Thursday, October 30, 2008

Once More (Reluctantly) Into The Void

These are the saddest of possible words: baseball season is over. Once again, we baseball fanatics are severed from our daily fix of games, statistics, and stories, and we enter The Void--that dark, cold, dismal state of hibernation from which we won't emerge until the other side of winter. Make no mistake--it is already winter here in Cooperstown, with six inches of snow two days ago and snowflakes filling the morning sky as I write this.

Luckily, working at the Hall of Fame, I get my fill of baseball numbers and lore twelve months a year, whether games are being played or not. It's a great job, but it does not fully compensate for the wintry hiatus without games. The baseball season is like having a daily visit from a great neighbor who brings a smorgasbord of treats. Abruptly, the season ends, and the neighbor turns into a snowbird, climbing into an RV and heading south, leaving the rest of us warmed only by the memories of treats gone by.

Before the 2008 snowbird hits the road, I'm taking a moment for a post mortem on the World Series, consisting of a few passing comments and one serious proposal. First, the appetizers:

1) Yesterday a colleague here claimed that Joe Blanton was the reason the Phillies were in the World Series. I presume this was because the Phillies were something like 13-4 in games Blanton started, not because his pitching was outstanding. "Do you agree?" I was asked. My reply was "No, I don't. The Phillies are in the World Series because of Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, and the rest of the Mets bullpen." There's a little truth in that, but actually I think Brad Lidge was the one player most responsible for where the Phillies are today. Here was a guy who had developed some kind of mental block in Houston, serving up fat fastballs and hanging sliders in so many postseason debacles that he was run out of town. In Philadelphia, he was perfect, statistically and stylistically. If the Mets had gotten Lidge, they'd be the champions today. The Phillies got him, and he made all the difference for them.

2) The only thing worse than the umpiring in this World Series was the national anthems, with the slight exception of John Oates, who screwed up some of the words but at least got the notes right. The others were horrible. You'd think they were getting paid by the note. A word of advice to all future singers of the national anthem at sporting events: stop treating it like an audition for a Broadway show and just sing the song.

3) I had a hard time picking a team to root for, but in the end I'm happy for the folks in Philadelphia, who have been starved for champions the last century or so. They'll have chances enough in the near future to go back to booing people. Meanwhile, the core base of 142 rabid Rays fans will just have to wait awhile longer for a title.

4) As often happens in Real Life, the outcome was a perfect example of the merging of triumph and tragedy. So here's a tip of the cap to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whose mother passed away earlier this month just as he began his climb to the peak of his career.

Now the main course, a word about the umpiring: atrocious. Collectively, this umpiring crew made more egregious errors than any in history, so many that we've seen articles all week about how they admitted blowing this or that call. Tim Welke and Kerwin Danley deserve special mention for going beneath and below the call of duty in failing to see what was happening right in front of them. They combined to miss the balk call in Game 1 that cost the Rays a decent shot at the tying run in a one-run loss, but that play took place dozens of feet away from them. In Game 2, Danley missed seeing Jimmy Rollins, standing just a few feet in front of him, get nicked by a pitch in the ninth inning, and in the first inning of Game 4, Welke didn't see Evan Longoria tag Rollins just a few feet away. Welke explained later that it was a swipe tag, and he didn't notice any pause in Longoria's motion such as would occur if he made the tag. Yeah, it was Longoria's fault. The replay showed his glove making contact in a spot suggesting that he could have shoved the ball up Rollins' ass, so I guess he should have paused long enough to do that. Game 5 featured Jeff Kellogg's magically mobile strike zone, which may have cost Scott Kazmir the two 1st-inning runs which made the difference in the game.

