missed statistic is misleading. Upon further inspection of the data, the entertainment giant determined that only 1.3 calls per game were deemed close enough to merit instant replay review, 20 percent of which amounts to just 0.26 missed calls per nine innings—or a minimum of 55 calls per game (27 outs + 27 outs + 1 run-producing play)—or, multiplied by approximately four to allow for whole-unit analysis, one missed call for every 220 chances.
In terms of accuracy, ESPN's data suggests an umpiring crew will correctly officiate 99.55 percent of all non-ball/strike calls.
So with the objective data in hand, why point out one missed banger of a call during Wednesday afternoon's 8-0 Cardinals victory and conveniently neglect to mention the umpires' propensity to get most calls right?
Though St. Louis was well on its way to a lopsided win at the time of the call, Joyce's miscue was a perfect storm of controversy, sensationalism and—most importantly—viewer interest.
- National League Umpire Supervisor Ed Vargo once said, "[Umpires] are expected to be perfect the day [they] start, and then improve."
- Society as a whole simply likes watching people—especially "perfect" ones—fail.
- In 2010, Joyce missed a key ninth-inning call at first base during Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga's perfect game attempt.
- During 2012's National League Wild Card game, left field umpire Sam Holbrook made a contested infield fly call during an Atlanta Braves rally. Though the call was correct, fans' subsequent reaction to the call against their home team provided ample bandwagon material with which to blast MLB for a widely misunderstood rule.
- And, yes, the Wild Card infield fly rule call benefited the St. Louis Cardinals.
As if to confirm this shameless pursuit of sensationalism, the AP story additionally mentioned both the NL Wild Card infield fly call and Joyce's 2010 imperfect game call, a pattern echoed across the grid Wednesday afternoon—from ESPN to USA Today and Yahoo!—all spurring a series of user comments defaming Joyce, umpires and Major League Baseball.
Unfortunately yet predictably, an August 2012 piece regarding Joyce's administration of CPR to a Diamondbacks employee suffering cardiac arrest, saving the woman's life, was not mentioned by any of the above outlets on Wednesday—nor, more relevantly, was the fact that Joyce correctly officiated no less than four subsequent close calls that came his way during Game 3.
After all, sensationalist sleaze fails—and more importantly, ratings and readership fall—when one begins complimenting the target of attack.
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.
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