Friday, October 22, 2010

Bermuda Triangle Behind Home Plate

Something strange has been going on at home plate during the two LCS series. In the space of five games, we have seen five clearly blown calls on balls that never got past the plate. It's as if there's no umpire at all back there, or like a wrestling referee the assigned umpire is somehow averting his eyes just at the moment when the critical event occurs, preventing him from doing anything more than guess at what might have happened. What the hell is going on?

I've written before about the need to put in an instant replay system that recognizes the simple fact that any play can influence the outcome of a game and therefore a season. John Smoltz, on the ALCS telecasts, has been advocating a system which would authorize instant replay on any play which results in a run scoring. Apparently it's perfectly all right with him if a horribly butchered call results in putting a runner on third or loading the bases, absolving the umpires if there is no immediate run scored on the blown call. That's the same mentality that created the Hold, the most bogus statistic of all time. A relief pitcher can come in with a one-run lead and load the bases, but if he's relieved before the tying run scores, he is given a "hold," a stat which suggests that he held something. He might get the Loss if all those runs score, but he'll still get that Hold. Same thing with Smoltz's proposal; the umpires can miss calls all over the place but if the run doesn't score until the next batter, officially they did nothing wrong.

Another announcer--I forget which one--discussing a blown call earlier in a game which had just ended, declared that it still wasn't a reason to institute instant replay because taking a few minutes to review a play would slow the game down. The two teams had just played a nine-inning affair which lasted 3 hours and 52 minutes. But instant replay would've slowed the game down! "Neanderthal" is the word that comes to mind when accounting for that kind of logic.

When the Derek Jeter fake-hit-by-pitch occurred late in the season, it was a lesson for all of us on how easy it is to miss a call at the plate. You'd think it would be easier for the home plate umpire to make the correct call when everyone is standing there right in front of him and the ball is coming right at him. But it isn't. It's as tough to make the right call as it is for the batter to hit that ball. It's coming in at 90mph or so, is moving vertically, laterally, or diagonally, the batter is making some kind of move toward or away from the ball, and the catcher, who starts off directly in front of the umpire's eyes, is moving to make the catch and sometimes blocking the umpire's view of it.

In the NLDS, a critical missed call helped the Phillies defeat the Reds in the second game. Aroldis Chapman entered the game in the 7th inning with a 4-3 lead, firing heat, recording fastballs of 100+mph. His first two pitches to Chase Utley made a very good hitter look helpless. His next pitch was faster than the first two. It sailed high and inside as Utley tried to duck away and Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan's glove flailed at the ball as it went by. If someone still has the footage, take a look and correct me if I'm wrong, but the replay I saw showed that home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman was ducking, too, leaning to his left as the ball sailed to his right. I think he assumed--or guessed--that the pitch must have hit Utley because otherwise Hanigan would have caught it. Of course, the replay showed that the ball didn't hit Utley. But he was awarded first base, and three runs later the Phillies had their winning margin.

It has only gotten worse in the two LCS. The Yankees were trounced in Game 4, losing to the Rangers, 10-3. It might have been a close game when the Yankees rallied in the 8th inning, trailing 7-3. They loaded the bases with one out and Nick Swisher batting. A Darren Oliver sweeping curve darted inside as Swisher jack-knifed out of the way. It was called a ball, but the television replay showed clearly that the ball grazed Swisher's pants leg. A HBP would've made it 7-4 with the bases still loaded; the Yankees might well have rallied to tie the game, but Swisher popped out and the Rangers escaped with their 7-3 lead intact. This was a tough call for the home plate umpire because the contact with Swisher's uniform didn't make a sound (or at least not one audible above the raucous Yankee Stadium crowd) or cause the ball to change directions.

Swisher got revenge of a sort in Game 6 when he batted in the 5th inning with the Yankees trailing 1-0 and a runner on third base. Colby Lewis threw a sharp-breaking low and inside, and Swisher backed out of the way. Bengie Molina moved from his crouch to block the ball but succeeded only in blocking the umpire's view. When the ball ricocheted off Swisher's back shin and through Molina's legs, the umpire couldn't see it. He had to guess. He didn't hear anything and he knew that the ball can bounce any which way on a curve in the dirt, so he called it a wild pitch. Molina went nuts but managed to avoid getting ejected on a play that tied the game. John Smoltz coyly pointed out that under his proposed system, that play could have been reviewed.