For sheer "Twilight Zone" bizarreness, nothing will top the non-strike strike call Danley made in Game 2. On a 3-2 pitch, Rocco Baldelli either swung at an outside slider or checked his swing. We can't be sure because, despite the insistence of Fox announcers Tim McCarver and Joe Buck that it was unequivocally a swing, the folks at Fox never provided the camera angle seen on even the most insignificant regular-season telecast, the side-angle view that would let the viewers form an opinion about whether it was a swing. Danley raised his arm overhead in a motion that means nothing but "strike!" 100% of the time. Then Rod Serling clicked a stopwatch somewhere, time skipped a beat, and the next thing we saw was Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz pointing toward first-base umpire Fieldin Culbreth for an appeal play, and Danley pausing on the follow-through of his strike call to gesture toward first base. My guess--and it's only a guess because I haven't heard Ruiz's comments--is that Danley was saying "ball" even while his arm was going up in the strike motion. It does happen to umpires once in awhile, motioning one thing while calling another. If he had said "strike," why would Ruiz ask for an appeal? Culbreth called it a no-swing (take that, Joe Buck!) As with all the other strange calls by the umpires in the series, this one met with surprisingly little protest from the manager. Buck and McCarver seemed more upset about it than Manuel. In the end, this call/non-call didn't lead to a run or cause the damage that the blatantly blown calls did, but the image of Danley's confusion was emblematic of the affliction that beset the umpires throughout the series. His body language told us, "Wow, something just happened right in front of me! Part of me wants to make the right call, but part of me has no idea, and maybe that guy over there has a better idea."

That brings me to the serious proposal. Let's just go ahead and introduce full-blown instant replay to baseball. Commissioner Selig and the other powers-that-be seemed to be in a big hurry to introduce the limited version of instant replay that began in August and produced several reversed (i.e. ultimately correct) calls. After lifetimes of insisting that taking the power to make mistakes (excuse me, to make final calls) away from umpires would reduce "the human element" in baseball, Selig et al chose to open the door a crack and admit that certain situations were important enough to get calls right. So we now have instant replay, or rather a half-assed version of instant replay.

Does anybody out there think that this will still be the extent of instant replay 50 years from now? Baseball is a game of inches. One umpire missing a tag play or a balk or even a swing with a two-strike count--any one of those calls can make the difference of one base-runner, one base, one run, and one game. Every game counts in the standings. The Mets and Twins both missed the playoffs by one game. Do you think those teams can point to one game during the season when a missed call cost them a crucial run and therefore made all the difference in their fate for the year? Of course they can. Every team in the majors can point to one game or three or five where a missed call made the difference. The cliche is that umpires make the right decision 99% of the time. Do the math. That means that every umpire in the majors missed at least a handful of calls during the season. Some of those are bound to make a difference in the outcomes of games.

Decades ago, umpires were on their own in making calls. Even check-swings were the exclusive call of one umpire. Only in recent years have we seen umpires confer on calls, taking a moment or two on a disputed play to get a consensus and make what is almost always (that is, 99% of the time) the correct call. Now we have instant replays for home runs. It is ironic that less than two months after opening the door to off-the-field rulings on occasional plays, the World Series umpiring crew made the strongest statement yet in favor of expanding this system to all calls. I'm not talking about judgment calls, which would include the balk in Game 1 and the Baldelli check-swing in Game 2. Those are subjective calls, like the strike zone, and we'll just have to allow for human error on those. But it would include the Longoria-Rollins tag play in Game 4, the Rollins HBP in Game 2, and the Carl Crawford bunt in Game 3 where Jamie Moyer made that fantastic dive and glove-flip to Ryan Howard, whose barehand stab meant that Crawford was out by a half-step, except that Tom Hallion was staring at the base to watch Crawford's foot hit it while listening for the sound of ball hitting the glove, the usual way a first-base ump decides who got to the bag first, and because he never heard the ball hit Howard's hand he called Crawford safe.

Those calls didn't have to happen. All you needed was someone like Bruce Froemming sitting upstairs next to the official scorer, looking at the replays, and he would have waived a red flag or pressed a button, and the home-plate umpire would hear Froemming's voice in his earpiece saying "uh, that guy was out." And he'd be out. The whole principle behind having umpire conferences and for having instant replay (in its present form) is the bottom-line preference for getting the call right. It took baseball a long, long time to recognize the fairness of making the players win the games on their own, without accidental help from umpires' missed calls.

