It may not have been the most significant blown call in recent baseball history, but dammit if it wasn’t the most egregious.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez came home on a cheaply hit grounder in the bottom of the 19th inning to catch the winning run on a fielder’s choice. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals got caught looking at a box of donuts in the stands while catcher Michael McKenry applied the tag, calling the trundling Julio Lugo safe and giving the Braves the 4-3 win after nearly seven hours of baseball.
McKenry threw his arms out in protest.
Relief pitcher Daniel McCutchen, urging a throw to first for a chance at a double play, didn’t immediately understand what everyone else was screaming about.
Manager Clint Hurdle delivered the kind of gratifying, screaming protest Pirates fans haven’t seen in three years, nearly following the umpiring crew into their locker room as he berated them over the call.
Hurdle's players, some of them needing to be physically restrained, shouted over the fence as Meals and his crew walked past the livid Pirates bench.
The Braves, meanwhile, celebrated—much in the way a well-deserving millionaire celebrates his or her winning lottery ticket.
Following last night’s call, one has to wonder what must be the first thing that’s taught in umpiring school.
Keep your eye on the play, perhaps?
Trust that the obvious call is most often the correct one?
No. The first thing taught in umpiring school is to never play 20 innings, or finish the game in enough time so that you may get home early enough to record Cheers reruns on the Hallmark Channel.
That’s all I can imagine that might justify Jerry Meals’ call.
Forget that the Pirates didn’t score over the final 17 innings of the game—for the last 16, neither did the Braves. Each club escaped and gave away numerous go-ahead situations. Relievers Daniel McCutchen and Christhian Martinez worked over five innings of relief apiece, while the Pirates’ McKenry enjoyed another game (home run, 19 innings behind the plate) that is adding to his fast-growing reputation as a Pirates cult hero.
Like Armando Galarraga's near-perfect outing a year ago, last night's game was compelling theater.
Games like these are exclusive to baseball, and the sport is better off for it. November hockey games end in shootouts. NBA games offer only five-minute increments of overtime. Football games may still end in ties.
Regular-season drama like fans saw last night is property of baseball and baseball alone.
So, too, is the distinction of employing the most incompetent, stubborn, archaic system of officiating and review in all of professional sports.
Is baseball worried that instant replay might slow down its game? They should be, in the same way NHL brass ought to be worried their playing surface might be uncomfortable on bare skin.
That baseball has yet to employ a system of replay with any teeth is embarrassing.
Short of a few bitter comments last night, the Pirates have had little to say of the call. Most have indicated they are looking forward to today’s game, which is perhaps the best possible approach.
That’s not to say it’s the one fans want to hear.
Without a moment’s doubt, this is one Pirates fans can get angry about.
Twitter exploded following the game. Even in the earliest hours of the morning, livid fans took to the site in arms, admonishing the call and creating the hash tag #jerrymealssaysitssafe, which had become an United States-wide trend by this afternoon.
Caught in the middle of a July divisional race for the first time in three Presidential administrations, the Pirates actually had something to gain—or lose—by the outcome of this game. The win would have kept them tied atop the division.
The loss dropped them to third.
Baseball’s schedule allows teams more than enough opportunities to establish themselves as deserving winners or losers by seasons’ end. While 162 games should be enough to put a team in its rightful place, that place ought to be decided by the team itself—not the staggering incompetence of the man in blue with an ache in his back.
Though nothing useful can come from it, the Pirates filed an official complaint with Major League Baseball earlier today. From Pirates President Frank Coonelly (via MLB Writer Jennifer Langosch):
“The Pittsburgh Pirates organization is extremely disappointed by the way its 19-inning game against the Atlanta Braves ended earlier this morning. The game of baseball and this game in particular, filled with superlative performances by players on both clubs, deserved much better. We have filed a formal complaint with the Commissioner.
“While we cannot begin to understand how Umpire Jerry Meals did not see the tag made by Michael McKenry three feet in front of home plate, we do not question the integrity of Mr. Meals. Instead, we know that Mr. Meals’ intention was to get the call right. Jerry Meals has been umpiring Major League games for 14 years and has always done so with integrity and professionalism. He got this one wrong.
“For Pirates fans, we may have lost a game in the standings as a result of a missed call but this game, and the gutsy performances by so many of our players, will make us stronger, more unified and more determined as we continue the battle for the National League Central Division.”
Good on Coonelly to take the high-road stance on the issue. Because I sure won’t.
Jerry Meals’ call was indefensible.
If the offices of Major League Baseball had any sense of conviction harder than warm oatmeal, Meals would be taken off the crew for the remaining two games of this series and issued some sort of supplementary indication that his call at home was blasphemous.
Instead, Meals will stay with the crew, MLB will justify the call by offering some manner of half-hearted protest to instant replays (by way of citing the ‘charm’ and ‘pace’ of the game once again) and Pittsburgh and its fans will be left to bite their lips until the next flagrantly bad call is able to take the shine off this one.
In the end, fan outrage doesn’t matter. Baseball calls are never overturned, and not a single thing can come of it but to see an angry Pirates squad, led by their manager, galvanize themselves against what is just the latest installment of two decades of disrespect aimed at their franchise.
The Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Dejan Kovacevic said it best: the call may not have been an outright slight against the hard-luck Pirates, but taking it as one can only bring the players together.
They’ll have to galvanize themselves. In a very tight and very real divisional race, last night’s game was the kind that makes a fan want to eat glass and drink gasoline.
It would be okay, should they choose to do so.
Jerry Meals says it’s safe.
James' self-righetous indignation can be had in 140-character form @slewfooters.