Category: Sports

Jerry Meals Got Too Close to the Play

By , July 28, 2011 10:20 am

Two Steps Back and to Your Right, Jerry!

All umpires have nights like this.  It happened to me the first season I umpired full time.  Sure, it was Little League, but it was still a big game.  Extra innings, after 10:00.  I had the plate.  Tie game, runner on third, one out.  Ground ball to the pitcher.  The pitcher almost airmails it over the catcher.  The catcher jumps to catch the ball, and the runner crosses the plate before he comes down.  Safe, game over. 

Except I was bearing down so hard on the play that I looked at it too hard.  My brain saw two separate things happen, one after the other.  I wanted to make absolutely sure the catcher caught the ball, so I looked up at the glove and watched the ball disappear.  Then I looked down and saw the runner cross the plate.  Catch before runner, he’s out. 

Because I switched perspectives and had to briefly search for the plate and the runner’s foot, I didn’t think to look for the catcher’s foot.   I had no idea if the catcher pulled his foot off the plate to make the catch because I was focused on the glove, then the runner.  After I reacted to the two separate events and called him out, I realized I missed it.  Really badly. 

I blew the call and blew the game.  I let it get to me, and the zone started floating.  It was late, kids were tired, and the pitchers were all over the place.  Ball over the head, next one in the dirt, and then the third one two inches off the outside corner waist high.  Relatively speaking, it looked like a strike, but in reality it wasn’t.  The result is that it looked like I was squeezing 12 year old kids in an extra innings Little League game.  So the next shoulder high pitch was a strike.  At that point, you’re not umpiring—you’re meta-umpiring:  calling the game based on how your calls will be perceived rather than what they should be.

The game ended on a play at the plate where the catcher might have dropped the ball, I’m not sure.  The ball beat the runner to the plate, so he was probably out, but the catcher might have dropped it, I’m not sure, so I made the call based on what I think other people might have seen, not what I saw—at that point, I’m filtering everything through perception, so I’m not really seeing anything.

That game was nearly eighteen years ago, and I still think about it when I see a big league umpire blow a call.  I was a pretty good amateur umpire who worked my way up rather quickly at a young age.  That experience really helped me in law school when I worked for a prosecutor.  Not only did I learn that rules are not always directly applicable to the facts, but that perspective matters.  Which witnesses were in the right position to see what really happened?  Sure, the policeman filled out his report, but where was he when the thing he says he saw happened?  Besides, a manager who rides you about that outside corner is just defending his client on the mound, just like a defense attorney objecting to your line of questioning.  It’s not personal—he’s just doing his job and wants to make sure you’re doing yours.

So what happened on that Little League play?  Like a lawyer who takes her cases home from the office, I got too close to the play.  When the batter hit the ball, I should have stepped back to be able to see the catch and the runner at the same time.  Now, this is not the normal rhythm of a force play.  You’re trained on 95% of force plays to focus on the base and listen for the ball to hit the glove.  But on this particular play, you’re not going to hear the glove because of the distance.  And, because of the situation, I beared down on it and tried to see the catch and the runner too perfectly, which meant that I saw them separately when I needed to see them together. 

Which, of course, brings us to Jerry Meals’ instant classic of a blown call in Tuesday’s Braves v. Pirates game.  The throw beat runner Julio Lugo to the plate by ten feet.  Catcher Mike McKendry appears to applied the tag well in front of the plate.  So how the heck did Meals come to the conclusion that Lugo was safe?

I think there’s two parts to this, one psychological and the other mechanical.  First, the psychological.  In this situation, you really want to get it right, so, of course, you really bear down on the play.  You want to make darn sure you see the tag!  Meals didn’t see a tag.  He saw the catcher swipe his glove in the vicinity of Lugo’s jersey.  And, as Rob Neyer commented, McKendry may not have tagged him.  The replays don’t definitely show glove/body contact.  But even if we employ the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of evidence, it sure looks like he’s out.

The problem is that Meals wasn’t in position to see the play the cleanly, so he fooled himself into making the perfect call instead of the right one.  This is where umpiring mechanics comes into play.  MLB.com forbids embedded videos, so click on this link and watch it until the five second mark, then pause it.

