During Thursday night's American League Division Series game between the Anaheim Angels and Boston Red Sox, first base umpire C.B. Bucknor had an absolutely horrendous evening. He mangled two obscenely easy calls at the bag, calls that had no business being missed and resulted in erroneous baserunners for the Halos.
Luckily for Bucknor, neither gaffe materially affected the outcome.
On Friday night, the Baseball Gods were not so merciful.
The Minnesota Twins were reeling in the wake of an uncustomary meltdown by Joe Nathan. One of the most reliable closers in Major League Baseball—right up there with Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon—allowed the New York Yankees to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth courtesy of Alex Rodriguez' potentially legacy-altering two-run bomb.
In the nanosecond it took for A-Rod's shot to scream out of the yard in almost dead center field, the Twinkies saw their dreams of wresting home field advantage out of the Evil Empire's blood-soaked talons disappear.
Left in their place was the distasteful task of rebounding from a devastating blow in extra innings on the road. Never an easy task, but one made all the more daunting by the New Yankee Stadium's cacophonous joy.
Although it probably shouldn't surprise anyone given the Twins' history of resilience and giving the middle finger to odds-makers, Minnesota righted the ship. It wasn't exactly pretty, but the club persevered.
In the top of the 11th, the Twins should've been rewarded.
Joe Mauer led off the inning with a slicing drive to left field that grazed off Melky Cabrera's glove in fair territory before taking one bounce and entering the stands. According to MLB rules, if a player touches the ball while it's in fair territory, the ball is live no matter where it bounces.
Of course, that didn't really matter because the pill hit about two inches inside fair territory. In other words, Mauer's drive was a live ball for TWO reasons when it caromed into the stands.
It was an easy call—the Twins' catcher had just led off with a ground-rule double.
Unfortunately, Phil Cuzzi (who can be seen in technically perfect position to judge the play) saw things differently. For whatever reason, Cuzzi decided the ball was foul and sent Mauer back to the batter's box.
Mauer would eventually single as would the next two batters behind him. Had he been on second as he deserved to be, either subsequent hit may have scored him and the combo would've certainly done the job. But neither plated the catcher since Mauer was stuck on first and Minnesota would ultimately be unable to score, despite having the bases drunk with no outs.
That was that.
Mark Teixeira sent everyone home in the bottom of the 11th with a lead-off, walk-off big fly and the Bronx Bombers get to fly to the Metrodome with a 2-0 series lead.
In the linked clip of the call, crew chief Tim Tschida rightly pointed out that nobody feels worse about the call than Cuzzi (except maybe Minnesota players and fans). That shouldn't be dismissed because umpires are human like everyone else—they aren't perfect and shouldn't be held to that standard.
Additionally, even though the stakes are at their highest in the playoffs, it's still only a game.
So I don't mean to go after the man personally or insinuate he's malicious or a despicable individual. Cuzzi made a mistake that's been made before and will be made again. He blew a call in a baseball game; he didn't murder, rape, or maim anyone.
Furthermore, just like the Chicago Cubs in the wake of Steve Bartman, the Twinkies had ample opportunity to push across a run or two after the boner. They can't blame their failure to take the lead solely on Phil Cuzzi nor can they be sure the Pinstripes wouldn't have comeback again had the blue made the right call (there's certainly something in the air around the Yankees, be forewarned).
We are in baseball's most cherished time. Ballplayers spend their whole careers striving to make the playoffs and then power their teams through to victory. In April, every fan re-opens the wounds of the previous season, dreaming of seeing his or her team playing deep into October and November.
Nobody wants to be talking about blown calls and umpires when the ante is this high.
Yet, here we are, because the Minnesota Twins didn't deserve to have the game end the way it did. They deserved to have the matter decided by the players and them alone.
I'm sure Cuzzi feels bad about bungling the thing, but that doesn't change the fact that it was inexcusable. Like Bucknor's pair, this wasn't your typical bang-bang call that could go either way.
Most true baseball fans can accept mistakes on those stumpers with little contempt. They're tough enough to call with the benefit of slow-motion and high-definition.
With the naked eye? Hey, your guess is as good as mine even if it ends up being wrong.
But baseball fans of any kind have little tolerance or patience with blatant incompetence and that's exactly the accusation that must be lobbed at Cuzzi. He was standing right in front of the play, the ball bounced in fair territory by a clear margin, and he called it foul.
He wasn't blocked, he wasn't moving because the ball was in an awkward position, and there weren't any insects in the air.
Cuzzi had only to use his powers of observation—assets on which his compensation rests and, therefore, ones that should be highly reliable given his de facto status as an elite umpire—and make the right call.
Only they abandoned him.
When yet another umpire chosen by Major League Baseball to handle its most precious cargo needed his skills to be at their best, they were at their worst.
And that's becoming a disturbing trend.