A few weeks back I described my some of my experiences as an umpire. Now, I’d certainly never compare my time as a little league ump in small town Alberta to being in the American League, but having blown my share of calls I think I understand what happened last night in Detroit.
The first thing is I suspect is mental. One should never forget that umpires grew up loving baseball. Before they were umps they were fans. As professionals, they never cheer for one team over another, but they want to be a part of historical moments as much as any player. You can bet that Jim Joyce knew that, as the first base umpire, the odds were quite likely he would be called upon to make a critical call in that ninth inning.
Knowing the entire stadium was rooting for a perfect game Joyce would have been thinking “Don’t get caught up in the moment. Don’t make the call too soon. Don’t let the weight of the history force you into calling him Out just to appease the fans.” Once an umpire starts thinking he is in a lot of trouble. You simply have to react on instinct. I believe if you watch the replay in slow motion you will see Joyce hesitate slightly before making the call — he thought about it and it cost him.
The second issue is physical. Bang-bang plays at first base are actually pretty easy calls to make under normal circumstances. You simply get in position and watch the bag, not the ball. By watching the bag, you can see the exact moment the runner’s foot touches the base, plus you can verify the first baseman has his foot on the base when he catches the ball. I know what you are thinking — if you are watching the base, how do you know when the first baseman catches the ball? The answer is simple — sound. You listen to the sound of the ball hitting the mitt. There simply is not enough time to watch the ball come into the glove and then look to see where the runner is.
In this case, it was not so simple. The first baseman had ranged far from the bag, leaving Galarraga to cover the base. Both Galarraga and the runner, Jason Donald, were approaching the bag from the same general direction, making me think that Joyce simply didn’t see which foot belonged to which player. If Cabrera lets the second baseman field the grounder two things happen that change this play: 1) The second baseman isn’t ranging to his right to make the play like Cabrera was. That means there is no hesitation and stopping before the throw is made to first and the play isn’t even close, he’s out by a country mile. 2) The player making the catch at first base is stationary making it a routine call for Joyce.
One thing you have to admire is the tenacity of Jason Donald. He turned a simple groundout into a close play. With his team already down 3-0 with two outs in the ninth a comeback was not likely. This was a nothing play yet he hustled all the way down the line. That is true professionalism and he should be admired for playing with that sort of effort.
Everyone has shown a ton of class since this event. Even Bud Selig upheld the integrity of the game by refusing to overturn the ruling today. When a commissioner steps in to overturn the decision made by the umpires on the field, chaos reigns. Anyone remember George Brett and the infamous “pine tar” game?
Oh well, with only 20 perfect games in history, did we really need three in a single season anyway? (I’m kidding!)