“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
– Lord Acton, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887
As promised, part II of the ramble I began yesterday. Some quick stuff on the game today. I missed the first part, and I stepped onto the elliptical machine at Harbor Fitness on Third Avenue in Brooklyn in the middle of a commercial break. As the broadcast came back from the commercial, I could see that the Yankees were coming to bat, and that Scott Downs was in the game. That was a good sign, I thought. At least the starter isn’t still in the game in the eighth inning (again). Cervelli was up. A second later I looked up and he was on first. Hit by a pitch. Still no score up on the screen. I thought that was odd. Then they flashed to Brandon Morrow sitting in the dugout with a graphic detailing his line for the day. My eyes flashed to the “runs” column as my legs tried to balance on the elliptical without my undivided attention. Zero. Zero runs in seven innings. I almost toppled off the elliptical and over the rail of the newly renovated balcony in the movie theatre-turned-fitness center. Some quick (and basic) math told me that the Yankees had now scored three runs in thirty innings this series. Oh man. I wondered what the score was. Javy on the mound. I guessed four-nothing. Maybe five. Then Gardner got hit. First and second nobody out. Then they flashed it. Two-nothing. Could be way worse, I thought. You needed to get one of these runs in. Then Jeter had two awful strike calls go against him. One was inside and one was outside. Both were pretty clear. He got into it with umpire Bruce Dreckman (I’ll get to that later). Then he hit a double. Second and third nobody out. Two -one Jays. Then Swisher got punched out on a check swing by Dreckman, with Dreckman making the call without calling for an appeal. Swisher flipped. It was justified. It wasn’t a swing. Those things are often murky and close, but this one was clear, so much so that both Bob Lorenz (doing some play-by-play! Congrats on getting called up to big-boy TV!) and John Flaherty simply and correctly said, “Bad call. Swisher did not go around.” And it was. And that’s fine. It happens. But the crime there was not calling for an appeal. But I’ll get to that later too. So long story short, it came down to Robbie Cano with two outs and men on second and third in a tie game. And Cito Gaston chose to pitch to him. This is the kind of thing that would have had me punching a hole in the wall if I was a Blue Jays fan. Let me start by saying I’ve never liked Cito Gaston. I know there are people that like him, that say he is an underappreciated baseball mind. Okay. My lasting image of the guy will always be the 1993 All-Star game in Camden Yards. The AL was comfortably ahead, 9- 3in the 9th inning, and the crowd was loudly chanting for Gaston to insert Mike Mussina, one of only two Orioles on the roster in their own park. Instead he put his own guy, Duane Ward, out there, and left him out there for all three outs. I will never forget the defiant look on his face as the crowd was literally chanting, thousands in unison, for Moose. Even Ward was looking into to the dugout to see what Gaston wanted to do. At one point Gaston actually started shaking his head with this arrogant look that seemed to angrily tell the crowd – “Now I’m really not putting him in.” What an awful display. I get that you want your guy in there. But there’s no reason you couldn’t throw Moose out there for an out, have him walk off to an ovation, and then hand it to your guy. It’s not like it was even a save situation or anything. There was no statistical significance to Ward getting all three outs in the ninth. From that moment on I was sour on Cito Gaston. So that brings us to today. Why Gaston chose to pitch to Cano, I will never know. But you just knew it was going to bite him. And it bit him. Never mind that earlier in the inning he chose to walk Tex to get to Alex, who is what, five-for-five with three grand slams when teams have done that? The tying run scored on a wild pitch, so that was kind of moot, but I’m not sure why Gaston insisted on tempting fate twice like that. He got what he deserved, I’m afraid.
So to put a finisher on this series, the Yankees probably feel pretty good about it. The Jays could not have gotten better starting pitching. Three dazzling outings. They got multiple bombs from all of their big guns, six in total in the series to the Yankees one. Even the relievers generally pitched well. They basically played a perfect three games. And yet they needed fourteen innings to simply win the series in their own park. Pretty scary.
So now to what I really wanted to talk about. The Jim Joyce affair. We all know what happened. But here is the narrative thread, and arc, for Jim Joyce. He makes the call. Everyone is furious at him. Every announcer on every sports highlight show is crushing his life. Then an hour or so after the game ends, word starts to get around that Jim Joyce made a statement, dripping with remorse and regret, acknowledging that he blew the call, ruined the kid’s perfect game, and felt awful about it. The narrative starts to turn. By the next day, Jim Joyce was a martyr. He made a mistake on a close play, and now he was going to have to live with it. People popped up all over the map saying what a great umpire he was, and what a class guy he was, etc. Even Jim Leyland, who had chewed both of his ears off and spit them down Jim Joyce’s throat after the call, came rushing to his defense after heads cooled. It was sportsmanship held high. People carrying themselves with sense and class. It finished up with everybody applauding and wiping away tears the next day as Galarraga took the lineup card out to Joyce, himself awash in tears. And…. Scene.
