Jim Joyce vs. Don Denkinger: Which Is Worst First Base Call Ever?

Kyle LukeContributor IJune 3, 2010

SEATTLE - MARCH 31:  Umpire Jim Joyce yells and points during the Texas Rangers game against the Seattle Mariners on March 31, 2008 at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Like the other 15 Royals fans out there, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the Jim Joyce call yesterday was Don Denkinger's infamous call in the 1985 World Series. That call is the defining image of that series and arguably the only memory most fans have from one of the better World Championships in baseball history.

St. Louis Cardinals fans also forget the following: The National League Sucks.

There was only one out in the game when it ended; if Denkinger call hims out, there's still another out to go.  

The Cards missed a routine pop-up by Steve Balboni on the next play who then singles to put runners on first and second.

The passed ball by Cardinals Catcher Darrell Porter allowed the tying and winning run to move to scoring position with one out.

That was Game six, not Game Seven which is when the Royals actually won the series. If the Cardinals didn't pull one of the bigger Game Seven choke jobs in history, that call might not be remembered as much.  If you lose 11-0 in a Game Seven, you don't deserve to win a championship that year, plain and simple.

Brett Saberhagen pitched one of the better big game gems in history, tossing a five-hit, complete game shutout.  Forgetting this one bothers me the most because that's as clutch as it gets when it comes to postseason pitching.

So there.

Anyways, back to the Joyce call.  It is fair to say we can have a debate on which call was worse.  Joyce's or Denkinger's?  Let's go ahead and break it down.


Degree of How Bad the Call Was

Let's put on our devil's advocate caps for this one.  In real time, the Jim Joyce call admittedly does look close.  It looks even closer when you notice that Galarraga snow-cones the catchwhich I have to assume Joyce saw and didn't think he had total control of the ball.  

Now was he indeed safe? Not even close.

Even if it was close, should he had have been called out? Absolutely.

I'm not saying it was by any means a good call, but if you eliminate the magnitude of the situation (which will be another determining factor later) the call was very close.

Denkinger's, on the other hand, was just awful.  I laugh every time I watch the clip because it's not even close.  The runner was nearly a half step behind when Worrell put his foot on the bag.  A little credit should go to the runner in this case on "beating out" a routine ground ball. 

The only reason I can think Denkinger called him safe is that he must have roomed with an obnoxious Cardinals fan in college, which in that case makes it justifiable.

Edge: Denkinger


Historical Significance

There have only been 20 perfect games in the history of baseball which is kind of crazy when you think that two have happened this year.  In the 100 some odd years this game has been around—and I personally don't count anything before 1900—this has only happened 20 times.  That should put into perspective how rare this is.  I throw the concept of "27 up, 27 down" in the absolute highest sports echelon level of individual achievement. 

Retiring 27 hitters in a row is incredible. Hell, the Royals can barely every get three out in a row and that's not including errors.  

Another way of looking at this is to ask if more people will remember Joyce or Galarraga when this game is talked about 30 years from now.  Will it be known as the game Joyce blew or Galarraga's masterful 8.2 performance?  Unfortunately for Joyce, given the rarity of perfect games, his name is more likely to go down in the history of this achievement.  

Even with all that, it's impossible to say that will hold more historical significance than the Denkinger's decision in the I-70 series.

That is the only World Series where the defining image, character, and play all involve an umpire.  Think of all the biggest World Series memories and Denkinger's stands out because he managed to make the biggest headline despite not even being a player.  It's one thing if you're a player who chokes with everything on the line à la Buckner in 1986 but it's an entirely different thing if you're an umpire who falls apart.  

We are talking about the World Championship here and Denkinger's call (although it wasn't his fault the Royals still scored in the inning and the Cardinals choked in Game Seven) is what most people talk about.  He is the only manager of the 1980s that is a household name in KC and STL.  At the bars here at Mizzou you will find pictures and paintings all over the place of the call while you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who knows the runner who was called safe (Jorge Orta).

