Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 6, 2010

An Imperfect Game Produces THE Imperfect Game

By now everyone and their second cousin has weighed in on the twist of fate that forever put Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga and veteran umpire Jim Joyce into the history books together while denying Galarraga a place in the record book. In the aftermath of Joyce’s blown call on what should have been the 27th out of the 21st perfect game in Major League history, two hot topics quickly emerged. The first was whether MLB should expand the use of instant replay; and the second was whether Commissioner Bud Selig should invoke his broad authority and overturn the call on the field, thus awarding Galarraga the perfect game. While I’ve heard and read strongly held views on both sides of both issues, the majority views have been “yes, right away” and “yes, for the good of the game.”

Which means a lot of people were disappointed by Selig’s response, which was to issue a statement indicating that he would accelerate an examination of expanded replay but that he would not reverse Jim Joyce’s call. I however think Selig, of whom I am no big fan, got it exactly right.

As soon as instant replay was introduced for the limited purpose of reviewing questionable home runs, it was almost inevitable that at some point its use would be expanded. The game simply has too many opportunities for close plays, be it balls hit down the foul line or safe/out calls on the bases. The challenge is finding a way to expand instant replay without eliminating the human element that is integral to the sport or turning an already slow contest into a form of torture for even the most devoted fan. The latter point is no small matter. I recall as a child poring over the box scores in each day’s newspaper during the season. The last entry in each game’s account was “Time of Game.” Entry after entry would read “2:07” or 2:10.” These days, with delays for television ads and the game’s emphasis on situational substitution especially on the mound, a contest two hours and ten minutes old is far more likely to be in the sixth inning than it is to be over. If every call that could be subject to a replay review were actually reviewed, either by the officiating crew on the field or by a replay umpire stationed in the scorer’s booth, a young child attending his first major league game with his parents might well emerge at the end old enough to drive them home.

Some have suggested that the use of replay could be limited by giving each manger a set number of challenges, much like the NFL. But a football head coach must weigh the consequences of losing a timeout if his challenge fails. I can think of no comparable penalty that could be used to dissuade managers from using every available challenge at some point in every game.

With even games broadcast strictly on teams’ regional networks using seven or eight cameras, it would be foolish to ignore the available technology. But it would be disastrous to allow that technology to bring the flow of the game to a standstill. Selig was right to move the replay issue to the top of the game’s agenda of potential improvements. But he was also right to recognize that change just for the sake of change is not necessarily an improvement.

And he was right to let the wrong result stand. I appreciate that those with only casual interest in the game find this unfathomable. Millions have seen the replay and judged for themselves that the runner was out. Umpire Joyce tearfully acknowledged his error. Changing the call doesn’t change the final score of the game. If the Commissioner has the power to do so, why in the world shouldn’t he?

On October 8, 1956, the Yankees’ Don Larsen had retired the first 26 Brooklyn Dodgers hitters, and had a 1-2 count on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell. Mitchell checked his swing on Larsen’s 97th pitch, thinking the ball high and outside. But home plate umpire Babe Pinelli called Mitchell out on strikes, giving Larsen the only perfect game in World Series history. Mickey Mantle would later acknowledge that from his position in centerfield, the pitch looked high. The probably apocryphal story is that Mitchell turned to Pinelli to complain that the pitch was a ball, to which Pinelli supposedly replied, “Not today it wasn’t.”

On October 26, 1985, the Cardinals led the Royals 3 games to 2 in the World Series and 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6. Don Denkinger, the umpire crew chief was working first base when leadoff batter Jorge Orta grounded to first baseman Jack Clark. Clark tossed to pitcher Todd Worrell covering the bag, and every camera angle clearly showed that Orta was out, and the Cardinals were just two outs from a championship. Except that Denkinger called him safe. Kansas City went on to win Game 6 by a score of 2-1, and then routed St. Louis 11-0 in Game 7, with Denkinger behind home plate, to the vehemently expressed disapproval and dismay of the Cardinals.

Was the most famous perfect game made so by a bad call? Did a bad call eerily similar to last Wednesday night’s cost the St. Louis Cardinals a World Series? These questions don’t have definitive answers of course. If Pinelli had judged Larsen’s 97th pitch high and away, the 98th might have resulted in a swinging strike three. Or a single to right. While the leadoff man for the Royals should have been called out, Kansas City still had to manufacture two runs before three were out to win Game 6, and when both teams took the field for Game 7, the score was 0-0. But they did. So who knows?

In a perfect world, a veteran and highly respected umpire like Jim Joyce would have gotten the call right. In a perfect world, Armando Galarraga would own the 21st perfect game in the history of the major leagues. But the world is not perfect, and the Great Game is not played in such a place. It is by design an imperfect game in which human beings are called upon to make split-second decisions that can go horribly wrong, exposing the human ability to fail, and fail badly. It is not just, “is that runner out?” It’s “do I try to take that extra base?” It’s also “can I reach that sinking liner, or should I back up and take it on one hop?” Decisions made instinctively, faster than one can possibly think about them. Sometimes with heroic results and sometimes with ignominious failure; most likely both several times in nine innings. But always with the human element, that close divide between heroism and ignominy at its core.

Last Wednesday night, the person who seemed to understand that best was Armando Galarraga. In the wake of the blown call, as first baseman Miguel Cabrera held his head in wide-eyed shock, and as Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland ran out to argue, the pitcher just smiled, adjusted his cap, and headed back to the mound.

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Responses

  1. Excellent analysis. Using instant replay to determine whether the receiver had both feet in bounds makes sense; but using it to determine whether the 97 mph fast ball crossed the plate at or just below the crouching batter’s knees will never work for many reasons.

    For one, each MLB team plays 1458 innings and three times that number of outs. One would expect that the good calls and the bad calls would even out over the course of the year.


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