Here are two words that sum up the rationale behind introducing instant replay for all empirically verifiable plays (fair/foul, tag/no tag, held or dropped ball, out/safe at first base, etc.): Don Denkinger. The headline on his obituary is going to read: "Don Denkinger, Umpire, Missed Call in 1985 World Series." That isn't fair, and with instant replay it wouldn't have to be. Face it--lots and lots of umpires make the wrong call. They're human, and even Bill Klem, whose reputation for infallibility was legendary, added the words "in my heart" when he claimed never to have missed a call. It happens. They're human. But if instant replay existed, if baseball truly acted on its desire to get the calls right (when they're either/or situations and not gray areas like check swings), then Don Denkinger would be deservedly forgotten today and not eternally vilified by the fans of the St. Louis Cardinals for making a clearly wrong call which contributed to their losing the 1985 World Series. Denkinger would merely be another umpire whose instinctive response to a play was to make a call which was overturned 30 seconds later by the umpire upstairs looking at the replay. It would have been as simple as that. This travesty ranks #1 on the " page 2" staff's list of the worst calls in sports history. It didn't have to be.

Here are two more words for those of you still perched on the fence: Jeffrey Maier. Even loyal Yankees fan admit that the opposition got hosed by this call. Orioles fans still wake up in the middle of the night screaming at the vision of Maier, a pre-pubescent nose-picker, reaching over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium to deflect a Derek Jeter fly ball into the stands while Tony Tarasco waited on the warning track to make an easy catch. The umpire, Rich Garcia, actually hustled to get a close view of the play, but was apparently distracted by an enormous hologram of a scowling George Steinbrenner projected over the Stadium's facade, failed to see Maier flail at the ball, and called it a home run instead of an out for interference. The Yankees won that game (Game 1 in the 1996 ALCS) in extra innings, and without the call would have trailed the Orioles 2-0 in the series. Instead, they went on to the title. Maier became a New York hero, with television appearances and box seats for the next game. As Oriole Bobby Bonilla put it, "If one of the Orioles had hit it, the kid would have been strung up on the Throgs Neck Bridge." Or, if instant replay had been in effect, Jeter would have been out and the game would have proceeded in a fair manner resembled what is instead only an imaginary parallel universe.

It used to be that the umpires in the World Series (and other post-season series) were chosen on merit. That's why guys like Doug Harvey kept showing up at games in October. Now, thanks to the umpires' union, the October umpires are assigned on a rotating basis. No matter how good they are, when their turn comes up, there they are. This system carries an inherent guarantee that the World Series umpires will not be the best. Indeed, there's less than a 10% chance that even one of the six umpires in the Series will be one of the six best (however you might define or determine that) umpires in the majors. It seems unlikely that the rotation system is going to go away, but it's time to accept that whoever is out there from year to year, they need all the help they can get. Certainly they needed plenty of help this time, and it was available. It was clear to everybody looking at a television screen that human beings cannot necessarily be counted on to make the right call even if they're only a few feet away from the play. Yogi Berra is right that "you can observe a lot just by watching," but you can't observe everything. Cameras can observe a lot of things that the human eye cannot, things like whether an outfielder trapped that sinking line drive or caught it, or whether a second baseman trying to make a quick pivot on a double play really did drop the ball during the transfer from glove to throwing hand or actually never caught the ball.

