It wasn’t close. The call was clear.
The stakes could get no higher at Turner Field last night. Atlanta Brave Julio Lugo, dashing toward the plate on tired and aging legs, made only a half-hearted, pop-up slide, knowing full well he was out. By a mile. By a mile and a half. Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Michael McKenry (Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, a prospects guy, didn’t recognize the man earlier in the telecast) made a perfect sweep tag, giving Lugo no chance to turn his shoulders and effort to pop the ball loose.
Scott Proctor had fallen on the way to first base. He’s a pitcher, after all, and not used to running the bases, and since he is a relief pitcher, he is not used to running after having already pitched three innings, as he did last night. He stumbled and fell headlong in the infield grass, so as soon as McKenry made his tag of Lugo, Pirates pitcher Daniel McCutchen frantically pointed for McKenry to fire to first. They might have a double play. The inning could be over. The game, already 19 innings and six and a half hours old, could go for 20. Martin Prado, who stood at 0-for-9 on the night, would get a chance at sweet redemption (or bitter, nearly unprecedented futility) leading off the Braves half of that frame.
Only McKenry would not, could not turn and throw to first base. because he had another situation on his hands. Jerry Meals, working home plate, had called Lugo… really? … safe.
It wasn’t close. The call was clear.
Steve Young dropped back from center, backpedaling across the chewed-up 49ers logo beneath his feet to the center of the 50-yard line. He looked to his right, underneath a shell coverage, and surprisingly, there was Jerry Rice, with relatively open space around him. The Green Bay Packers, on this January day in 1999, had made such a point of double-teaming Rice downfield that the San Francisco 49ers elected to try a wholly different tack.
As a matter of fact, they tried a dozen tactics. They tried everything. And yet Rice had not one catch. On this play, with a minute to play and trailing by too much to get any help from a field goal, they brought their Hall of Fame-caliber receiver into the right edge of their line and had him run a very short out route. It worked, and Rice caught the ball cleanly.
But they could hardly have expected the two-time defending NFC champions to forget about Rice, and behold, now came Bernardo Harris and Scott McGarrahan, swarming and swallowing Rice. And as he fell, Rice fumbled. He fumbled. It was plain as the nasal strip Rice customarily wore across his nose. He was perhaps halfway to the ground, but his legs had a foot of clearance from the turf when McGarrahan popped the ball loose. Harris recovered the ball, and the Packers had cleared the San Francisco hurdle yet again, and were headed for a third straight NFC Championship Game.
Only, they weren’t. The zebras saw the play differently. In their twisted estimation (the peculiar tangle that so quickly became Rice, Harris and McGarrahan obscured the views of the side and line judge, who were in the best positions, theoretically), Rice was down prior to losing control of the ball. They declared it San Francisco ball at the 41-yard line. A few plays later, when Terrell Owens announced himself to the NFL world with a dazzling catch in traffic, it was over.
Sports change all the time. Seasons get longer. Three-point lines get moved back. Fences get moved in. Players are disallowed from certain plays on a seemingly weekly basis. Teams come and go, moving from city to city, being contracted, being founded through expansion. Leagues legislate equipment of all different sorts: A player must wear this, but cannot wear that. The following month, said athlete can wear that, but not the other.
Yet, for every change, there must be a catalyst. For the drastic changes, embarrassment (even humiliation) is almost inevitable. Integration in baseball would not have been possible if Negro league All-Star teams had not consistently thumped white opponents throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Free agency would not exist if it were not for lawsuits and thoughtful texts by players who never fully reaped the rewards of their struggles. Even as we celebrate the return of NFL football this fall, we must be cognizant that it took a pie-throwing, mud-slinging four-month standoff between owners and players to effect common-sense changes geared toward safety, and to take proper care of those football players who toiled before the game’s compensation became at least somewhat commensurate with its risk.
Instant replay came to the NFL beginning in fall of 1999, after having been voted down repeatedly in previous years. The community-owned, small-town Green Bay Packers had voted against the installment for each of those years. In spring of 1999, they voted in favor, as did all but a very few NFL squads. That game in San Francisco did not single-handedly change the course of league history, but it was a well-timed and very natural nudge.
Such is the case this morning in Major League Baseball. The Pirates fell from first to third place in the NL Central when they lost last night, but remain firmly in contention. They are, arguably, the biggest national news story going in baseball right now. Fans have flooded recent games at gorgeous PNC Park. The team has an enthralling young superstar outfielder in Andrew McCutchen. They have no starting pitcher over age 29. They have a bright future, but for fans who have waited two decades to smell a hint of baseball on the first breezes of fall, the present is critical.
All of this is not to mention the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The Braves and Pirates? A steamy night in Atlanta? A dramatic, razor’s-edge play at the plate? It sounds an awful lot like the turning of the tides. It sounds like a chance for the Bucs to erase 19 years of mourning the fact that Barry Bonds played too deep in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. This game could have been the watershed moment of the Pirates’ organizational turnaround. Instead, it will probably mark merely the end of a tenuous run by an overachieving team. It would have happened eventually, but because it happened now, and in this context, the issue is now standing spotlight.
Now is the time, Bud Selig. The commissioner, who has long overstayed his welcome in office anyway, has dragged his feet before the specter of full-bodied replay technology in baseball for long enough. This game, marred by ugly ball-and-strike umpiring and an all-time terrible call from which there could be no recovery, should be the league’s Jerry Rice moment. Install cameras to cover virtually every angle of the ballpark. Partner with one of the half-dozen companies who do fine work mapping the locations of pitches, and with SportVision to utilize its proprietary technology for tracking batted balls through the air.
We need not replace umpires; the NFL has made that clear. But arbiters need more accountability. Forcing Angel Hernandez, Joe West and/or Meals (the three worst umps in baseball, by no small margin) to swallow a more-than-occasional overturned ruling from on high would cut their considerable and disproportionate egos to size, and punishing them for consistently poor performance is long overdue. Meanwhile, the extra job created–you would want a press-box review man to streamline these decisions–might mollify the umpires’ union enough to make it feasible. If not, the union will have to remain unsatisfied, because it is high time to invoke the best interests of baseball and make the game less vulnerable to crucial mismanagement.