Ahhhhhhhh, Baseball, the first true love of many a man, before he goes through puberty or discovers beer. A sport so truly American, that when the Soviets wanted to groom agents to pass for native Americans, they made them play baseball and learn about all the major league teams. And like so many sports, the tradition includes the obligation to second-guess the calls made by the umpires.
The game in specific I have in mind, is the American League Championship Series Game 2 between the Chicago White Sox and the Angels, whether of Los Angeles of Anaheim depending on your sense of tradition and propriety.
In case you missed it, I am writing about the ninth inning call by Plate Umpire Doug Eddings, when A.J. Pierzynski swung at a low pitch for the third strike with two out and the Angels leading 2-1. Sounds like out three, game over right? Especially since Eddings signaled the third strike and pumped his fist to the side. Knowing that the pitch was low and understanding the rulebook better than many people who would debate the call later, Pierzynski ran for first base, fully expecting the Angels catcher, Josh Paul, to simply throw to first base to confirm the out. But that is not what happened, and the debate begins there.
Paul gloved the ball as it either bounced off the ground at the lip of his glove, or else just as it was about to hit the ground; which it is depends on whom you ask, even with taped replay. Without a doubt, though, Paul’s glove was on the ground and that should have clued the catcher to throw to first and make sure. Instead, Paul believed the game was over and rolled the ball underhand in the general direction of the pitcher’s mound as the Angels began to leave the field. None of the umpires, however, moved from their positions, and none of the umpires called Pierzynski out. By the time the Angels realized that Pierzynski had not been called out, it was too late to make the play. Later in the inning, Joe Crede hit a double that ended up winning the game for the White Sox to even the series.
Angels manager Mike Scoscia, who should know better, claimed “He called him out … When he rings him up with a fist, he’s out.”
Actually, no Mike, that’s not correct. As Major League Baseball VP of umpiring Mike Port explained, “Doug Eddings, all things considered, did nothing wrong.” In explaining why Eddings did not make a call to indicate the ball was in play, Port said “There is no regulation or requirement that they say something”.
As an umpire myself, I think I can help to explain the call. Without getting too fancy, you have two basic types of umpires: The Plate Umpire and the Field Umpires. They have very different roles most of the time. As the years went by and Baseball evolved, umpires learned that yelling things at players tended to make them stop, which was sometimes a very bad thing. For instance, umpires will usually shout “Foul!” when a ball goes foul in addition to signaling the foul with their arms, but will not make a verbal call when the ball is fair, because yelling something like “In Play!” or “Fair!” will be hard to hear clearly, and both runners and fielders have a tendency to stop when they hear something shouted by an umpire; the assumption is that the ump is telling them to stop. That’s why “Balk!” is called out loud, but a delayed dead ball foul is not verbalized. So traditionally, no matter what level of ball you are playing, umpires do not generally make a verbal statement when the ball is in play. When’s the last time you heard the umpire declare that a base hit or a double is in play, after all?
Now, the exact reason why a dropped third-strike is not automatically an out would take a while to explain, but for here I will simply say that except in leagues for very young kids, and unless first base is occupied with less than two outs, if the catcher drops the ball on a third strike, swung at or called, he better plan on throwing to first base or tagging the runner. If the catcher is in any doubt, he’d better make sure he tags the runner or throws to first. This is not unique to the Majors, but is the rule throughout Baseball; that makes it Josh Paul’s job to make sure.
As for the fist? It is true that when a field umpire signals with his fist, the runner is out, but that’s because the field umpire principally makes safe/out calls – notice that if he is asked whether a batter swung, a fist does not mean the batter is out, but that he swung. When addressing strike/ball calls, a closed fist means only that the call is a strike; it is not made as an out call unless the umpire calls “out” verbally. Again, this is nothing unique to the Majors, nor is it a new rule, so Mike Scoscia should really know better than to claim the ump called him out. Eddings did not say anything, and what that means should have been very clear to Scoscia.
Now then, when I am dealing with PONY-age baseball players, I sometimes have to explain to them that if I don’t say anything about someone being out, they should recognize that means the ball is still in play – I can’t call anything until it happens, and they have to be careful not to assume anything. I recall one ridiculous High School JV game some years back, where a player came around third trying to score, and the throw came in to the catcher. Obviously, there was going to be a play at the plate, but as both the runner and catcher looked at me for the call, I had to say nothing for a few seconds. That was because while the catcher had tagged the runner with his glove before he got to the plate, the ball had fallen out of his glove before he tagged the runner. As for the runner, his slide came up short, and when both he and the catcher looked up at me, the ball was a foot or so away from them, and the runner was about 8 inches away from the plate. As seconds ticked away, I heard yelling at me from both dugouts, but I had to wait until the light clicked in the runner’s head, and he reached over and slapped home plate just as the catcher realized he did not have the ball. It took a while to explain it to the coaches, but I had to wait for the tag, either of the plate or with the ball. Josh Paul should have known by the no-out-call that he had to make sure. He made an assumption, and that cost him.
I am a bit bemused by one thing, however. When I worked the plate, I recognized the possibility that I might not see what happened in certain places. So I developed a signal with my first-base ump to tell me with a fist or point-down whether or not a third strike had been dropped. Major League Baseball does not use that signal, and I have to wonder why. A clear signal between the umpires is always a good thing, but that comes down to the umpiring crews, and there lies a whole different reality. But umpiring is a job with a special set of required skills, and when you have to make the call, you have to expect the noise and criticism that comes with it. A lot of people who don’t know what they are talking about will chop at you and gain support from their buddies, even some famous sportscasters will show their ignorance, albeit to general approval from their viewers. It’s a personal irritation of mine, actually. I agree that it makes sense to hire former professional athletes to explain how a player handles a certain situation, and to hire former coaches to explain how plays are developed and training done. But for some reason, when they discuss the calls made by officials, the television guys still to back to the ex-players and coaches, rather than asking former officials. But then, asking the guys who really know what’s going on, has not been the popular thing to do.