But there is a hole in the narrative as constructed, and it is this: Jim Joyce is unequivocally, appallingly guilty. His most minor infraction was blowing a call that really wasn’t that close. That stuff happens. People make mistakes. If that was all he did, so be it. A more glaring infraction was being inexcusably unprepared. Ballplayers always talk about knowing what to do when the ball comes to them. Jim Joyce dropped it. Jim Joyce needs to have prepared like every other umpire in history has prepared for a big call. The game was not in doubt. It was 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and no one on. There was a perfect game on the line. If you’re Jim Joyce, you need to be thinking, if it’s bang-bang, he needs to be 101% safe for me to make a safe call. There can’t be any question. No one is going to argue if you call a guy out on a bang-bang play to seal a perfect game. No one. Not the guy running to first, not the opposing manager, not anybody. Who really wants to be the disgustingly bad sport who’s whining about a call when you’re losing by three runs with no one on and two out in the bottom of the ninth that sealed a guy’s perfect game? The last pitch of Don Larsen’s perfect game was up around Dale Mitchell’s ear. Jim Joyce did not prepare himself for that play. If he really, truly did think that the play wasn’t even close, then he is not a good umpire. Period.
But the high crime on Jim Joyce’s rap sheet was neither of those things. Both of those missteps could have been overcome. Jim Joyce’s culpability rests squarely on the last of his crimes. The ugly arrogance and hubris on display as he, upon seeing the fierce, swift, virulent reaction from everyone involved, spent the next few minutes wagging his finger and jawing with Miguel Cabrera at first base, the entire Tigers dugout, and anyone else who dared question him. And all the while, he never once asked for help from the other umpires. And why? Out of sheer defiance. At that point he probably realized he blew it. Even if he wasn’t sure if he was actually out, he almost certainly realized that he should have called him out. And yet he chose to stand there yelling, jawing, and wagging his finger. If he had swallowed his pride, called the umps together in conference, and talked it over, they certainly would have come to the conclusion very quickly that they had nothing to gain by keeping the safe call. The call would have been overturned, correctly, and no one would have remembered or cared that Jim Joyce blew it at first. In fact, most people, myself included, would have gushed about how he did the right thing by asking for help. Jim Joyce didn’t ask for help. And he needs to be taken to task for that. That’s the problem. And it bothers me that this narrative has been created in which he is a victim. It only speaks to his missing the original call. It does not speak to his actions in the four or so minutes after the call, time enough for him to have corrected his mistake. The fact that he willfully chose not to is why he is guilty. Sorry, Jim Joyce. I understand you’ll carry this around your whole life, but you deserve to carry it around. You’re lucky this silly business about you feeling really bad about it is probably going to let you talk yourself into the fact that you don’t deserve to have this hanging over you… You do.
The quote at the top of the post speaks to part of this problem. Part of the problem is Major League Baseball, and frankly, all of the professional sports leagues. MLB coddles their umpires. They protect them. And let’s face it, the results are predictable. We all remember some of the teachers we had in school. Some were great, but some had a real problem with their authority. They were on a power trip from the word go, and it wasn’t about being right or wrong, it was about them being unchallengeable. They would react with swift harshness in the face of anyone who dared question them. They got very comfortable with the power they had. The illusion of infallibility is a dangerous thing, boys. You see it constantly with major league umpires. Just yesterday I was watching in extra innings as Brett Gardner was dancing around first base, causing all kinds of angst for Shawn Camp. Camp was doing everything he could to keep Gardner on first. At one point he quick-pitched, which John Flaherty pointed out on the broadcast. The next shot was home plate umpire Gary Darling ripping his mask off and the microphones clearly picking up Darling angrily screaming at the Yankee dugout, “He is stopping! Now relax!!” Girardi, the former catcher, had picked up that Camp did not come to a full stop before he threw the quick-pitch. And the replay showed that he didn’t. Girardi was right. So here’s the issue. I get that Darling didn’t want to listen to the Yankee dugout jawing, but his reaction was telling, and it’s all too common. “He is stopping.” He threw his authority down in the form of responding to Girardi’s remark with “The Answer,” as if he were Wikipedia, the Supreme Court and instant slow-mo replay all rolled into one. And yet he was wrong. Camp wasn’t stopping. It’s most likely that Gary Darling was either distracted and not paying full attention to Camp, or, like many umpires, was going to give him the benefit of the doubt on one or two pitches, sympathizing that Gardner is a royal pain on first. Often umpires will give the pitchers a “warning,” meaning, “I