Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bad Calls

In Game 4 of the playoffs between the Yankees and Angels Tuesday, the visiting Yanks did something different this time. They chose to eliminate the nail-biting by simply pulverizing the competition and settling the outcome early. I’m sure their fans appreciated that.

The game was significant for other reasons, however, besides the score. The umps made several really bad calls that were dreadful enough to result in howls of astonishment. Chico Harlan of the Washington Post described it this way:

On a fourth inning pickoff play at second, a diving Swisher was tagged out but called safe. Shortly after, Swisher was called out for leaving early on a tag-up play from third, the erroneous judgment of a third base ump (Tim McClelland) who wasn't even looking at the third base bag during the play.

By the time the game reached the fifth inning, pro-replay fans had already been armed with enough ammo to last the winter. Even so, McClelland was responsible for one more puzzling call. With the Yankees trying to build their comfortable lead -- Jorge Posada on third, Robinson Canó on second, one out -- Swisher hit a comebacker to the mound that trapped Posada in a rundown. Posada eventually retreated toward third; in fact, he and Canó both stopped just feet away from the bag, as if huddling around a campfire. Catcher Mike Napoli tagged both of them. McClelland ruled Posada out and Canó safe.

Speaking after the game, McClelland admitted he was responsible for a pair of missed calls. He thought Swisher left the base early in the fourth, and he thought Canó had his foot on the bag in the fifth. Replays he reviewed after the game proved otherwise. "I'm just out there trying to do my job and do it the best I can," McClelland said. "And unfortunately there were two missed calls."

Tim, I understand how you feel. I was an ump once and yes, I still remember my two worst calls from 40 years ago. I was seventeen, loved baseball and knew the rules, so I’d been asked to be a Little League umpire.

My worst call came on a windy day at Hamilton Field. The infield was dusty and the count two balls and a strike. Just as the pitch was released, the wind threw grains of dirt into my eyes so that I was temporarily blinded. I could see that the ball, when I got my vision back, had gone over the backstop so naturally I assumed (don’t EVER assume when you are an umpire) that the kid fouled it off. I shouted, with confidence, “Strike two.”

The reality is, the ball had hit the plate and gone over the backstop. And everyone saw it as plain as day, except the ump. The parents went berserk. Naturally, when I discovered what had happened it seemed only right to change my call to make it correspond to reality. Then, the other team’s went berserk, and trust me, there are very few closets to hide in on a baseball diamond.

My second bad call went like this. The batter hit a dribbler to the right side. The first baseman came forward to get it, picked it up clean and swung around to tag the runner on the back as he sprinted past. I made a mistake, however, by not running out toward the mound to get a better angle on the play. It looked like he tagged the runner, but from where I was standing he might not have done so. I called the kid out.

The first base coach and the manager arched they backs in amazement, shouting, “He missed him by a foot!” Whereupon, having failed to learn from my first bad call experience, I changed the call to “Safe!” I cringe to think of it. When you change a call there is No Mercy.

Fortunately, neither of my bad calls or ump McClelland’s had an impact on the outcomes of their respective games. I know for a fact that if they had, one of us might have been scalped… or worse.

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