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Archive for June 3rd, 2010

In the 1956 World Series, an imperfect man pitched a perfect game. Last night, an imperfect umpire prevented one from happening.

Jim Joyce's blown call in yesterday's would-be perfect game now rivals Don Denkinger's costly mistake in game 6 of the 1985 World Series.

If you had not heard of Jim Joyce before last night, chances are you now have. Unlike his more controversial brethren (I am looking at you Joe West), Joyce has managed to have a rather anonymous 23-year career as an umpire, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, with one bad call, Joyce has now gone from unknown to infamous.

Even though it occurred on the same night that future first ballot Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement, Joyce’s blown call of the last out in Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game has reverberated around the sport, becoming one of the biggest stories of not only the season, but recent memory. What’s more, Joyce’s blunder will undoubtedly join, if not surpass, Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call on what should have been a ground out by Jorge Orta leading off the ninth inning of game 6 in the 1985 World Series. Denkinger’s erroneous safe call helped spark a Royals’ rally that changed the outcome of the World Series. Coincidentally, both Joyce and Denkinger worked on the same crew during their overlapping careers.

Predictably, the response to the blown call has been to first lambaste Joyce, and then once again sound the drumbeat for expanded instant replay. After a spate of missed homerun calls during last season, major league baseball responded to increasing public pressure by incorporating the use of instant replay on boundary calls. The decision was quick, decisive and sensible. This time, however, baseball needs to be more deliberate lest it run the risk of going overboard.

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [expletive] out of it,” Joyce said, looking and sounding distraught as he paced in the umpires’ locker room. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.” – Umpire Jim Joyce as quoted by AP

Lost in the furor of Joyce’s blown call was another costly umpire’s mistake from last night’s action. With the Mariners and Twins tied 1-1 in the 10th inning, Ichiro Susuzki hit a ground ball up the middle that second baseman Matt Tolbert fielded on a dive before flipping to JJ Hardy for what should have been an inning ending force out. Instead, second base umpire Dale Scott incorrectly signaled safe, by which time Ryan Langerhans was steaming around third with the winning run. Although Joyce’s blown call denied Galarraga a historic achievement, Scott’s miscue actually decided a game. Considering the Twins penchant for playing one game tie-breakers to decide the AL Central, that one game could prove very significant.

Although the Scott’s blown call seems to bolster the case for instant replay that has been revived by Joyce’s mistake, it actually points out the number of potentially game changing calls that take place over nine innings. If baseball decides to enact instant replay, it must be prepared to deal with a number of resultant issues. After all, despite having instant replay for years now, the NFL’s system still is encumbered by many flaws.

Unlike most sports, in baseball, the defense has the ball and the offense scores without it. As a result, instant replay in baseball can not simply follow the ball. There is too much simultaneous, dependent action occurring. For example, let’s take a modified version of the play that ended last night’s game in Seattle. With runners on first and second and one out this time, the batter hits a ball up the middle that the defense attempts to turn into a fielder’s choice. After the second base umpire rules out on the force, the third base coach instructs the runner to sprint for home, figuring it a worthy risk with two outs now in the inning. The alert short stop spots the attempt, however, and guns him out at the plate. Inning over.

But wait, upon further review, it turns out the runner at second was really safe. Now, what do you do with the runner who was thrown out at home? Had the umpire originally called safe, the attempt would never have been made. It’s easy to construct countless examples of how instant replay could open up an even larger Pandora’s Box than one created by a blown call.

If baseball can come up with a perfect way to implement instant replay, then it should obviously begin doing so immediately. Until then, however, the sport would be wise to proceed slowly. Otherwise, it may wind up with an even more imperfect system

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