Things were even stranger in Game 4 of the NLCS, in which the home plate umpire missed two similar calls in one at-bat--mind you, the final batter of the game with the game on the line. Bottom of the 9th, tie game, runners on first and third with one out, and Juan Uribe batting. Roy Oswalt threw a tailing fastball that hit Uribe's hand, but home plate umpire Wally Bell called it a foul ball. He thought it hit the knob of the bat, but as the announcers pointed out, Uribe grips the bat with his hands covering the knob, so it had to hit his hand and not wood. No matter. It was strike two instead of the bases being loaded. Wouldn't you know it--that was followed by another fastball boring in on Uribe. This one ticked the bat, hanging loosely by Uribe's right shoulder as he tried to back away, caromed two feet in the other direction, and nailed catcher Carlos Ruiz in the mask, knocking it off. "Ball two," said Wally Bell. I don't mean to pick on Bell, but. . .what the hell was he looking at? How did he think the ball got from nearly nailing the batter to hitting the catcher squarely in the mask? Or was there something else going on? Was this a "make-up" call for missing the earlier hit by pitch? If so, that was an awful time to make amends, with the game on the line. Or was there some kind of voodoo curse working in the vicinity, filling that snug area between the plate and the people standing behind it with some kind of invisibility cloak that prevented anybody from seeing anything? Very strange.

The invisible zone reached its peak in Game 5 in San Francisco on Roy Halladay's phantom sacrifice bunt. Obviously home plate umpire Jeff Nelson's view was blocked by Buster Posey as he jumped up to make a quick play on Halladay's bunt that dribbled over the plate and off to the side, inches into foul territory before Posey picked it up. Nelson was probably influenced by Posey's hasty throw to third base, reasoning that Posey wouldn't have made such an energetic play to third base on a foul ball. That's what you get for assuming, Mr. Nelson. Halladay had the best view of all. He stood there looking down at the ball, saw that it was clearly foul, and didn't run, made no move at all to leave the batter's box for at least five seconds, until the "safe" call at third base alerted him to the possibility that someone might have called it a fair ball.

The announcers were perplexed that none of the other infield umpires had a good enough view of the ball to overrule Nelson. But it isn't that surprising. Like so many other airborne objects over the years, the ball had dropped into the Bermuda Triangle, vanished from view and a mystery forever.

Bottom line: all five of these missed calls could have been corrected by instant replay. The one thing we have learned from the current limited use of instant replay is that, whether it takes one minute or five minutes, after the umpires review a call by using instant replay, THEY GET IT RIGHT!

There is no shame in guessing at a call and getting it wrong--or making what you think is a clear call and getting it wrong--and then using instant replay to get it right. I haven't heard an umpire yet complain after a game that he wished that his wrong call had been allowed to stand rather than being corrected through a replay. Every bad call that goes uncorrected is unfair to the players, unfair to the fans, and unfair to the umpires. It is their reputation that takes a hit when a bad call unfairly influences the outcome of a game. Isn't it about time that baseball comes to its senses?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Be Careful: What You Write Might Be Held Against You

All my life, people have been giving me things to read. Whether it is books, manuscripts, e-mail attachments, or essays scribbled in pencil, I've had a steady stream of published and unpublishable writing cross my path, with people seeking my feedback. At times I've gotten paid for it--starting with three years of teaching freshman composition at the University of Montana in the 1970s--and other times you couldn't pay me enough to endure what I see on the page. Usually I'm content to shake my head and make smart-ass comments. Sometimes, however, what I see simply makes my head spin. Let me tell you about some of these.

When I was in grad school and teaching one section of freshman comp, I had a student who was in danger of flunking. The day the final paper was due, he sat on the floor outside my office for two hours, furiously committing his thoughts to paper--in pencil. He didn't take the time to proofread; evidently that was my job. There were misspellings, missing words, and sloppiness in every paragraph. He tried to write "decisions, decisions," and misspelled it two different ways. But I left his fate straddling the fence as I plodded forward, looking for a reason to pass him or flunk him, trying to find the nugget of wisdom in the dustpan of fractured English. Finally I got the cosmic signal I sought. Apropos of nothing, he wrote, "You might even call me somewhat of a perfectionist." A noble sentiment, but he wrote "prefectionist". That's all I needed to see. A big laugh, a big "F," and I was able to move ahead with my life.

