Every time an umpire blows a significant call, there is the usual clamoring for instant replay. However, even that fail safe proved insufficient in the last night’s game between the Yankees and Royals.
The controversy started in the bottom of the third inning when Royals’ DH Billy Butler lined a Bartolo Colon fastball off the top of the left field wall. However, the umpires signaled home run, which allowed Butler to circle the bases even as the ball was being thrown to third base. Almost immediately, Joe Girardi bolted from the dugout to ask for a replay review. The umpires, led by crew chief Dana DeMuth, obliged Girardi’s request, but, in spite of the clear visual evidence, still decided to uphold the original call (interestingly, on June 1, Butler was involved in a similar situation when he was incorrectly awarded with a walk-off home run despite replays clearly showing the ball did not go over the same left field wall).
After the game, Steve Palmero, the supervisor of umpires, was seen taking the game’s crew on a field trip to inspect the infamous fence, an action that immediately suggested DeMuth had misinterpreted the relevant ground rule. Although it should offer no consolation to the Yankees, Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice president of Baseball Operations, eventually confirmed that the umpires erred, telling the Daily News that “it was a missed call, but there was also a misunderstanding on the rule”.
As things turned out, Colon retired the next two batters in the inning, so, all else being equal, Butler would not have scored without the erroneous decision. The fact that the Yankees lost by one run only compounded the error, but even if the deficit had been a larger margin, the impact on the game would have been the same: the Royals were given a run they should not have had. Once the umpires decided to uphold their initial mistake, manager Joe Girardi could no longer contest the call, leaving him with only one option: lodge a formal protest.
The Yankees’ dugout was visibly upset after DeMuth refused to reverse the call. Even the stoic Mariano Rivera had to be restrained by Tony Pena. Despite this strong emotion, and the insistence of first base coach Mick Kelleher, who was present when the ground rules were reviewed, Girardi forfeited his only chance at vindication by deciding not to protest the game.
In his post game comments, the befuddled Yankees’ manager explained that he accepted DeMuth’s incorrect understanding of the rule. Basically, Girardi compounded the umpire’s error by making one of his own. By failing to trust his instinct, as well as the understanding of his coaches and players, Girardi’s lapse in judgment directly contributed to a loss. Considering how close the A.L. East division race has been to this point, that unfortunate mistake could wind up deciding first place.
I can’t tell you that because it wasn’t filed; I’m not going to go there. The protest has to be filed before the next pitch was thrown. I can understand why Joe wishes he would have, because we’ve all taken for granted that the umps spend more time in these parks than we do and that they know the rules.” – Joe Torre, quoted by the New York Daily News, August 18, 2011
Some people have defended or dismissed Girardi’s inaction on the basis that protested games are rarely upheld. Even disregarding the folly of such circular logic (e.g., if the Royals had never protested the Pine Tar Game, George Brett would have one fewer home run), the facts at the time clearly suggested that this case was an exception. Because DeMuth recited an incorrect ground rule to Girardi, no error of judgment was involved. Also, with the play directly leading to a run, there could be no “common sense” or “fair intention of the rules” exception. Instead, all that was involved was a clear-cut incorrect call by an umpire who did not know the relevant rule. In other words, the case for a protest was compelling.
The extent of DeMuth’s error can not be minimized. There simply is no excuse that justifies an umpire’s ignorance of any kind of rule. However, the same is also true of a major league manager. Had Girardi protested the call, which he should have known was incorrect, the Yankees probably would have had a second chance at winning the game. Instead, they are saddled with an underserved loss. No matter how you sugar coat Girardi’s mistake, his failure to act cost his team a game.
Hopefully, this incident awakens baseball to the poor quality that pervades it umpiring ranks (some of DeMuth’s ball/strike calls were just as bad and just as influential as the home run flub). Instead of using instant replay as a crutch, MLB needs to seriously address the underlying problem, which is the lack of consistently competent officials. As we saw last night, no matter how much technology you employ, good officiating begins with qualified professionals.
There is also a lesson to be learned by Girardi. Failing to protest was a serious error…perhaps the biggest he will make in his career. It was the kind of incident that a Billy Martin or Buck Showalter would have instantly seized upon, but Girardi allowed it to pass without making every effort to ensure a proper outcome for his team. A manager’s job is to know every nuance of the rule book, including the ground rules at individual ballparks, so by failing in this regard, there is no way around the fact that Girardi was negligent. If the Boss were still around, you can bet Girardi would have been called onto the carpet for his lack of attention to detail, but even without a direct reprimand, the potential gravity of his mistake will likely make it one he won’t soon forget. And, should the Yankees lose the division by that one game, you can bet many fans won’t forget either.