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Under Pressure: for World Series umpires failure is seized upon, success is ignored

Oct 30, 2013, 11:41 AM EST

World Series - Boston Red Sox v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three Getty Images

BOSTON — An early morning direct flight from St. Louis to Boston the day after Game 5 of the World Series is bound to be full of folks with baseball connections. The lineup for this Southwest Airlines flight is certainly no exception. As I take my place in line to board I notice at least a dozen baseball writers, television personalities and no shortage whatsoever of fans clad in Red Sox and Cardinals gear.

But one person in particular catches my eye in this boarding queue. A balding man with a walrus-like mustache. Indeed, he has an absolutely unmistakable face. Which is sort of a problem. Because, in his line of work, people knowing who you are is generally considered a sign that you’ve done something wrong. The man is a major league umpire, and major league umpires are usually only recognized when they’re on the field clad in blue. And even at that, no one should know their name as easily and readily as people know this man’s name. But this man is the most famous major league umpire of them all. This man is Jim Joyce.

Joyce is famous, of course, for one of the most monumental screw-ups in umpiring history: the blown call of what would have and should have been the 27th and final out of Armando Galarraga’s perfect game back on June 2, 2010. The baserunner was out, Joyce called him safe and from that day forward any chance of Joyce walking through an airport anonymously was gone for good.

And even if there was a chance that the Galarraga call had faded from some people’s memories in the past three years, on this day, in this city, Joyce’s face is back in everyone’s mind due to a much-discussed call less than three days earlier: the obstruction call on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks which ended Game 3 of the World Series.  That call Joyce got right. But given the rarity of such calls and the spotlight it was given due to when and where it occurred, it brought intense scrutiny down on Joyce once again.

It wasn’t the first time in this World Series that an umpire’s call was a big part of the story. In Game 1 second base umpire Dana DeMuth ruled that Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma made a putout at second on a potential double play ball. It was a clearly the wrong call — Kozma never had possession of the ball to begin with — and if it wasn’t for DeMuth’s colleagues converging on him and conferring to overturn it, it might have changed the complexion of the game and certainly would have stood as one of the worst calls in World Series history.

The hard truth about being an umpire is that no one remembers the best calls you’ve made. The hundreds if not thousands of calls — tough ones too — that you got right. It’s not even that they’re merely expected and thus go unremarked upon. They’re simply ignored as umpire calls altogether and the plays are remembered, if they are remembered, for the players involved, not the call itself. Indeed, I can think of no other job where one’s failure is so thoroughly cataloged and one’s competence or even excellence is so thoroughly ignored.

But that’s how it is. Tell me: which good calls stuck out to you in Game 5, which ended less than 48 hours ago? Give up? Me too, and I was there watching the thing. Now, tell me if you remember a 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reaching over the fence and pulling a Derek Jeter ball into the bleachers for a home run which umpire Rich Garcia should have called fan interference. Or how about Phil Cuzzi calling Joe Mauer’s double down the left field line foul when it clearly was fair, costing the Minnesota Twins runs and, maybe, the 2009 AL Division Series. Or — and you either remember this vividly or have been told about it so much that you feel like you do — how about Don Denkinger’s calling Jorge Orta safe when he should have been out, more or less giving the 1985 World Series to the Kansas City Royals? Indeed, bad calls from umpires, in the World Series or otherwise, are both memorable and legion.

As the 2013 season comes to a close, there is much talk about Major League Baseball’s intent and desire to institute instant replay. If and when it does that — and there are still a lot of “ifs” about it — the most egregiously blown calls will, hopefully, become a thing of the past. But of course not all calls will be subject to instant replay. Balls and strikes won’t be, and while no one ball or strike call draws the intense ire of fans like a blown call on the bases, the low-level ire of each one does make up for it in volume. And even if bad calls are corrected, fans of teams on the short end of those calls will still boo and jeer because, well, they’re fans and rationality is not an essential or even common part of fandom. And when they do, the umpires will feel the heat.

But if Jim Joyce feels the heat, he’s certainly not withering under it.  Back in the St. Louis airport, Joyce is recognized by more people than just a baseball writer.  Fans call him by name. One compliments him on correctly calling obstruction on Middlebrooks in Game 3. Another praises him for that time he saved a woman’s life by performing CPR at Chase Field. Another — wearing a Boston Red Sox sweatshirt — correctly notes that Joyce is working home plate for tonight’s Game 6 and jokingly tells Joyce that, “for the good of the game, your strike zone needs to be toes to eyeballs — for the Cardinals only!”  Joyce smiles, nods and says “no comment.”

