Friday

6-4-10: Aiming for Perfection

Hello again everybody...

As so often seems to be the case, I need to start today's column with an apology.

For those of you expecting to see the DFTU, I apologize, but you're going to have to wait another week.

Don't get me wrong, nothing brings me more joy than bringing you the latest news and opinions on my favorite teams, and I'm sure there are one or two of you out there that enjoy it nearly as much as I do. But sometimes events conspire against us. Sometimes momentous things happen, and I feel compelled to delay the DFTU in order to address them.

This time, it's Game 1 of the NBA Finals...

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Gotcha!

Forgive my little jest, but since 99% of you knew what I was going to get into after the first sentence, I couldn't resist tossing you a change-up.

Yes, today I'm talking about the “perfecto” that wasn't. What happened, how was it handled and what does it mean for baseball? I'll discuss!

Right after the quote...

”Misery no longer loves company. Nowadays it insists on it.”
- Russell Baker (1925 - ), American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer


“Misery” is perhaps too strong a term to describe the emotions following the now-infamous events of Wednesday night, but considering how caught up we all became in the drama of it, the “company” aspect seemed applicable!

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If you missed Wednesday's column, go back and read the section about Halladay's perfect game, and then consider what happened Wednesday night.

Now tell me that the gods don't like screwing with me. Go ahead... I dare you!

Okay, okay, you're right. I really shouldn't make myself the center of the story.

For those of you who didn't see it live, or have somehow avoided every major news program in the known universe for the past couple of days, here's what happened:

Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers pitched 8.2 innings of perfect baseball against the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night. He'd faced 26 batters and retired all 26 when Jason Donald came to the plate. Donald hit a ground ball to the right side that was fielded by Tiger first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera flipped to Galarraga covering first, and it appeared that we had our third perfect game of the 2010 season - the first time we'd ever had three perfect games hurled in one season.

But a funny thing happened along the way to that bit of history... first base umpire Jim Joyce ruled that Donald had beaten the flip to first and called him safe. That would be fine, except that replay clearly showed that the throw had beaten the runner, and that Joyce had blown the call.

Again, if you've been living under a rock and haven't seen the replay, you can do so here and judge for yourself.

That mistake didn't impact the outcome of the game. Galarraga got the next batter out and the Tigers won 3-0. But it did rob us of a piece of history (three perfect games in a single season). It's only June. Perhaps we'll see another “perfecto” before the year's over. But the statistics say it's not likely. And even if we do see another one, the odds that it'll be Galarraga who pitches it, are astronomical. So he still loses out on a chance to be a part of history.

You might think it silly, but honestly, this is going to be one of those moments where I'll remember exactly where I was when it happened. I was in the studio with Mike Max and John Hines. When Austin Jackson made a spectacular catch in center to preserve the perfect game, we all took notice of what was going on. And then came the Donald play. Each of us had the same reaction, our hands went to our heads in a gesture of bewilderment, and we all asked, “how could that happen?!”

Personally, I think it was a case of “paralysis by analysis”.

Everybody in the ballpark knew that a perfect game was in play, and Joyce was no different. He admitted as much after the game. The controversial play took a long time to develop. My guess is that instead of just reacting to the play and making the call like he normally would, he started thinking about it.

“Ooh, this is going to be close. If it's bang-bang and I think he's safe, I have to call him safe, right? If I call the guy out and it turns out he was safe, people will accuse me of being biased towards the perfect game, won't they? I can't do that. I have to make the right call, even if it's unpopular.”

Something like that. The problem is, when you start going through a thought process like that, your chances of blowing the call increase dramatically.

Not that it was an easy call to begin with. On plays like that, umpires usually watch the base and listen for the sound of the ball hitting the glove. In this case, with the throw being a softer toss, the sound of the ball hitting the glove had to have been rather muted, making the call infinitely more difficult to make.

Combine all those factors together, and it's not difficult at all to see how Joyce could make a mistake. After all, he's only human.

And that's the problem.

Human beings make mistakes. Human beings also have the capacity to invent and refine technology to help them correct those mistakes. In Major League Baseball, however, they haven't seen fit to take full advantage of said technology.

Perhaps the good that comes from this unfortunate story, will be a change in that philosophy.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement yesterday in which he said:

“While the human element has always been an integral part of baseball, it is vital that mistakes on the field be addressed. Given last night's call and other recent events, I will examine our umpiring system, the expanded use of instant replay and all other related features.”

That, my friends, is commissioner-speak for, “it's time to get serious about replay folks, because this can't happen again... ever.”

At heart, I'm a baseball purist. I'm not a huge fan of the Wild Card. I could live without Interleague Play. I think the notion of the All-Star Game deciding home-field advantage for the World Series is ludicrous. And I loathe the Designated Hitter.

That being said, I couldn't be more in favor of the use of instant replay in situations like this. I say that because I find the two main arguments against the use of replay to be lacking.

The first thing you usually hear when a person argues against replay is, “but it would remove the human element from the game!”

Folks, replay doesn't “remove” the human element. It “improves” the human element. Nobody's talking about replacing umpires. Nobody's talking about having a computer call balls and strikes. We're merely giving the umpires all the tools which are readily at our disposal to get the call right. The umpires want to get the call right. The players and coaches want them to get the call right. And the fans want them to get the call right. Nobody enjoys a blown call. So what are we preserving by failing to provide the umpires with the option to consult a video replay? Nothing that I can see.

The second argument you'll hear is, “baseball is too long already, and now it's going to be even longer!”