Meals is behind the right-handed batters box.  He’s almost perpendicular to the play, so there’s little chance he could see that tag if it happened.  The ball was hit, and he made the classic umpiring mistake:  He got too close to the play.  He bore down on it, stepping at the play and letting the defender shield his view. 

The correct mechanic on most tag plays at the plate is to step toward the left handed batters box.  This way, when the catcher sweeps the tag, you have an angle to see if there’s daylight between the glove and the body.  Also, this puts home plate in your line of view, so you can see the tag and the plate touch in the same frame of vision.  Otherwise, you’ll have to look at the tag, then the plate—considering the two things separately when they need to be considered together. 

Jerry Meals didn’t just want to go home, nor did he get tired or lazy.  He tried too hard to get it right and made a mechanical error on a play that is counterintuitive to the normal rhythms of umpiring.  In this way, Jim Joyce made the same mistake last year:  Because of the play’s importance, he got too close to it and lost the larger perspective.  Yes, Meals’ is a historically bad call that might cost the Pirates their first playoff spot since 1992.  But as Armando Gallaraga told Jim Joyce last year, “Nobody’s perfect.”  I just hope the 1994 Rotary Club team can still forgive me.

A Zapruder Film Breakdown of the Jim Joyce Blown Call

By , June 3, 2010 8:29 pm

Joe Posnanski, of course, finds the poetry in Jim Joyce’s blown call that ruined Armando Galarraga’s perfect game.  I want to talk about the science of the moment—specifically, the mechanical mistake that led Joyce to think that Jason Donald beat the throw.  Unlike, say, I don’t know—Chief Justice John Roberts, I’m a guy with a law degree that actually understands what umpires do.  But that’s an argument for another time.  (Did I mention that I think Chief Justice Roberts is a disingenuous phony who created some b.s. soundbite to intentionally mislead the American people about what the Supreme Court actually does?)  Anyway, I’ve umpired ten seasons of high school and American Legion ball, so I’m by no means a pro, but I’m very versed in umpiring mechanics.  And I worked for a prosecutor in law school.  I’ll put these two skills together and break this thing down like Kevin Costner in JFKLet’s go back-and-to-the-left to figure out what happened to Jim Joyce. 

The ground ball to the first baseman’s right is one of the most difficult plays for an umpire to call.  On a groundball to any other infielder, you’re taught to take a few steps into fair territory, focus on the bag, and listen for the ball.  If you hear the smack before you see the foot hit the bag, he’s out.  (This is why Little League is often harder to call than a good high school or college game:  the plays aren’t as crisp.  So give the high school kid umping your child’s game a break.  It’s much harder than it looks.)

On the toss play to the pitcher, you have to deal with two issues.  First, you need to position yourself so that you’re not in the way of the play.  If the first baseman makes the play, you can be in your regular position; but if the second baseman makes the play in short right field, you’ve got to make sure you’re not in the way of the throw.  Thus, you need to watch to see if the first baseman makes the play.  On this kind of play, your timing is a little off because normally you don’t spend so much time watching the infielder make the play, and the throw is coming from a closer range.  Thus, you need to switch your focus quicker than you’re used to.

Second, because the toss is soft, there’s no smack to hear.  On a normal play, you zero in on the bag.  On this play, however, you have to completely change how you look at the play; rather than focus strictly on the bag, you should try to see both the catch and the runner hit the bag at the same time.  The problems are two-fold.  First, you may be too close to the play to be able to see both the catch and the bag at the same time.  Second, this isn’t how you’re trained to see 95% of plays.  We’re taught to get in position to focus intently on one thing:  the strike zone, the base, the foul line, etc.  So on this play, the natural tendency is to focus intently on the catch, then immediately look to see if the runner hits the bag.