Another fan brings up a more difficult subject. He compliments Joyce on the way he handled the aftermath of the Galarraga call. Though the fan focuses on the positives of the incident — Joyce was widely praised for his grace and humility in the days following that game —  it unavoidably serves as an obvious reminder of Joyce’s biggest professional failure.

My eyes immediately go to Joyce’s face, as I want to see if the comment registers with him negatively. If there are any tells that the comment or the memory it no doubt inspires hit Joyce hard.

“Thank you,” Joyce says, again giving a small nod in the direction of the man talking to him.

He says it immediately and effortlessly. There is no trace of a negative emotional reaction on Joyce’s part. There isn’t even a suggestion that his reply was studied or practiced by virtue of having to respond to such things for the past three years. His comment was no different than if you told him you liked his shoes. Everything about Joyce, from the way he stands to the way he holds his carry-on bag to the way he talks to the people around him evinces calm confidence.

Between the crowd at Fenway Park and the people watching Game 6 on television, there will be upwards of twenty million pairs of eyes focusing on everything Joyce does tonight. If something goes sideways with the umpiring in this game, those eyes and millions more will narrow and look askance at Joyce and his colleagues. There will be no one in the world of sports under more pressure given the size of the stage.

But as geology tells us, if you don’t have pressure, you don’t get diamonds. Jim Joyce has felt the pressure before and it has never, ever crushed him. And as such, it’s hard to imagine Major League Baseball wanting anyone other than Jim Joyce on its diamond tonight.

  1. rickdobrydney - Oct 30, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    Well, the above might be the best piece of writing that Craig Calcaterra ever produced—- Bravo—–

    • petey1999 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:09 PM

      Certainly top ten. Well done, Craig. This is the stuff we want.

    • skids003 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:17 PM

      Excellent article about a damn good man. That’s the way he should be remembered whenever his time comes.

    • travman162 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      I was thinking the same thing. And I just went through the hassle of logging in just to agree with you.

      • gostlcards5 - Oct 30, 2013 at 2:19 PM

        Ditto, to all of the above.

        I can’t imagine any other person I would want behind the plate in this game, as a member of the fan base for either team. Joyce genuinely seems like a good guy.

    • natsattack - Oct 30, 2013 at 3:13 PM

      Just terrific.

  2. chip56 - Oct 30, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    Craig,

    If I’m at work doing my job and then I screw something up that costs the company millions of dollars, the twenty routine things I did right ain’t saving my job. Umpiring is the same thing. If you make the calls you’re supposed to make but blow a big one that costs a team a playoff game (or a pitcher a perfect game) that should be remembered.

    No one expects umpires to be perfect; yet some umpires (not all but some) want to be treated as infallible. Instant replay isn’t an advent meant to insult umpires or referees, it is a tool to help them because every person on the field and watching the game knows that it’s impossible to get every call right when you have a split second to make it.

    • alang3131982 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      How is missing one big call the same as “costing a company millions of dollars.” MLB isnt losing any money by one bad call. I’d also posit that the idea that there are big blown calls and little ones is a bit silly. Certianly you can make worse calls (if the call was easy), but i dont think MLB is going to distinguish between bad calls.

      • bendover09 - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:06 PM

        Game 7 Rangers vs Cardinals . Carpenter was given 4′ inches outside the plate almost every pitch. Fox tracker was turned off the last game out of the whole series, why? The games were called fairly until the last one. #11 winner. More to it then just bad calls going on ….

      • chip56 - Oct 31, 2013 at 11:26 AM

        Well since at my job I can’t cost anyone a game, costing them money would be the equivalent type of screw up.

    • natstowngreg - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:10 PM

      Three problems with this (in addition to the ones identified by the commenter immediately above).

      1. Joyce’s call simply kept a pitcher from getting a perfect game. Bad, but the Tigers won the game. It wasn’t even a playoff game. Just another example of fans obsessing over individual records and other things not critical to the actual winning or losing of games.

      2. Joyce, pretending to be infalliable? What I will remember from the incident was the total class with which Joyce and Galarraga conducted themselves. You owe Joyce an apology.

      3. If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that the sentiment on this here blog right here tends to be pro-instant replay. A system that did not exist when Joyce made his erroneous call. It should have existed then, but that wasn’t Joyce’s doing.