The result of a play should be based on what truly happened, if we can determine it, and not just on an umpire's fleeing impression on what he thinks might have happened. What Tim Welke said about that tag play applies to a lot of the calls umpires make. Generally speaking, when a fielder makes a sweep tag, the instant of contact with the runner causes some kind of pause in the motion. That's physics. So Welke, failing to discern a pause, assumed that the play fell into his perceived 90+% of such plays. But he was wrong, as the camera plainly showed. Up in the press box and thereabouts, where Bruce Froemming or some other instant replay official would have been stationed, no assumptions would have been necessary. The right call would have been made, and there would have been a greater chance for the outcome of the game to be decided by truth rather than speculation

So wake up, Baseball, whoever is in charge. You've admitted that human error need not prevail on home run calls. Why be half-assed about it? Don't be afraid that machines are going to replace people. When technology overtakes us, we'll deal with it then. Today we should do what we can, get things right--now--and let tomorrow take care of itself. Don't make Orioles fans sit around asking "what the hell was Garcia looking at?" We wouldn't care what Garcia looked at, as long as there was a guy in a booth somewhere with more than a split-second to see what really happened. Just don't make us wait until--God forbid--a World Series call goes against the Yankees before making the commitment.


Unknown said...

Overall, I have to say, "Boo." I have a lot to say on this, but it's your blog. In short, let the players play and the umps ump. I do agree with the issue of not having the best umps work the Series every year, and hopefully MLB reworks the next CBA with the union to get that fixed. Otherwise, let the mistakes fall where they may. Sometimes I think a lot of people want replay just so they don't have to listen to Buck and McCarver whine about bad calls. The solution isn't replay - it's getting rid of Buck and McCarver. (I actually like Buck, but could do without McCarver just fine.)

And finally, I may not be the sharpest tool in the baseball shed, but I have seen the "balk" a dozen times now, and I still don't see a balk. And whether his move was or wasn't legal, Pena wasn't hanging around long enough to be deceived by the move, so the spirit of the rule was left intact by the non-call (which I endorse as a handling of rules generally).

Perry Barber said...

Gabriel, your complaints about the umpiring in the World Series this year are well-taken and certainly not without merit, but I would like to point out a key inaccuracy in your dissection of the Carl Crawford bunt play in game 3. You say one of the reasons first base umpire Tom Hallion may have incorrectly ruled Crawford safe on the play is that he was "staring at the base to watch Crawford's foot hit it while listening for the sound of the ball hitting the glove, the usual way a first-base ump decides who got to the bag first, and because he never heard the ball hit Howard's hand he called Crawford safe."

I can't say I have total mental recall of the play, but I would be very surprised if Hallion was "staring at the base... while listening for the sound of the ball hitting the glove..." In fact, from the time professional umpires are trained at umpire school, we are taught to keep our eyes everlastingly on the BALL. The trick, of which not too many casual observers are aware, is for the umpire to not get too close to the play; being too close will significantly reduce one's range of vision and make it much less likely the entire play will be seen and judged holistically. On bang-bang plays at first, those whackers where out/safe really is a matter of nanoseconds and millimeters, umpires are NOT technically "watching" the first base bag, although it most definitely should be within their range of vision. Depending on his or her position on the infield or the foul line when the ball is pitched, the umpire charged with making calls at first base will get a ninety degree angle on the play, follow the BALL with his or her eyes, and follow it all the way into the fielder's glove. What we LISTEN for is the sound of the batter's foot hitting the bag, which makes a distinct kind of whooomfing sound, distinguishable from the hard smack of the ball hitting the glove. That is the opposite of the way you say Hallion judged the play, and diametrically opposed to what you contend is the "usual way a first base ump decides who got to the bag first." So if Hallion was indeed looking at the bag rather than the ball, I can't imagine why, and that was probably the reason for his error right there.

By the way, Don Denkinger is a great guy and a wonderful human being who can hold his head high even though he made a similarly memorable mistake in the 1985 Series. It happens to the best of us, sometimes inevitably at the worst possible time. I don't think replay beyond its current usage will solve any more problems than it will engender; camera angles don't always reveal the truth, and the "eye in the sky" who would be overruling a decision made on the field can be just as wrong as the one who made the original judgment. Who would overrule THAT umpire? We don't ask for do-overs when an infielder kicks an easy ground ball, or an outfielder drops a can of corn. Why should we tamper with umpires' mistakes if we don't do the same with the players? You and I obviously need to talk!
Fascinating stuff, Gabriel; your insights are provocative and thoughtfully articulated.