Let’s get this out of the way first: Baseball doesn’t need instant replay.
The way Game 2 of the American League Championship Series ended Wednesday night is the kind of thing that leads, in other, lesser sports, to demands for video review. I haven’t heard a lot of talk about it so far, but one online poll shows a slim majority in favor of replay review. These people are wrong.
Instant replay would have solved nothing Wednesday night, and it would pollute and bog down a perfectly fine game if it were adopted in response.
What happened Wednesday was that the Chicago White Sox beat the Los Angeles Angels 2-1 on a big screwup by someone. Also on a complete game, one-run, five hitter by lefty Mark Buehrle that will be little noted nor long remembered. The ALCS is tied 1-1.
Depending on your point of view, the blame can be divided however you’d like between home-plate umpire Doug Eddings and Angels catcher Josh Paul. Eddings and Paul both helpfully denied that they’d done anything wrong. I think both of them can shoulder some blame.
I’m also with Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who was angry over the ninth-inning call but said his team didn’t do enough to win anyway.
In the other game Wednesday night, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series by jumping on Houston starter Andy Pettitte and then hanging on to win 5-3. Game 2 of that series is Thursday night in St. Louis. The Angels and White Sox are off.
The White Sox were batting with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday with the score tied 1-1 when A.J. Pierzynski swung and missed a Kelvim Escobar splitter for strike three. The ball dived down out of the strike zone and Paul caught it just before, or just after — a key question — it hit the dirt.
Eddings, the umpire, signaled by jabbing his right arm out to the side and then clenching his fist in front of him. What these two moves signaled is a source of dispute.
Pierzynski, after following through his swing, instinctively juked to avoid a tag by Paul. If the ball had hit the dirt before Paul caught it, he would have been required to tag Pierzynski or throw to first to record the out.
On any third strike that’s low, the catcher routinely tags the batter, whether the ball hit the dirt or not, just to make sure. The home-plate umpire, looking over the catcher’s shoulder, has a tough angle to see whether the ball caught the ground, so the standard move is to tag and remove all doubt.
The batter often makes a perfunctory move to avoid the tag, which is what it looked like Pierzynski was doing. Everyone is saying he started walking back toward the dugout, but that’s not what happened. He juked, then, upon realizing Paul wasn’t trying to tag him, he took off toward first.
Paul had started to trot toward the Angels’ dugout, as had his teammates in the field. Paul rolled the ball to the mound just as Pierzynski took off for first. Eddings, his mask still on, watched the whole play and made no further signal, though he took his mask off as he watched Pierzynski run up the line.
Pierzynski reached safely as the Angels stood around dumbfounded. An argument ensued, of course, with the umpiring crew huddling and finally deciding that the ball had hit the ground and Pierzynski was entitled to first base.
This all would have been forgotten had Escobar retired the next hitter, Joe Crede, but you knew that wouldn’t happen. After pinch-runner Pablo Ozuna stole second, Crede lined a game-winning double off the left-field fence.
So who screwed up? Eddings, by blowing the original call? Paul, by not tagging the runner whether he thought he caught the ball cleanly or not? Eddings again, by not making a clear signal?
We’ll talk about those two, but let’s not forget Escobar for grooving an 0-2 pitch to Crede for the game-winner.
Replays were pretty inconclusive about whether the third strike to Pierzynski bounced, which by the way is one of many reasons instant replay would be a terrible thing.
The others, which we’ve learned from the NFL: It would slow down the game, turn a human endeavor into a technocratic one, and change the way the umpires actually call the game, turning them into timid functionaries who tailor their calls to make sure they remain reviewable.
It looked to me like Paul caught the ball cleanly, especially on the view from a camera on the first-base side. But I can be talked into seeing a bounce.
An unscientific poll by the Chicago Tribune, the White Sox’s hometown paper, had readers saying the umpires blew the call by nearly a 3-2 margin as of mid-morning Thursday. A poll at ESPN.com, also unscientific, had 77 percent saying Paul caught the ball cleanly.
I also think Paul heading straight for the dugout speaks volumes. There’s no reason for the catcher to try to spoof the ump, fake him out, in that situation. If the ball hit the dirt, it’s the easiest play in the world to tag him or toss the ball to first. There’s no need for deception.
Still, Paul, despite his postgame comment — “It’s not my fault. I take no responsibility for that whatsoever” — absolutely screwed up by not tagging Pierzynski as a matter of course. If your mitt touches the ground, tag the batter. High school stuff.
Paul’s in his 10th professional season. He may not think what happened Wednesday was his fault, but you can bet money he’ll never fail to tag a batter on a low third strike again.
But I think the big screwup was Eddings’ unclear call. He defended himself after the game by saying the jab to the right meant “swing and a miss,” the clenched fist meant “strike three,” but not necessarily “you’re out.” Using an umpiring term, he said, “That’s my strike three mechanic, when it’s a swinging strike. If you watch, that’s what I do the whole entire game.”
The clenched fist meaning “strike three” but not “out” is evidently news to everyone who’s ever played the game. Current and former players have been unanimous in saying that to them, the clenched fist is the signal for an out.
Asked if it’s ever been an issue that most people interpret his strike signal as an out signal, Eddings said, “No, it’s never been an issue until now.”
Well, it’s an issue now and it needs to be fixed. And not with instant replay! The same unscientific poll at ESPN.com asked if readers favored using instant replay for on-field calls, as distinct from ball-strike calls, and a slim majority, 51.5 percent to 48.5, said yes. They overwhelmingly said no on balls and strikes.
What needs to happen is that baseball has to mandate clear hand signals that everyone understands. Umpires all have their individual styles of calling strikes and outs, and that’s fine to a point, but there has to be clarity about what means what because almost all of an umpire’s signals happen during action and can affect the outcome of the play.
Paul and others have said umpires usually say, “No catch, no catch” when a ball hits the dirt on strike three. Umpiring supervisor Rich Reiker said that the play continued because Eddings hadn’t said, “Batter’s out.” This shouting business is fine as a supplement, a courtesy, but it can’t stand alone.
Umpires can’t rely on verbal signals. In a loud stadium, how are the first baseman and the pitcher, who could have teamed up to throw Pierzynski out Wednesday had they realized what Eddings was ruling, supposed to hear the umpire say, “No catch”? There has to be a hand signal for everything, and they have to be uniform, or at least universally recognizable.
Eddings shouldn’t be singled out as a goat here. He may or may not have blown a tough call, which is just the way the ball bounces. And he’s not alone in having a set of signals whose meanings are not always clear.
But the coming offseason would be a good time to fix this problem, before another team is forced to admit after a big win, as Chicago’s Paul Konerko did, that “There’s no question it was a screwed-up thing.”
“You kind of feel like you got away with one,” Konerko said. “I don’t know what to say other than we’ll take it as kind of a freebie.”
Fair enough. But that’s enough.
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Shameless plug [PERMALINK]
I’ll make my satellite radio debut Friday as a guest on “The Bob Edwards Show” on XM Radio.
I’ll be the guy in the conversation who doesn’t sound like a radio legend.
The hourlong show airs on XM Radio Channel 133 at 8 a.m. EDT and is repeated at 9 and 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. My segment will be be near the end, but tune in for the whole thing. Edwards’ main guest is an old Salon friend, Simon Winchester.
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