In short you have to ask yourself these two questions to determine how history will remember what happened at first base in that game.

Did Denkinger cost the Cardinals the World Series? No.

Do people claim Denkinger is the reason they lost the World Series? Yes.

Edge: Denkinger


The Players and Coaches Reactions

I thought Jim Leyland was going to punch Joyce, I really did.  I have to imagine that of all the managers in the league Leyland's rants are the most poignant and creative. Lord knows what he said to him, but one thing is for sure: It would have made Quentin Tarantino blush.  

I'm more interested, however, in the reaction of Indians player Jason Donald.  He looks absolutely flabbergasted that he is called safe.  Immediately after he sees Joyce make the call, he throws his hands on his head, as if to say, "Oh no, you did not really call me safe."  Name me another instance where the base runner actually wants to be called out.  

It's safe to say that Donald probably went home that night wondering if he should've just slowed down instead of barreling down the line and right into the way of perfection.

After the game, multiple coaches from the Tigers had to be restrained from going after Joyce.  It looked like a bar fight where everyone realizes someone is going to get their ass kicked but because he's outnumbered 6-1 someone prevents a fight just because they don't want to see anyone get killed.  

Throw Cabrera jawing at Joyce for 10 straight minutes after the play when the game was still going on and you have one of the more bitter reactions to umpiring ever.  

Amazingly, the most calm person here was Galarraga himself.  A look of disbelief overcomes his face when the call is made, he doesn't even talk to Joyce after the play.

His reaction post-game is as stand-up as it gets too.  He could have just ripped Joyce apart and the sports world would have definitely nodded their heads.  

Instead he took the high road and admitted, "No one is perfect."  You can add this guy to the list of athletes of whom I'm a fan.  

As for 1985, the Cards first baseman Jack Clark, pitcher Todd Worrell, and manager Whitey Herzog spend forever pleading their case and I'm sure some choice words were said but to my knowledge nothing happens after the game.  

In this case, you still have to admit not all the blame falls on Denkinger because the Cardinals still lost the game themselves.  The only person to blame in the Joyce instance is Joyce; the Tigers and Galarraga did everything to notch a perfect game.

Edge: Joyce


The Fans' Reactions

Time will only tell how fans react to the Joyce call but let's hope it doesn't come close to the Denkinger reaction.  For whole two years after his call, Denkinger received hate mail and death threats from angry fans who clearly had no other lives at the time.  

I'm sure he went through hell during that time period; imagine waking up every morning for two years only to read in a letter how someone hates you for a call you made in a baseball game.  There are even reports that Denkinger came home one day to find the police waiting outside his house because they got word someone was actually going to go through with a threat.  

I doubt Joyce's scenario will be the same because he didn't have an entire team's season on the line with his call.  In this instance, it was an individual's chance at history that Joyce screwed up, not an entire team's.  That's not to say it doesn't matter that Galarraga's opportunity with destiny wasn't important; it just means more to fanbases when an entire team's is destroyed.

Edge: Denkinger


Overall: Denkinger

One final thought on this issue.  There are few worse things in a sports career than to be defined by your mistakes (you think of the aforementioned Buckner, Ernest Bynum, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, Nick Anderson).  These two umpires sadly will be remembered in the baseball history book for only these two calls.  That's just the way it is.

What is really awful about this is that I'm sure they feel much worse than any fan or player emotionally invested in these games.  Umpires love the game more than anyone else; they genuinely desire to spend their lives around baseball and get screamed at while doing it.  From all accounts Joyce is one of the more stand-up people involved in baseball and its a borderline tragedy that this will define who he is as a person.

I just saw on ESPN that Galarraga delivered today's lineup card to a crying Joyce at home plate.  It was an incredible act of sportsmanship by the Tigers and I hope fans now understand just how much this game means to Joyce.  

Out of anyone in the world right now, I'm sure no one more than Joyce wishes that Doc Brown would drive up in his Delorean and offer him a chance to go back in time.  

Sadly, it remains that only Joyce can touch perfection.


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