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.