  3. kcroyal - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    He was clearly safe in ’85. Go Royals.

    • jdd428 - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      He was NOT safe; Denkinger did blow the call. But what gets overlooked is that the call actually was irrelevant; the Cards own mistakes cost them the game/series.

      After the call, Jack Clark and Porter let a pop foul fall that prolonged a Balboni at bat, and he then singled on an 0-2 pitch. That was two chances for StLouis to prevent the damage.

      Orta was then forced at third on an attempted sacrifice, meaning the runner who reached on the blown call was actually retired. A Porter passed ball and a walk (St. Louis’ own faults) loaded the bases before Iorg singled to win the game.

      So, it wasn’t Denkinger that cost the Cards – it was themselves. Much like the Cubs after Bartman.

      • natstowngreg - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        Thank you for telling the truth that Cards fans don’t want to hear. Also, the truth that blind folllowers of “the narrative” don’t want to hear.

      • blingslade - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:18 PM

        You’re exactly right JDD, the Cardinals COLLAPSED in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 85′ World Series! Exactly one year later the BoSox COLLAPSED in an eerily similar fashion: Bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 86′ World Series!

        Interesting note 1: About the Cards intentional walk to load the bases against KC. They walked Hal McRae, who was badly injured and was good for maybe one or two swings, McRae was even worse off than Kirk Gibson except the Royals did a great job covering up the injury.

        Interesting note 2: Dane Iorg was the hero of the Cardinals 82 World Series victory..and the hero of the Royals victory over the Cards in the 85 World Series.

      • gostlcards5 - Oct 30, 2013 at 2:24 PM

        I don’t completely agree that the call was irrelevant. It would have been the second out of the inning (with no one on, as I recall…although I am becoming senile at a young age, and was 12 at the time) and clearly gave the Royals momentum.

        However, you are certainly correct that the Cardinals allowed themselves to be taken out of the game by that momentum shift, much as the Cubs in the Bartman incident.

      • clydeserra - Oct 30, 2013 at 3:24 PM

        THE DENKENGER CALL MADE THEM GET BLOWN OUT IN GAME 7!!!!

      • miedwards - Oct 30, 2013 at 3:34 PM

        Yes, he was out at first base…Denkinger missed the call. That is proven by instant replay. Your logic of the following events after that play are irrelevant as you cannot determine the time continuum and what would happen as a result of the missed call.

        There is no proving the same pitches might have been thrown or Orta would not have been picked off first, or KC might not have hit and run, any other different scenario. You can only accept the situation as it played out. You are playing a hypothetical game in your assumed scenario.

        That’s like saying if a football team misses a field goal in the 2nd quarter and loses by two points that they would have won the game if they made the field goal. That is not provably true. Who is to know if they made the field goal if the other team may not have returned the ensuing kickoff for a TD. At that point the whole game has changed.

      • jdd428 - Nov 19, 2013 at 2:50 PM

        Yes the whole game has changed. But what didn’t change was the Cardinals’ ability – or as it turned out inability – do deal with the adversity and overcome it. They had countless opportunities after the missed call to avoid what happened afterward and did not. So blaming Denkinger, just like Cubs fans blaming Bartman, is merely shifting attention away from their own shortcomings.

    • cohnjusack - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:23 PM

      I assume this is trolling, in which case: Bravo.

      If not, here ya go: http://archive.sportschatplace.com/images/stories/don_dekinger.jpg

      • kcroyal - Oct 30, 2013 at 3:57 PM

        Yes definitely trolling. He was clearly out. I just love the look on the BFIB’s face when I tell them that.

  4. hughhansen - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    These longer pieces you’re writing this postseason are really great.

  5. Eric Chase. - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    While as a manager I believe that you’re expected to deliver a certain level of respectable performance – I shouldn’t laud you for getting great ratings, it’s your role – we, as a society are far too hard wired towards pointing out people’s failings. I realize this is a bit hypocritical, but I understand that performance, especially in creative types – and athletes – needs to be acknowledged and rewarded from time to time. Usually to help manage and maintain those strong efforts and results, from talented people.

    There’s been more an more thoughtful commentary these days about comments in articles and how bad they are, or whether they generate EVEN more creative thought, or it let’s all of facebook realize how big of an ass you are.

    It’s sad that we remember too much of the negative.

    Maybe it comes from the news culture – if it bleeds, it leads.