know you just broke the rules, but I’ll tell you right here and now not to do it again or I’ll call a balk.” This is sometimes useful for pitchers who have balkish moves to first. But instead of just telling Girardi to shut up, he felt it necessary to falsely correct him, and admonish him for challenging his authority. Another example – today in the eighth inning as Derek Jeter batted with no one out and men on second and third. Bruce Dreckman’s two aforementioned calls, one way inside and way outside, had Jeter irked. Derek Jeter, the epitome of class and decorum, the guy who doesn’t have a lot to say to any umpire, was livid. With his head down and digging the batter’s box with his spikes so as not to show Dreckman up, he was clearly jawing with him. The YES camera picked up Jeter mouthing the words, “No it wasn’t.” Then again, “No it wasn’t.” Then a third time, “No it wasn’t.” Not to put words in Bruce Dreckman’s mouth, but it seems clear that he was saying to Jeter, “Yes it was (a strike),” or some derivative of that. Now, the replay clearly showed both pitches were about six inches off the plate. Neither were strikes. But it’s telling the Dreckman chose to answer one of the classiest players in all of sports by simply insisting that he was correct, by virtue of….what? He hasn’t been involved with baseball in any capacity as long as Jeter has. What gives him a better understanding of the strike zone that he feels he can correct Derek Jeter? They had the same exact view of the ball.
This is my point. There is too much of this in baseball. Stop the God complex. This nonsense of taking offense because someone dares to challenge your infallibility, and the subsequent problems that causes (smile, Jim Joyce, the camera is on you) must end. Major League Baseball needs to hold these guys accountable. You blow a call, say they blew a call. If they were reprimanded by the league because they had an awful day calling balls and strikes, say it. This will, I assure you, provide them a very strong incentive to get calls right. What happens to them now? How many umpires have been fired or demoted recently? If an ump isn’t getting the balls and strikes right, what happens to him? Seems like nothing. Publish the results. Right now they have no incentive to swallow their pride and get it right. Ever. In Jim Joyce’s case, his pride was so blinding for him that he allowed himself to make the biggest blown call in the history of baseball. Yup, I think that’s fair to say. The biggest.
Apropos of this(slightly) but also totally out of left field, Adam Carolla did a great bit about this in the context of meter maids the other day. If you’ve never listened to his podcast, I highly recommend it. Insightful, thoughtful, funny stuff…
Last thing on this. Major League Baseball should have overturned that call. The only reason I have heard to date for them not overturning this call is that they’ve never done it before. That’s not a good reason. Bruce Weber wrote what I thought was a ridiculous piece in the Times this weekend. And he’s not alone. There are lots of romantics out there who are whining that overturning the call would ruin whatever it is that they’ve turned baseball into for them. It’s kind of like the artists and poets who had once flocked to Red Sox fandom, reveling in the Sisyphean metaphor. The same guys that bailed on them when they finally lost (hello Cubbies!). Those guys aren’t talking about baseball. They’re talking about something else. Certainly Weber is. There is no good argument for making errors for the sake of making errors. It’s not like they designed the game to purposely include errors. They designed it this way because there was no better way at the time. If you want to make it super-restrictive, go ahead. Say that you can’t change a call unless it’s the 27th out, because you can’t assume the game would have played out the same. Figure something out boys. Get clever. Use your heads. And by the way, it’s not like calls have never been overturned. Once upon a time Jim McClelland followed MLB rules to the letter when he called out George Brett for having too much pine tar on his bat. The rule is there because too much pine tar could affect the flight of the ball off the bat. It was there for a reason. George Brett broke the rule. He was called out, as he should have been. And along came the commish, who overturned that CORRECT call. There is precedent, purists. And a first time for everything. Especially when it’s correct. Even Weber acknowledged in his piece that once upon a time in the glorious history of baseball, umps used to occasionally ask fans for assistance on calls. Get it right.
You know where I stand on automating calls. I’m all for it, right down to the balls and strikes. All of it. I know I’m in the vast minority, but I stand by it. Here’s the measuring stick. If you have the technology, there is no post-facto argument for un-automating it. Once all of the calls are correct, you wouldn’t be sitting around pining for incorrect calls. It would be ridiculous. Imagine a guy correctly getting called out on a close play to end a seventh game of a series. Is that team going to petition the league to go back to human error because they think it’s unfair that there wasn’t an umpire out there to get the call wrong? That would be insane.
Do it. Automation. I’m all in.
Jim Joyce, go sit in a corner for a while and think about what you did….