No it won't. The NFL has done numerous studies and their games haven't been lengthened by anything approaching a significant amount of time due to replay. That's because they put a group of smart, experienced people in a room and hashed out a set of rules that clearly defined which plays were reviewable and who would be responsible for initiating those reviews. There's no reason whatsoever that baseball can't do the same thing.

The game in question is the perfect example. Fans at home knew in less than 90 seconds that Joyce had kicked the call. That's how long it took Fox Sports Detroit to re-rack the video and produce a replay. It wouldn't have taken any more than five minutes - and I think that's a pretty conservative number - for the umpires to go back to their room, check a monitor, determine that the call was wrong, and come back out with the correct call. You cannot convince me that those 5 minutes of waiting aren't worth it in order to get that call correct. You just can't. Don't even try.

Yes, replay in baseball would be more complicated than it is in some other sports. There are more moving parts and continuation plays to consider. Say there's a runner on first when a batter rifles a shot down the right field line. The play is ruled foul, and the runner is sent back to first. But wait, an official sitting in the press box notifies the crew chief that he may want to take another look a the play on video. The umpires go back to their locker room, check the monitor and see that the ball did indeed clip the line, and should've been ruled fair. Then what happens? Do they give the hitter a single, or a double? Maybe the ball would've taken a weird hop and turned into a triple? And what do they do with the runner at first? If it was a double, he likely would have scored. But if it's ruled a double, do they credit the run, or treat it like a ground rule double and advance him only to third?

It's these kind of continuation plays that will make hashing out a workable system a complex process. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't do it . The NFL system wasn't simple to come up with, and there have been a series of refinements over the years. But it works, and that's the whole point. NFL officials get more calls right now then they did prior to having replay. Baseball umpires should have the same opportunity.

So we'll see what happens. The limited replay system baseball has to deal with home-runs was instituted mid-season. I'm not sure that will be the case with a broader instant replay system. Instead, I think this will be studied over the remaining course of this season, and a proposal will be presented (perhaps at the winter meetings) in time for next year. Could it happen sooner? Sure. But I don't think it will.

It's unfortunate that Galarraga missed out on his perfect game. But if the result is the implementation of a workable replay system that ensures that a mistake like that will be instantly corrected in the future, maybe he earned his place in baseball history after all.


A couple of other notes which are related, but didn't work into the preceding flow:

1 - It's a credit to baseball and the individuals involved that this entire situation was handled with class and dignity.

Would anyone have blamed Galarraga for losing his mind after a call like that? Even Joyce said he wouldn't have blamed Galarraga for going off on him. But Armondo didn't. He handled it with class on the field, and in post-game interviews.

Some of the credit for that has to go to his manager. Yes, Jim Leyland barked quite a bit at Joyce after the game was over, but in his post-game interviews, Leyland pointed out repeatedly that Joyce is a good umpire, and that no one would feel worse than Jim did after he saw the replay. Joyce himself, echoed that exact sentiment:

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [expletive deleted] out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

Then in yesterday's series-ender, Joyce was behind the plate, which meant that he collected the line-up cards from both clubs before the game started. Usually it's the manager or a coach that brings the line-up card out. Yesterday for the Tigers, it was Armando Galarraga.

It was a tremendous moment for baseball, and for all of sports. It was two guys saying there was a mistake, but it wasn't intentional or malicious, and we're over it, so let's move on and play ball. Joyce even got a little dust in his eyes (there's no crying in baseball, remember). That's as classy a moment as you'll see this side of a post-NHL playoff series handshake.

2 - I don't agree with a lot of things that come out of the MLB Commissioner's office, but I think the decision to not overturn the call simply to award Galarraga with a perfect game was 100% correct.

The game wasn't decided because of the blown call. If you're going to go so far as to reverse a call which didn't factor in a win or a loss, don't you then have to reverse calls in games where a bad call actually did affect the outcome? Say, oh, I don't know, the Twins/Mariners game from Wednesday night where an incorrect call actually ended the game?

Plus, if Selig had reversed that call, wouldn't he then have to go back to every one-hitter ever pitched and make sure there wasn't a disputable call that cost all those pitchers a chance at history?

It's an extraordinarily problematic precedent that the Commissioner would've set, and I couldn't be more relieved that he chose not to go there.

Wisdom isn't gained from going back and correcting mistakes you've already made. It's gained from learning from your mistakes and taking the steps necessary to not repeat them going forward.

Ahem... replay anyone?


That's going to wrap things up for today. Again, my apologies for blowing out the DFTU this week, but hopefully you'll understand why I thought it was necessary.

I'll be back on Monday with more of something which I won't predict because I feel like a dolt every time I do and end up writing about something completely different.

So there.

Until then, thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. I was really impressed with the class and dignity that this whole thing was handled with. What I was not so impressed with was Governor Granholm declaring last night that Galarraga had pitched a perfect game and this little incident didn't happen. Like crying, there should be no politics in baseball.

    On the same lines of instant replay, I would be curious on where you stand on Hawk-Eye for ball and strike determinations. Or have you already covered that in an article I've missed?

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  2. I briefly glossed over it in this column when I said, "Nobody's talking about having a computer call balls and strikes."

    I'm for using replay as a tool for umpires, but I'd be opposed to anything that replaced them.

    If Hawk-eye can be used as an evaluation tool for improving the consistency with which balls and strikes are called, then I'm good with that.

    But I'd hate to see it implemented in-game.

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