The Commish Online                                                                                
Ump, not Paul, Dropped the Ball
Ditch the third strike rule, but you can keep your instant replay
October 13, 2005

Hosts of talk radio are salivating right now.  Those with afternoon shows are probably pacing in their living rooms, praying there is something left to be said about last night.  The event causing the collective foaming at the mouth is last night's 3rd strike on Chicago's A.J. Pierzynski in the 9th inning of Game 2 of the ALCS.  After Pierzynski swung at a pitch headed for the dirt, Josh Paul, catcher for the Angels, managed to snare it before it hit the ground, seemingly for the third out and end of the inning.  Home plate umpire Doug Eddings signaled a "strike three" with his arm, THEN made the "out" sign with his fist.  Not seeing this, and not hearing anything from Eddings, Pierzynski, after starting to head to the dugout, changed direction and ran to first base, all while Josh Paul had already rolled the ball to the pitcher's mound and headed for the dugout.

At first, Eddings appeared relaxed like the play was over, especially when Paul started leaving the scene.  It was only AFTER Pierzynski started running that Eddings became interested in the play again.  From a viewer's standpoint, it appeared that Eddings had no reason to believe the ball hit the dirt first, making the "strike three" and "out" calls with his normal conviction.  Normally, when a ball hits the dirt or escapes from the catcher on a third strike, the umpire makes the strike call but remains in a "ready" position until the runner is tagged or thrown out.  This was not the case with Eddings.  For some reason, Pierzynski's "nothing to lose" attempt at first base shook Eddings' confidence in his call to the point that he let the play continue.  Eddings later defended his position, claiming he DID think the ball hit the ground, but the video and his initial reaction indicate otherwise.  Josh Paul's quote (from Mike Fitzpatrick's AP story) reiterated the situation: "'Customarily, if the ball is in the dirt, say if we block a ball for strike three, they usually say, 'No catch, no catch, no catch.' And I didn't hear any of that,'' Paul said. "'That's why I was headed back to the dugout.'"

The result most agree on:  Eddings screwed up, the Sox took advantage and capitalized on the situation (Ozuna pinch ran, stole second, and scored the game winner on Joe Crede's hit on an 0-2 count).  The Angels were the unfortunate losers in the game, but it should be noted that manager Mike Scioscia handled the situation with total class: he stated his opinion on the situation without ridiculing any individuals or whining like a toddler desperately begging for an extra cookie.  In fact, Scioscia still admitted that instant replay isn't the answer, knowing that baseball is best with the human element still intact.

Mistakes happen in sport, and there are two main opposing viewpoints on the matter: 1. if the technology is available, we should eliminate any human error (within reason) so that the game is decided by the players on the field as much as possible, and 2. if we attempt to correct all human error from sport, we have eliminated much of the drama from sport that makes us fume or jump for joy at the water cooler the next day.  I am much more a proponent of the second view, believing that sports are for the spectator, and the best thing about sports is the drama, the story, the background, the lore, the draw of an age old rivalry.  It's the very reason Yankees games get better ratings than Braves games outside of New York.  It could be the same game played with the same level of talent and competition, but New York's history of great players and great teams is much more intriguing to a sports fan than a Braves team that happens to execute the hit and run just as well.  It's the same reason last year's NBA Finals between San Antonio and Detroit were a ratings bust.  The "true" sports fans were saying it would be a great Finals because these were two teams that played well-rounded, defense oriented, "team" basketball.  Why didn't that translate to high drama and excitement, followed by huge ratings?  Because there was no history between the two teams; there were no villains, just heroes.

A co-worker made a smart comment on the third strike situation today, saying all great stories have a villain.  The Angels and White Sox are likeable teams that are hard to root against.  Courtesy of one bad call, an antagonist has been created in the unlikeliest scenarios, making the future of the series one to watch.  Yes, it's not something the Angels are thrilled about and not something that should be done intentionally, but if the White Sox end up winning in 7 games, the boneheaded call will make this series a memorable one.

The "tuck rule" incident was a questionable call that went the Patriots way in 2002.  The Raiders' defense subsequently caved in and allowed the Pats to score and eventually win the game, leading to New England's first of three Super Bowl Championships in four years.  New England's fate could be much different if Brady was ruled to have fumbled that ball, but the call was made and, right or wrong, the game is more memorable now because of it.  Ask a baseball fan about the 1985 World Series (don't ask a Cardinals fan), and you are sure to hear about the blown call in the 9th inning of Game 6.  You can search the internet for a detailed description of the incident, but basically Jorge Orta of Kansas City was ruled safe on a close play at first in which he appeared to be out by everyone in the stands and at home.  The Royals scored 2 runs that inning to win 2-1 and won the next night to finish an improbable comeback, partly because of umpire Don Denkinger's bad call.

Sport is an imperfect game, and while we can try to make it more perfect, we sacrifice the spontaneity of the game.  Instant replay has ruined the NFL, taking away all emotional reactions to close plays, fans knowing they have to wait under the ref removes his head from the replay monitor.  Worse yet, it still hasn't made the game any more "perfect."  Just last Monday, a play involving Pittsburgh's Hines Ward was reviewed, with the Chargers claiming they tackled Ward even though Ward got up and ran into the endzone, claiming he was untouched after he hit the ground.  Al Michaels and John Madden, after watching several angles of the replay, concluded that the Chargers had not touched him and the touchdown would stand.  Instead, the referee OVERRULED the judgement on the field, claiming a player on San Diego touched Ward's foot while he was down.  Instead of correcting human error, instant replay often invites more controversy.

As a Braves fan, I was disheartened to see the bad ruling in the 8th inning of Game 5 of the ALDS in which the first base umpire ruled that Julio Franco was off the bag in an apparent double play.  The replay clearly showed Franco on the bag while he caught the ball.  Shortly after, a 6-1 lead turned into a 6-5 lead (thank you Kyle Farnsworth), and the rest is 18-inning history.  Would I like instant replay instituted so that the Braves don't get "cheated" again?  Not a chance.  You have to put yourself in a position to win despite the elements.  If a player is ruled safe, then get the next guy out.  If a strike is called a ball, then throw one more strike.  The umps are working as hard as the players to do their job right, and everyone must play within the elements of the game.

The real issue with last night's game isn't about the use of replay - it's about the actual rule that a batter can reach base on a dropped third strike.  This is, without question, the dumbest rule in all of sport.  A pitcher throws a pitch so good that it fools the batter into swinging, even though it's headed for the dirt.  The batter swings and misses, but because the ball bounces into the catcher's glove, the batter can try to "steal" first base.  Ridiculous.  Silly.  Illogical.  The defense is forced to make an extra play because the offense made themselves look stupid.  The offense did nothing wrong, but they have to do more to get a player out.

From MLB's Official Rules, Rule 6.09b: "The batter becomes a runner when... ...The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out; When a batter becomes a base runner on a third strike not caught by the catcher and starts for the dugout, or his position, and then realizes his situation and attempts then to reach first base, he is not out unless he or first base is tagged before he reaches first base. If, however, he actually reaches the dugout or dugout steps, he may not then attempt to go to first base and shall be out. "

Nothing from years of watching baseball and nothing in the rulebook have taught me that this rule exists for any technical reason, and I certainly can't think of any logical reason a strikeout victim should be entitled to a chance at first base, so it is time to reexamine this rule and abolish it from the game.  It serves no purpose but to add confusion to an uncomplicated situation.  Unfortunately for the Angels, the rule still exists in October 2005.