Today seems to be a day when I will be writing about things that friends wrote … and how I sort of, kind of disagree with them. Later, I'll have a longer post on this by my great, good friend Michael Rosenberg -- in it Michael is talking about how college players should be paid, an argument I've made myself in the past and am sympathetic to. But, well, I wrote on Twitter that I disagree with 63% of the article, but that it's 100% goodness. Read. We'll discuss later.
Meanwhile: E-migo Rob Neyer has an interesting post that he titled: Jerry Meals might have been right. Seriously.
Once again, I disagree with 63% of it. Maybe 64%. I don't think that the word "might" is wide enough to cover the chance that Meals was right on the call that ended Tuesday's 19-inning game between Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Well, I suppose if you want to use "might" in the grand sense, as in: "Lady Gaga might be Mozart reincarnated," or "newspapers might be the hot business model for the next century," then it could work. But if might represents something that actually MIGHT be true, then no, I don't think there's almost any chance that Meals got the call right.
BUT, I think Rob's larger point is dead on.
To review: The Pirates and Braves played a stunningly important July game Tuesday night. The Pirates are in first place. The Braves have stubbornly tried to stay close with that legendary pitching staff in Philadelphia. Good stuff. The Pirates took a 3-0 lead, and Atlanta came back to tie in the third inning. And then, they played. And played. And played. The game lasted six hours and 39 minutes, the longest game for either side, and the Braves ran out of players, and the Pirates basically used every pitcher they had except their closer, and there were five stinking intentional walk, and so on.
All in all it went 19 innings, and in the bottom of the 19th Julio Lugo walked and went to third on a single by Jordan Schaefer. There was one out. Pitcher Scott Proctor was in the leadoff spot because that's the sort of thing that happens in the 19th inning. He had batted four times in the big leagues -- three for the Yankees in 2007, and one earlier that day. He had not gotten a hit. He had struck out three of the four times.
This time he hit a ground ball to third. Lugo broke for the plate. Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez picked up the ball and threw it home WAY ahead of Lugo.* Pirates catcher Michael McKenry, who had caught all 19 innings, made a swipe tag and everyone in the ballpark, including Lugo, assumed that the runner was out. Everyone, that is, except home plate umpire Jerry Meals, who appeared ready to make the out call, then suddenly did a little body shift and called Lugo safe and, to punctuate his call, made a hand motion of some kind as if to say: "You missed the tag, Michael."
*The throw was so far ahead, I felt bad for announcer Chip Caray who, in the confusion of the moment, shouted: "Alvarez coming home … and … it's … NOT IN TIME!" But, of course, it was clearly "in time." That was never in dispute. Meals was saying that the catcher missed the tag. I know what Caray was saying, and making that call at the spur of the moment is absurdly hard. But these are the announcer moments that are repeated and repeated forever. And I imagine Chip would rather have said something other than "Not in time."
Now, the immediate reaction was something resembling horror -- it seemed impossibly obvious that Lugo was out. The throw beat him by six feet, at least. McKenry was so sure that he made the tag that he was looking to see if a double play was still possible. Lugo was so sure that that he was tagged that he hardly seemed interested in touching home plate. The crowd noise -- at least what you can pick up on video -- was the sound of deflation. Everything so vividly pointed to out that the safe call was as shocking as, say, someone shooting and killing Rambo or Dirty Harry 15 minutes into the movie. People were not thinking: "My, the umpire appears to have missed that call." They were thinking: "What a minute … am I going crazy? What happens now?"
And powerful reactions like this in 2011 are a whole lot different from 1985 or 1956. Twitter exploded. Facebook blew up. Chat boards detonated. Photographs raced around the country, videos were emailed and posted, instant pundits pounded their keyboards and shouted on radio, exclamation points covered the land …
WORST CALL EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Jerry Meals should be fired!!!!!
If baseball doesn't get instant replay I'm going to stop being a fan!!!
Pirates wuz robbed!!!!
WORST CALL EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I got involved too. Hey, if you're going to be on Twitter, you have to be on Twitter. My Tweet: "Strange: Woke up this morning, reread Mighty Casey poem. Seems Mudville actually won. Jerry Meals said Casey checked his swing."
Well, anyway, I thought it was funny. Meals blew that call. I'm as certain of that as I can be. But, here's where I think Rob makes a great point: Almost every response I saw to the missed call seemed, um, overwhelming somehow. I saw photos that APPEARED to show McKenry tagging the runner, but not quite. I saw video angles that APPEARED to to show the tag, but again, not entirely. And people sent these around as if they were ABSOLUTE PROOF. I got one photo via email 12 times, and no matter how closely I look at it I cannot make out a connection between McKenry's glove and Lugo's leg.*
*Of course, I do need bifocals. I'm holding off on that as long as I can.
Beyond that: I saw people make the entirely unfair and vicious charge that Meals called the runner safe because he wanted to go home -- one thing that is absolutely clear from the video is that Meals was about to call him out, felt confident that McKenry missed the tag, and then called him safe. It was the gutsy call … if the wrong one. Blame Meals for missing it. But there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he had the power of his conviction.
Best I can tell from video, photos, experience of watching baseball and so on, McKenry swiped Lugo's leg. But, again best I can tell, he BARELY swiped Lugo's leg. It wasn't a clean tag at all. In full speed, Lugo looks out by a million miles. It looks like McKenry tagged Lugo at least twice before he reached home plate -- on the leg, on the arm, etc. In photos, on video, from the best viewpoints, he definitely DID NOT touch the arm, and Lugo looks out only by the slightest brush of a catcher's mitt. I think Meals missed it. I'm really quite sure Meals missed it. But I don't think he missed it by all that much. The "worst call ever" screams, the questions of Meals integrity, all that seemed to me wildly, horribly misplaced. And that's where I agree with Rob. You will almost certainly see a more obviously missed call at some point today.
Which leads to this: Baseball absolutely should institute replay … and I say this as someone who doesn't particularly like replay in sports. They should institute replay because it's just not sustainable in today's technological world to make bad calls on the field. Those days are over. This year, more than any other, television broadcasts are using boxes to show whether pitches are actually balls or strikes. This year, more than any other, camera angles are consistently (on a daily basis, really) showing that umpires missed calls. This year, more than any other, the social media world blows up when an umpire misses a call. And it's only going to get more and more and more obvious and destructive until baseball will no longer have the sort of legitimacy that a sport needs. I'm not saying baseball should use replay. I'm saying baseball will have no choice. They will either find a way to incorporate replay into the fabric of the game, or they will have replay thrust into the game in some haphazard way, much the same way drug testing was thrust into the game. You can't keep giving the fans at home better access to the truth than the home plate umpire. You just can't.
Replay would have helped Jerry Meals more than anyone else Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. He would have had the freedom to make the call he believed in, and then when looking at the replays he (I assume) would have overturned it. Yes, it would have added a bit of a delay to the game. Yes, replay would change some of the rhythms of baseball. But baseball needs to decide: What's more important, getting it right or the inconveniences of progress?