Oscar Wilde likely never met an umpire.
Certainly he wasn’t speaking of baseball’s arbiters when he said, “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.”
Wilde, the famed Irish writer and poet, got it all wrong when it comes to the men in blue on the baseball diamond.
For an umpire, the worst thing is to be talked about.
Anonymity is paradise. It’s the reverse of the “Cheers” theme: “Don’t you wanna go where nobody knows your name?”
They’re like offensive linemen. Everyday spent as an unknown is a win. The nightmare is to have your name on everyone’s lips when they leave the ballpark.
The trick is to be on your game at all times while maintaining that coveted, nameless status. It doesn’t matter how many times you got it right. It only takes one misstep to undo everything. Years of work can go down the drain in an instant. Then, the world of anonymity comes crashing down, exposing you fully.
Just ask Jim Joyce. Or Don Denkinger. Or Dave Pallone.
Pallone, a big league umpire in the 1980s in the National League, got involved in a row with Cincinnati Reds' manager Pete Rose in April 1988. There was a play at first base. Pallone ruled that Reds' first baseman Nick Esasky pulled his foot off the bag while receiving a throw, which beat the base runner.
Rose begged to differ.
TV replays showed that Pallone probably got the call right—not that that matters all the time, depending on where the game is played.
This particular game was played in Cincinnati, so Rose’s vehement argument stirred the pot and whipped the fans into a frenzy. Maybe Rose was incensed because he had money riding on the game.
It got worse, when things got physical.
Pallone jabbed a finger at Rose, who jabbed one of his own back. Pallone tossed Rose from the game. Then, Rose deliberately bumped into Pallone, which is about as “no-no” as you can get. Players and other umpires had to step between the two combatants as the situation looked to be getting out of hand.
The Reds fans were beside themselves. After Rose stormed off the field, Pallone was pelted with objects hurled from the stands. It got so bad that it was decided that Pallone should be removed from the game as well—for his own safety.
The league rearranged Pallone’s crew’s assignments to keep them away from games played in Cincinnati following the Rose incident.
Pallone survived that game, but his name was dragged through the mud.
A couple years ago, after speaking with me about that game, Pallone let me in on an umpire’s rallying cry.
“We may not always be right,” he told me, “but we’re never wrong.”
Denkinger was another whose umpiring career was tainted because he lost anonymity.
Denkinger’s Waterloo occurred in the 1985 World Series, when he erroneously called the Royals’ Jorge Orta safe at first base on a play where it was pretty clear—even to the naked eye—that he was out. The call was crucial, enabling the Royals to pull out a come-from-behind victory over the St. Louis Cardinals that greatly aided in the Royals winning that World Series.
Don Denkinger, in St. Louis, had the same Public Enemy No. 1 status that Dave Pallone had in Cincinnati.
Or the same status as Jim Joyce had in Detroit.
Joyce picked an awful time to be human.
Joyce, as you no doubt know, was the first base umpire in Detroit on that fateful June evening in 2010, when Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga came within one out of baseball immortality.
Galarraga had retired the first 26 Cleveland Indians hitters that night. Just one more out without incident, and the kid would have a perfect game—still one of baseball’s greatest individual feats.
An Indians hitter named Jason Donald hit a weak but tricky ground ball to first base. Miguel Cabrera gloved it and made the tenuous but timely throw to Galarraga, hustling from his mound to cover the base. The pitcher’s foot beat Donald’s to the bag by a toe, but Galarraga won the race. His perfect game was complete!
Except that Joyce, whose arms appeared for a fraction of a second to want to make the “out” call, inexplicably ruled Donald safe.
I maintain to this day that something went haywire in Joyce’s motor skills and he called Donald safe when he really intended to call him out. I deduced that after watching the replay several times.
Regardless, Galarraga’s perfect game was ruined. The next batter made an out, which only served to further enrage the Comerica Park crowd.
TV replays clearly showed that Donald was out. FSD analyst Rod Allen’s voice was tinged with despair when he saw the replay for the first time, as we did at home.
“Oh no! Jim Joyce! No…” Allen said, almost with as much sorrow for the umpire as for Galarraga.
Allen knew that once that replay got out, Joyce would be in a world of hurt. Years of big league umpiring—good, reliable umpiring—were about to fly out the window.
As an umpire is expected to do, Joyce fiercely defended his call on the field—to Galarraga, to Cabrera and to manager Jim Leyland, who raced to the first base area to plead the typical losing argument.
After the game, Joyce saw the replay. He was, at that moment, the most tormented man in America.
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“I just cost that kid a perfect game,” Joyce would explain to the media, his voice cracking.
Despite Joyce and Galarraga’s touching meeting at home plate the next day, when the two men shook hands, there was no way that anonymity and Jim Joyce would be anywhere near each other, ever again.
Major League Baseball is on the verge of expanding its relatively limited use of instant replay for the 2014 season. Taking its cue from the NFL, MLB will allow managers to use challenges—one prior to the seventh inning and two afterward, until the game ends.
Pallone, in a Facebook comment to me, wrote simply, “Why don’t we just use robots!!”
I understand Pallone’s stance (he absolutely detests FSD’s so-called FoxTrax, which supposedly determines electronically if a pitch was a ball or a strike), especially given that he is a former big league umpire.
But there’s also something to be said for getting the call right, and for returning good umpires back to anonymity.
Had replay been in use in the Pallone, Denkinger and Joyce plays, calls would either have been upheld or reversed, conclusively. In both scenarios, the umpire is off the hook. He can’t be vilified if he got the call right, and if he got it wrong, there can be no complaints because the league would reverse the decision, according to the video.
You think Jim Joyce would rather be known as a fine umpire with a distinguished career, or the guy who ruined a perfect game?
Instant replay would have returned him to the former.
I say use the damn thing already.