Last night, Pittsburgh Pirates fans paid honor to history into the wee hours of the morning, staying up through the witching hour only to witness sorcery at the most wicked level. One of the worst calls in MLB history came at nearly 2:00 am EST on July 27, 2011, dropping the Bucs from first to third in the NL Central.
Hoping that their Buccos would find gold, the bullpen pitched a twelve inning gem, the real ruby being reliever Daniel McCutchen’s valiant efforts as most of the west coast slept. Behind the barrel of gold nuggets was a thief in the night, or should I say morning: umpire Jerry Meals.
This morning, a sizeable contingent of Western Pennsylvania heads to work, popping an Advil (or two) to get through a day or work that will last only as long as the recent marathon. Instead of witnessing a timeless ending, they got to see a historic shame.
By the bottom of the 19th inning at Turner Field, both Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves batters were treading water, tired eyes and perspiring bodies looking for that one key hit to end the epic grudge match.
Baseball is one of the few games, like playoff hockey marathons, where such a special contest can occur during the regular season, an endless affair that promises an increasingly powerful catharsis with every new inning.
With runners on first and third base, Braves pitcher Scott Proctor came to the plate with one out. McCutchen had found a way to strand Braves’ runners throughout the evening. Again, the pitcher got a perfect result, a fast ground ball hit to third base that was quickly fielded. With Julio Lugo racing toward the plate, the baseball beat him to the destination.
Jerry Meals stood tall and confident, with a direct view of the action directly in front of him. Pirates catcher Michael McKenry appeared to clearly tag the knee of Lugo, whose half-hearted slide into home plate was equal parts necessity of the moment and forfeiture.
As the veteran walked away, head slumped at the prospects of being an out (and two more stranded runners) from a dubious seventeenth consecutive scoreless inning, it happened.
Despite the clear view…
Without regard to the hard work of two battling bullpens playing the games of their lives….
With every bit of impact on the standings as a single regular season game can have, dropping the Pirates from first to third in the NL Central…
Minus any regard for the odds in a situation that truly left only one man in the park with any shadow of a doubt (if that is even the truth)….
Meals stretched out his arms, and Lugo stopped. Safe?
Safe indeed, as stunned Pirates watched the umpire pull his best Captain Hook.
Hours later, as the acetaminophen kicks in for those with headaches resulting from three hours of sleep, folks who stayed up to catch a glimpse of history got just that--but not the kind that they were hoping for, win or lose.
Refereeing any sport is more difficult than it appears. Armchair officials, with the luxury of DVR and slow motion replay, use umpires as constant scapegoats. Baseball has an added difficulty, lacking the backup of instant replay.
In other words, in a game where the difference between a base hit and an out can be microseconds, essentially simultaneous in the vision of real time, one man has fate entirely in his hands.
On plays with such microscopic differences, one can barely fault the umpire for missing a few calls. Likewise, purists will cite the game’s human element as an enduring (and endearing) element exclusive to a traditional game that refuses to replace men with machines.
“Would you like the computer to bat for them, too?”
Yet, last night was not a matter of inches, milliseconds, or perception. At best, it was an empty feeling that negated the appropriate catharsis to a regular season game for the record books.
At worst, it was a moment of superficial analysis for one man, like many, who desired a comfortable bed, late dinner, or ice cold beer.
Either way, one thing is for sure: it was wrong. Like Armando Galarraga’s perfect game, a career achievement blown by one man’s stark error, this epic event called for the harshest of discretionary officiating. Instead, it turned into the lead-in for an infomercial selling instant replay to Bud Selig and the rest of the baseball committees.
Too bad for Bud, he couldn’t just call this one a tie!
The biggest shame is that it wasn’t even close. While Julio Lugo claims this morning that he was never tagged, the second before the umpire’s decision showed a veteran more than willing to walk away after an obvious out.
So, what does this moment teach us, and where should baseball go from here?
It teaches us to remember that the game’s officials really do a magnificent job. In a game faster than is ever accredited, most of baseball’s borderline circumstances see perfect calls.
It also reminds us that these fantastic umpires are all too human.
Those who advocate replay in baseball have to consider the degree of the implementation. The best way to assure that it never has part in the game is to expect a full-fledged replay system utilized at the discretion of managers.
The only worse than a coach for questioning calls it the baseball skipper. Fans who complain of a game that is too slow must ask themselves if they are also advocates for full baseball replay. After all, that would be hypocrisy at its most obvious state.
The truth is that baseball benefits from its current structure, with its varying strike zones and close calls adding an added element of strategy and drama to every unique outing. So, enthusiasts of “two strikes and you’re out” NFL system can politic until pigs fly--it’s never going to happen.
Yet, events like the egregious call to end last night’s sweat and tears battle cannot stand without some change. Too often lately, great events and accomplishments have been lost by calls that are strikingly obvious in their inaccuracy.
In hockey, replay officials monitor game action, able to stop contests when they deem necessary. While they have the option to review any particular play from a given day’s slate of games, this does not mean that a similar system would have to intervene with such frequency. For a game so steeped and prideful of its tradition, it is obvious that MLB wants to stand behind its umpires.
But the game should also take pride in its outcomes, and it should be embarrassed by last night’s call at home plate. As Lugo changed direction after the call in order to walk over and place his foot on home plate (if untagged by the catcher, why wouldn’t he have been sure that he’d crossed the base to begin with?), McKenry looked to the umpire with exasperation.
Clint Hurdle exited the dugout with that classic crimson face, veins bulging from places that only high blood pressure can achieve, to stand up for his men. Knowing that it wouldn’t be overturned, he did what any good manager does; he stood up for his players.
After all, his team was about to head back to the showers, potentially robbed of seven hours of hard work. A man of less integrity could question if the official wasn’t more tired of umpiring than the Bucs and Braves were of playing.
I doubt that's the case.
Nevertheless, it was the pillaging Pirates getting robbed of another chance. Who knows what may have transpired after that fateful out, but I know I would have loved to have seen it.
Even the Atlanta Braves, who should be equally proud of their effort in victory, have to be aware of the sullied ending, the truest shame of perhaps the season’s greatest game.
For the Armando Galarraga’s and Jason McKenry’s, every sport should have the safeguard of some form of replay, even if only to correct the worst of the worst calls. Without it, gutsy players will be robbed of hard work and fans will again lose sleep only to witness one man’s misjudgment.
Worse than anything, a baseball without any form of replay will continue to allow classic games to be remembered less for their glory and more for their flaws.