In Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, umpire Don Denkinger's controversial call in the bottom of the ninth sparked the game-winning rally for the Royals, went on to win the series in seven games. If baseball's new replay rules were around back then, memorable moments like this would've never happened.
By Michael Parente
In the third inning of Friday’s game in Toronto between the Yankees and Blue Jays, Yankees manager Joe Girardi utilized Major League Baseball’s new replay challenge rule to overturn a close call at first base that extended the inning and ultimately led to two runs for New York.
Ichiro Suzuki was initially called out at first base on a bang-bang play that would’ve ended the inning, but Girardi challenged the call, the umpires then overturned it and, with runners now on first and third, Yangervis Solarte laced a two-out, two-run double to give New York a 4-3 lead. The shift in momentum loomed large as the Yankees held on for a 7-3 win.
Score one for the new rule, which is designed to make sure the call is correct in case there’s ever any doubt, but if you’re a purist who enjoys what the element of human error brings to the table, you probably feel like the undergrad slinking out of that freshman coed’s dorm at 1 a.m. after an ill-advised one-night stand. It was consensual, and both parties agreed, but something still doesn’t feel right.
Baseball’s one of the few sports where fans, players and historians have a hard time letting go of the past. No one seems to care when records fall in football, hockey or basketball, and while those sports probably have as big a problem with performance-enhancing drugs as baseball does, there’s little to no offense taken when an athlete with a lat spread wider than Arkansas shatters a record previously held for more than two decades.
Baseball’s different. Up until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa unleashed their steroid-fueled assault on Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998, the number 61 meant something in baseball. So did Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs, until Barry Bonds wiped that number off the leaderboard in 2007. As McGwire and Sosa chased history 15 years ago, the entire world sat on the edge of its seat courtesy of live cut-ins on major network television. That didn’t happen as Peyton Manning inched closer to breaking Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record in 2004. Does the number 92 mean anything to you? It won’t unless you’re a hockey nut, because it’s the number of goals Wayne Gretzky scored during the 1981-82 season, still the single-season record in the NHL.
The other thing about baseball is human error and subjectivity play a larger role in the outcome than in any other sport. The strike zone is defined by certain parameters, but it’s up to the home plate umpire to call balls and strikes based on his interpretation of the strike zone, and even if the replay crews throw a nifty graphic on the screen to illustrate just how far outside that slider was, it makes no difference because the call cannot be reversed.
Balls and strikes aren’t subject to debate, not even by the new standards of the league’s replay rule, so while baseball has taken several giant steps forward in utilizing the wonders of modern technology, it’s still straddling that line between relying solely on the judgment of human umpires and falling back on the absolute certainty of the multiple replay angles available at the league’s head office in New York City.
It appears Major League Baseball is in a tug-of-war between the purists and the tech wizards. Those who oppose expanded replay will cry that the game is long enough as it is. Reviewing balls and strikes will never be an option, so the boundaries of the replay rule will never expand to the point of lunacy prevalent in the NFL, where just about every call is subject for review.
Try as they might, the replay crackpots will never gain sole possession of Major League Baseball’s soul. A game can still end on a borderline strike, and considering managers are only allowed one challenge in the first six innings and two from the seventh inning on, a controversial bang-bang play at first can still decide the outcome of a game in the late innings.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your perspective. Even if you’re an advocate of getting the call right (aren’t we all?), there’s still something to be said for human error and the magic of the fairytale ending. What if Whitey Herzog had the option of reviewing Don Denkinger’s call on Jorge Orta in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series? Orta was clearly out, but called safe by Denkinger on a slow grounder leading off the bottom of the ninth. The Royals went on to score twice in the ninth to win that game and then won Game 7 by 11 runs.
The fact we’ll never know is what makes the ’85 Series such a memorable one. There will always be debate. Maybe the Royals still score twice in the ninth if Orta is correctly called out. That’s the beauty of human error. Sometimes it writes the story for us. Were it not for human error, we’d never know who Jeffrey Maier was. The “Hand of God,” as Argentinian soccer fans call it, would’ve never happened. Michael Jordan’s game-winning, series-clinching jumper against the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals? That, too, would’ve never happened had the officials correctly called Jordan for an offensive foul on Bryon Russell. Thanks to umpires, referees and judges simply being human, those memorable moments live on in folklore.
In the case of Major League Baseball, there’s certainly nothing wrong with being right, but sometimes getting it right feels wrong. Maybe it’s the purist in all of us.
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