Umpires and instant replay and the end of the Pirates/Braves game

I should be asleep. I spent all weekend getting up early to go to lab to finish experiments and put together my seminar, I was up late last night and up early today, and when I got home from work this afternoon all I could think was that I wanted to veg out, turn the Pirates on, watch the game, and actually get to bed early for once. Now, it’s 2:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep because of the way the Pirates/Braves game ended. 

For most of the game, I was mad at Clint Hurdle. I can’t keep any of the early innings straight and I’m too tired to look them up, but at various points between, let’s say, the 7th and 14th innings, Hurdle tried a squeeze play after Mike McKenry and Brandon Wood got hits off of Craig Kimbrel. It was so obvious he was going to try a squeeze, that the Braves’ pitching coach came out of the dugout, they had a mound conference, and they threw a pitchout. Everyone knew that the Braves knew the Pirates were going to squeeze except for Hurdle. Instead of runners on first and third with one out and the top of the order up, the Pirates had a runner on first and two outs. Threat averted. 

Later on, Andrew McCutchen drew a leadoff walk. Pedro Alvarez then bunted him over. Alvarez strugged quite a bit earlier in the game, but he also had to face two excellent LOOGYs in Jonny Venters and George Sherrill. By this point, Christhian Martinez, a righty was in the game. So maybe Alvarez was struggling, but he had a better matchup and he had Lyle Overbay and Ronny Cedeno hitting after him. Instead of giving a guy with some pop that’s had some nice at-bats against righties in his two games back with the big league club try and chase one into a gap and score one of the NL’s fastest players, Alvarez was handicapped and two terrible, terrible hitters came up with almost no chance to push him home. 

The reason that it drives me nuts when Hurdle does things like this is because when I watch a baseball game, I want to watch a baseball game. Almost all of the little crap that managers do besides changing pitchers and using pinch-hitters and defensive replacements takes away from what the players are doing. I don’t want to see Pedro Alvarez bunt, I want him to hack away and try to stick a ball in the gap and win the game and make me think that maybe he’ll be the player the Pirates so badly need him to be. I want Xavier Paul to have a chance to play hero for the second straight day so that I can throw my hands up in disbelief and go, “Xavier Paul? Really? I just don’t get this team and I don’t even care!” 

And then, the game ended. The game ended because Mike McKenry made a bad tag on Julio Lugo at home plate. It’s true that McKenry could’ve probably applied the tag with a little more force and left no doubt, but tags aren’t supposed to be scored on style points. McKenry left the door open just a bit and Jerry Meals, who I’m sure was worn out after almost 7 hours of umpiring, found plausible deniability in his head and decided to leap through that window and get it over with and call Lugo safe even though he very clearly wasn’t. So after I spent almost seven hours watching a close, exciting, seesaw baseball game between two playoff contenders, and while I fumed for three hours about the Pirates’ manager taking the game out of his players’ hands, the game was decided by an umpire. An umpire.

I’m 26 years old, and I watched the Pittsburgh Pirates lose games at a seemingly ceaseless rate for 18 years. I’ve written several hundred recaps of Pirate losses for this blog. I’ve seen 20-0 losses. I’ve seen Oliver Perez strike out ten Braves in eight innings, give up a home run to Chipper Jones, and lose because the Pirates can’t score on 11 hits off of Russ Freaking Ortiz. I’ve seen Mike Williams and Jose Mesa and Mike Gonzalez and Matt Capps and Octavio Dotel blow leads that I was certain were safe. The reality of being a Pirate fan that almost no one realizes is this: if you really keep on watching, the losses never stop stinging. Maybe they stop surprising you, but they never stop stinging.

Through all of the years of watching the Pirates lose, I’ve never had a visceral physical reaction to the end of a baseball game the way I did a couple of hours ago. I jumped up from the corner of my bed that I was perched on and kind of yelped. I watched the replay, then I sat down to try and write something about it, and my hands couldn’t stop shaking. I could barely even type or think or see, because I’d spent so much time watching a baseball game and investing myself in it and suddenly, it was over and the players had almost nothing to do with it.

It’s probably true that I care about the result of this game more than I might have in the past because of how this loss might affect the Pirates’ playoff chances (What if they lose the NL Central by one game? Please. Don’t even make me think about this.), but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the only human element on a baseball field should be the players and seeing the Pirates lose a game because MLB refuses to address an obvious problem is just maddening. What happens if I submit a paper to a journal with misinterpreted data? Does the journal just publish it without ever reading it over, and then shrug and say, “Hey! Human error! Just a part of science!” when someone points out that I was wrong? No, the paper gets sent to other researchers who scour everything that I’ve done, who ask questions and make critiques and ask for more experiements and sometimes, flat out tell you that you’re wrong and your paper can’t be published. And do you know why the peer review system exists? Because sometimes, people screw up. It exists to keep false information from being published. No one’s interested in any human element beyond the ability of me and the other members of my lab and my boss to ask questions and find ways to experimentally answer them in a definitive fashion. How else can you possibly do science?

And somehow, it’s acceptable in baseball to let imperfect human beings make final judgments on a game they don’t play when technology exists to do the job better. Look, I know better than anyone that humans aren’t perfect. It’s 3 AM and I’m sitting in my apartment ranting about baseball instead of sleeping. I’m far from perfect. But when I screw up, I pay the price. I’ll be tired all day tomorrow because I’m up so late tonight. Maybe I’ll spill a beaker of boiling hot agarose on the floor, and then I’ll have to clean it up. When baseball umpires aren’t perfect, we just press on and pretend like they were. Why do people think that this doesn’t sound insane? 

Did Jerry Meals have a bad angle on McKenry’s swipe tag? He might’ve. Did he decide he was tired and he wanted to go home? Definitely possible. I feel pretty strongly that a good umpire makes the right call there most of the time, but maybe not 100% of the time even in the second inning and there are probably a lot of umpires whose success rate on that call would drop the longer the game goes on. But none of those things reflect the objective fact that McKenry tagged Julio Lugo; instead, the result of the game reflects that McKenry didn’t tag Lugo — it pretends Meals was right and the game is over. The players playing the game we fans love to watch did one thing, but the umpire decided that something else happened and took the game away from the players. In doing so, he ended what should’ve been an epic celebration of the weirdness and awesomeness of baseball in huge controversy. There was an amazing game in Atlanta on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. The Pirates’ bullpen came into the game in the sixth inning, the Braves’ bullpen came into the game in the seventh inning, and neither bullpen allowed a run until the bottom of the 18th. Both teams got some key hits early on, made big plays in the field as the game progressed, and Christhian Martinez and Scott Proctor and Jason Grilli and Dan McCutchen were all just phenomenal in a game that both teams refused to lose. And instead of talking about this incredible slice of baseball folkore, we’re talking about an umpire. It’s a shame. 

Everyone with a computer knew within minutes for certain that Meals had made the wrong call. Why is it so hard to incorporate that into the game itself? Why do people argue that doing so would somehow affect the integrity of the game? How is it possible that having instant replay for a play like this one would hurt the integrity of the game more than what actually happened on the field early on Wednesday morning?

I wish I had answers, but Major League Baseball’s been dragging its feet for so long on this that I’m afraid that there aren’t any coming.  

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.