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Nate McClouth Home Run Controversy: Call Upheld Due to Inconclusive Evidence
Al Bello/Getty Images
Orioles manager Buck Showalter discusses the decision to uphold a foul ball call with home plate umpire Mike Everitt (who is wearing a bandage after being struck in the right ear by an earlier foul ball).

Headed back home and out of the postseason, Baltimore Orioles fans have been ruing a sixth inning foul ball call that, at least one Twitterer suggested, was a "game changer."

By now, you are familiar with the story.

O's batter Nate McLouth connected on a 3-2 slider from New York's CC Sabathia, sending a screamer along the right field line and into the second deck of Yankee Stadium.

As right field umpire Fieldin Culbreth ruled the fly ball foul, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter bolted out of his third base dugout to dispute the call.  This set the stage for a vital review in a game that, at the time, featured a 1-0 Yankees lead.

After an economically concise review, umpiring crew chief Brian Gorman—joined by crewmates Culbreth, Angel Hernandez and Mark Carlson—emerged from the umpires' tunnel and upheld the foul ball call.

Yet while one replay angle suggested that the ball may have changed trajectory after grazing the right field foul pole, others—including TBS' touted blimp cam—indicated the ball missed the structure entirely.

The umpires were then placed in a difficult position: determining which angle to trust and which to write off as an angular optical illusion.

For an example of a baseball-related optical illusion, we turn to a 2009 boundary call at Citi Field. On May 27, 2009, Mets batter David Murphy was awarded a home run following an instant replay-induced reversal.

Initially ruled in play, umpires reversed course after consulting instant replay and determining a change in trajectory constituted a home run. At the time, some fans argued this change was misleading due to limited camera exposure, an awkward angle and even headwinds caused by the ball rising above the height of the stadium.

Curveballs, the epitome of a baseball optical illusion

Meanwhile, an oft-quoted baseball illusion revolves around the curveball and the pitch's tendency to apparently defy the laws of physics. The issue of "break" has been researched and disputed by universities, scientists and baseball analysts alike, with the consensus that trajectory-based illusions are an optical reality, even in the sports world. 

So with optical illusions and conflicting replay angles, what is an umpire to do?

Fortunately, MLB already issued an August 26, 2008 directive to assist the umpires in answering this question:

The decision to reverse a call will be at the sole discretion of the crew chief. The standard used by the crew chief when reviewing a play will be whether there is clear and convincing evidence that the umpire's decision on the field was incorrect and should be reversed.

Upon further review, crew chief Gorman determined that conflicting information from multiple camera angles did not constitute "clear and convincing evidence that the umpire's decision on the field was incorrect," and accordingly upheld Culbreth's call of "foul ball."

TBS field reporter Craig Sager subsequently ventured out in pursuit of the fan who caught the fly ball, determining that the white leather covering of the baseball was free from the yellow paint of the vertical foul pole.

Though Sager noted a Yankee Stadium usher had allegedly suggested that (s)he saw the fly ball hit the pole on its way by.

Meanwhile, Yankee fans seated in Section 209, where the ball landed, had their own take: "It definitely curved foul, definitely. Before it went by the pole, it went right," said Matt Darch from Commack, Long Island, with brother Brian stating, "I believe it went foul."

Meanwhile, a poll conducted by The Baltimore Sun and targeted at Orioles fans found 55 percent support for the determination of "fair ball," with just 28 percent of respondents selecting the "foul ball" option.

It must be true: Beauty—and a contested non-home run call—is truly in the eye of the beholder.

 

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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