Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Another Umpire Blunder; Another Call for Instant Replay

If you saw the finish of the Pirates-Braves game last night in Atlanta, you know exactly why there is no rational argument for putting off the expanded use of instant replay in baseball any longer. And yet, if you are a close follower of the National Pastime, you know that this will likely never happen as long as Bud Selig remains the game's commissioner. Fortunately, he promises that he will retire after the 2012 season. That gives all of us who want to see the use of replay expanded some hope.

For those who did not see the end of the game, the Braves won 4-3 in 19 innings--at about 2am Eastern time, after six hours and 49 minutes of baseball--when Pirates catcher Mike McKenry tagged out Atlanta's Julio Lugo at home plate, on a one-out grounder to third-baseman Pedro Alvarez. Actually, McKenry tagged out Lugo in front of home plate. About three feet in front of home plate. He blocked the plate, and got Lugo with a sweep tag, allowing himself time to get out of harm's way, even though Lugo was not approaching home plate with any particular head of steam. In fact, Lugo knew he was about to be tagged out and seemed to pull up at the last instant.

Furthermore, the Braves' hitter was reliever Scott Proctor, who fell flat on his face as he was leaving the batter's box, so McKenry immediately turned toward first base, after the tag, to complete the unusual double play. Except that home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe. McKenry, needless to say, was beyond stunned. He kept screaming--pleading--at Meals, "I tagged him! I tagged him!" To no avail, of course. The call had already been made. The Braves won. The Pirates lost. And every Pirates fan, and every Pirates player, and everyone watching the game who did not have a vested interest in seeing the Braves win felt cheated, particularly those who spent nearly seven hours watching the entire 19 innings.

Is Meals a bad umpire because he blew the call? No, of course not. Is he a good umpire who made a bad call? Yes, he is. In fact, he admitted after the game, after having watched the replay in the umpire's dressing room that he apparently made the wrong call. This reminds me of Jim Joyce, who similarly realized he blew the unforgettable call in Detroit that cost then-Tigers' pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. Jim Joyce said shortly thereafter that he wished expanded replay had been in existence that afternoon so that he could have corrected his mistake. I guarantee that Jerry Meals feels the same.

Instead, Meals' family has been harrassed and threatened, just as Joyce's family, by a group of goons who aren't fit to see the light of day. But the greater point here is that while Commissioner Selig claims that there is no significant support within baseball to expand the use of replay, he is conveniently forgetting that the umpires themselves, perhaps to a man, all want to see replay expanded. They want to see it to ensure that the right calls are made. And they want to see it so that they don't have to live with the kind of nightmare that Jim Joyce has had to live with ever since he cost Gallaraga an historic perfecto.

In fact, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations Joe Torre acknowledged today that Meals made the wrong call, said "no one feels worse than him," and and said he hopes that instant replay can be expanded in the not-too-distant future so that similar blown calls by umpires--in these two particular cases, calls that ended games--can potentially be reversed.

Ex-Raiders coach and former NFL TV analyst John Madden has told us many times on KCBS Radio that he supports the expansion of instant replay. He says "once the cat is out of the bag, you can't put it back in." In other words, thousands--perhaps millions when all is said and done--will have seen the Meals blown call on TV, and online. In such an occasion, it's only fair to the Pirates and to Jerry Meals, and to the integrity of baseball, to get the call right.

Come to think of it, Joe Torre would make an excellent successor to Bud Selig.

Steve Bitker is the Morning Sports Anchor at KCBS All-News Radio in San Francisco (740AM; 106.9FM), the Backup Radio Play-by-Play Announcer for the Oakland Athletics, and author of the book, "The Original San Francisco Giants; the Giants of '58."