I have a list somewhere of the best gaffes of my Montana students. "All cheerleaders are Pre-Madonnas," wrote one, with more insight than she intended. Another informed me that "a football field is divided into two equal halves," making sure I got the picture. (That deadly precision was echoed in another sentence that crossed my path not long ago, about two baseball teams that played ten games: "They each won five games each, with an equal number of losses.") "Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sixteenth Chapel," I was told by another student, and it may have been true for all I know. How about this one: "Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifiction" (my comment in the margin was "if it really happened, wouldn't it be a crucifact?").

The one that gave me vertigo expressed the existential angst of all college students getting acquainted with critical thought: "Language is very important, but sometimes semantics gets in the way." Ain't it the truth! Communication is so vital, yet how often the words that are used just seem to make things worse. The beauty of this insight is that it can be applied to so many other things in life. Driving is very important, but sometimes roads get in the way. Freedom is important, but laws get in the way. Government is important, but politicians get in the way. God is important, but religion gets in the way. If only we could find the shortcuts past the annoying reality of substance, we could get somewhere! The kid was brilliant, and I shouldn't have been so surprised, since there's plenty of anti-semanticism in Montana.

In recent years, as a baseball historian, I get a lot of baseball material to read. Three examples from the last few months will show that even a benign subject like baseball is still full of semantic mine fields. One involves Hal Newhouser, a Hall of Fame pitcher whose greatest achievement was being the only pitcher to win back-to-back MVP titles. That's what this writer pointed out, noting regretfully that the MVPs occurred in 1944 and 1945, when the majority of the toughest hitters were preoccupied with fighting World War II. Because the opposition wasn't top-flight, some people think it wasn't that phenomenal an achievement--notably this writer, who insisted that we should "attach a psychic asterisk" to Newhouser's feat. What? What the hell does that mean? First of all, there are no asterisks in baseball; nope, not even attached to Roger Maris (there were separate records listed for Maris and Babe Ruth, no asterisk). Secondly, what would a "psychic asterisk" be? Is that anything like a mental note? Did he mean "psychological"? Or was it Newhouser who was psychic: "I predict that someday people won't give me the credit I deserve for winning back-to-back MVP awards." Yeah, that must be it.

I'm pretty tolerant of numbers in baseball writing, since I use them a lot myself. If they prove something, fine; if not, as a reader I can nudge them aside and see if there's some meaning without them. But my brain started to implode when I read this passage not long ago: "Hitting only .227 at the time, Johnston batted almost .286 through the end of the second western road trip." Does that seem benign? No, actually it's one of the most infuriating bits of non-information I've read in ages. Almost .286? Did he bat .285 or .283 or .281? Whatever it was, it was a precise number. Give us that number! It's like saying, "Mickey Mantle batted almost .300 for his career." Well, he batted .298. It's quicker and more accurate to say ".298" than "almost .300." I can't imagine why this writer couldn't give us the exact average. In addition, the math is misleading. Let's say that Johnston had 28 more at-bats during the western road trip. If he had eight hits, that would be a .286 average. Perhaps "almost" meant that he was one hit shy of .286. That would be seven hits, and in 28 at-bats that's a .250 average. Is seven hits almost eight? Yes. Is .250 almost .286? Nope. So what did Johnston do on the road? I have no idea.

The (recent) capper came in a short essay on Roberto Clemente, one of baseball's most beloved immortals. Here's the description that someone came up with for Clemente: "lightly educated but dark-skinned." Whoa! Somehow that just didn't work for me. When my eyes were able to focus again, I gazed at that disturbing depiction, which the writer was probably proud of because he had so cleverly manipulated "light" and "dark" into the same sentence. Uh-huh. Apart from being offended, I was puzzled most of all by the simple word "but," which suggested that there was some connection between the two phrases and hinted that they even balanced each other. But there is no connection at all. It would be like saying "George W. Bush is mentally deficient but nicely tanned," or "Charles Manson is criminally insane but colorfully tattooed." How about "Joan of Arc was burned at the stake but nineteen years old"? Or "Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifiction but was a prefectionist." Okay, I'll stop. At least I didn't call him a Pre-Madonna.