    Maybe because the Titanic is such a great story to tell and share, rather all the ships that have made their voyages without hitting some of the earth’s larger objects.

    I know this. From the 2013 MLB postseason I WILL remember how astutely the strike zone was called in the ALCS, making the performances of such phenomenal talents such as Verlander and Scherzer that much more memorable.

    Thanks for reading, and Craig, as always, fine work.

  6. number42is1 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    “But as geology tells us, if you don’t have pressure, you don’t get diamonds. Jim Joyce has felt the pressure before and it has never, ever crushed him. And as such, it’s hard to imagine Major League Baseball wanting anyone other than Jim Joyce on its diamond tonight.”

    brilliant! how long have you been saving that gem?

    • moogro - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:53 PM

      Definitely another jewel in his crown.

    • Francisco (FC) - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:53 PM

      I see what you did there.

  7. thomas844 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    This is one of the best articles you have written, Craig. I think out of all of the jobs that I have had, umping for junior high-high school games was by far the most difficult. What those guys do out there during Major League games is amazing, and I love how you captured the hard work and efficiency of umpires like Joyce. Too many times umpires are nothing more than invisible men on the field who become scapegoats as soon as a mistake is made.

    And honestly, I think the botched call during Gallaraga’s game is a positive rather than a negative, as it revealed great sportsmanship on both ends and it helped people realize afterwards that Joyce truly is a great umpire. Plus, that was a period of time where there were about 4-5 perfect games and no-hitters per year. If anything, Gallaraga’s game would have been lost in all of that and he would be another Braden or Humber. But because of the missed call, he is more well known and respected than if he had actually thrown the perfect game.

    • chiadam - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:09 PM

      Pump the brakes a little. It was not a positive for Gallaraga, I assure you. He would clearly rather have the perfect game than not.

      • clydeserra - Oct 30, 2013 at 3:28 PM

        I get what you are saying, but thinking about it, maybe he shouldn’t.

        phillip humbler and dallas braden are always going to “have” perfect games, but no one will remember them. Gallaraga would be just as forgotten as them in a few years (maybe even now) if Joyce makes the call right.

        Further, it seems to be universally acknowledged that the call was blown and Gallagrage did in fact, but not in law, pitch a perfect game.

  8. moogro - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/10/27/the-obstruction-play-provides-a-glimpse-at-the-essence-of-baseball/

    Strike!

    This one: home run!

  9. chiadam - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    Sounds like someone just joined the Mile High club with a certain umpire.

  10. glsmithassociates - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:19 PM

    That was a great article, you did yourself and the game proud.

  11. richardp33 - Oct 30, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    This column is a perfect example of wonderful writing. (I felt compelled to sign up with WordPress just to leave this comment.) Every so often we get reminded about the many ways in which sports serves as a commentary on life in general. This column drives that point home. Bravo.

  12. indaburg - Oct 30, 2013 at 5:42 PM

    Beautifully written, Calcaterra.

    Indeed, bad calls from umpires, in the World Series or otherwise, are both memorable and legion.

    Part of the reason we remember the really bad calls versus the good but not very exciting calls is that humans tend to remember negative emotional events better than we do neutral events. That’s true of every aspect of our lives and it’s the way we humans are wired. When Joyce miscalled that play at first base that cost Galarraga the perfect game, it triggered strong negative emotions in the hardcore baseball fan. Our sense of baseball-fairness and justice was upset. We know just how rare and difficult this feat is, and to have it stolen was upsetting. When it happens in the World Series, the effect is magnified. The stakes are so high! This is the World Series, after all. (This is just an explanation for human behavior. The way Joyce handled it afterwards–I have nothing but respect for the man.)

  13. larrytsg - Oct 30, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    Nice article about an umpire who is no longer “anonymous” outside the inner workings of baseball.

    Let’s hope that his “blown call” in the perfect game leads to more openness with umpires. Already we have seen umpires conferring on the field, and willing to overturn an egregious bad call (DeMuth’s call in Game 1). The days of umpires being “out there on their own” is hopefully over for those calls that others can and do see well.

    The big question is, would the other umpires have had the good view and guts to confer with Joyce in Galarraga’s game if it happened next season, or would there have been anyone with the view to overturn Denkinger’s call in 1985.

  14. 4d3fect - Oct 30, 2013 at 10:20 PM

    Just like garbage men and mailmen. When you do your job right, you’re invisible.

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