Here’s what happens on the bouncer to first:  You’re timing is off because you’re not in position as quickly as you’re used to, and you may be too close to the play to see both the things you need to see.  Most importantly, you’re probably going to look for the ball to disappear completely into the glove, and then look at the bag.  If the play is close, you’ll see the catch, but you won’t look down until you’re sure the pitcher has possession of the ball

On a bang-bang force play at first, you’ll naturally look at the catch long enough to make sure the pitcher has possession of the ball, but at that point, the runner has already touched the bag even if the catch beat him by a step.

This is what happened to Jim Joyce.  (I would embed the video, but MLB.com is vigilant about their copyrights).  At the :10 mark of the video, Joyce is standing still, watching first baseman Miguel Cabrera make the play.  Between the :10 and :11 mark, once he sees Cabrera come up with the ball, he takes three or four steps forward to get in position to make the call.  On a normal infield grounder, this is exactly what you’d do:  See the catch, take a few steps towards the bag, then focus on the bag. 

Somewhere between the :10 and :11 mark, Joyce stops to focus.  This is a cardinal rule of umpiring (and one, frankly, that you see a lot of Major League umpires break because they’re out of position or out of shape or out of position because they’re out of shape).  Even though he does the right thing, you’ll notice that there’s less about a second between when he sees Cabrera come up with the ball and when he needs to be in position.  And he’s probably closer to the play than he should be.

So, Joyce’s rhythm is off, he may be a little too close to the play, and he’s got to try to see the catch and the runner hit the base at the same time.  But he doesn’t.  He looks for the catch first, then to the bag.  This picture shows that, when Donald hits the bag, Joyce is clearly still focused on Galarraga’s glove. 

So why did it take so long for Joyce to see the catch and then look to the bag?  The next picture shows that Galarraga had the ball in his glove, but it’s “snowconed”:  You can still see some white, even though he’s got it in his grasp.  Then Galarraga snaps his glove, which swallows the ball whole.  Joyce likely would not have looked at the base until the ball completely disappeared into Galarraga’s glove.  But by the time the ball completely disappears and Joyce switches focus and finds the bag, Donald had already touched it.  Joyce sees this and calls him safe.  

 

It’s not a coincidence that the two most infamous blown calls in baseball history have been on this kind of play.  Missourians remember this play from the 1985 I-70 Series (Video not available because of MLB copyright claims).

First base umpire Don Denkinger had a distinguished thirty-year career in the Majors, but east of Columbia he’s an epithet for this moment.  On this play from the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, Kansas City Royals pinch hitter Jorge Orta hit a bouncing ball to the right of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark.  Clark fielded the ball and tossed to pitcher Todd Worrell.  Here, because the play occurred in front of the first base bag, Denkinger positioned himself in foul territory so that he wouldn’t interfere with the play.  This is the correct mechanic because if the umpire is in fair territory, he could interfere with the runner making a turn for second if the ball gets by, get hit by the throw if the catcher throws it by the base, or potentially get hit by the batted ball if it skips by the first baseman.  However, as you see here (See the “Denkinger’s Bad Call” photo in the loop):

Denkinger is about ten to fifteen feet from the play—far too close to be able to see both the catch and the runner’s foot at the same time.  Though we can’t see Denkinger’s eyes, his head is tilted upward as if he’s looking for Worrell to secure the throw.  Denkinger ended up perpendicular to the play—he had no angle to see the ball enter the glove .  Likely, Denkinger waited a second too long to be sure of the catch, looked down at the base, and Orta was already there. 

Safe.  The Kansas City Royals rally to win Game 6, and then Bret Saberhagen throws a complete game five-hit shutout to win Game 7.  Even eight-bit Nintendo RBI Baseball knows Denkinger blew it.   Kansas City has been trying to revive ’85 ever since. (But it still didn’t cost you the Series, Cardinal Fan).     

The talk today has surrounded instant replay, the class of Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce manning up, and even poor Don Denkinger was dragged into the national conversation.  The instant replay debate is a whole other conversation (the game would change dramatically because of certain “conventions” at the Major League level:  the middle infielder “phantom tag” of second base when turning a double play, a runner is out 90% of the time if the throw beats him to the bag even if the tag is high, etc.).  Just don’t be surprised if the next historic blown call comes from a routine bouncing ball to the right of the first baseman.

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