Keeping Score

For Baseball’s Most Infamous Umpire, Instant Replay Is Too Late

Baseball will correct more on-field errors. Why that's bittersweet for Don Denkinger

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Rich Pilling / MLB Photos / Getty Images

Umpire Don Denkinger keeps his eyes on the action during a MLB season game on June 24, 1995.

For Don Denkinger, Major League Baseball‘s decision to expand instant replay, announced on Thursday, is a little bittersweet. To many baseball fans — especially St. Louis Cardinals supporters — Denkinger’s name is synonymous with blown call. No umpire made a more consequential error. In the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, with the St. Louis Cardinals leading 1-0 and three outs away from winning the game and the series, Denkinger infamously called Jorge Orta of Kansas City safe on a play at first, even though he was clearly out. That leadoff “hit” sparked the Royals to a 2-1 victory: they took Game 7 the following night.

So yes, Denkinger is happy that plays on the base paths will be subject to review, starting next year. The owners must approve the plan in November, but that move is a mere formality. “It’s not rocket science — get it right,” says Denkinger during a phone conversation from his home in Waterloo, Iowa. Denkinger umped in the American League from 1969 to 1998. “It’s not going to change the momentum of the game. If it’s set up properly, it will be the greatest thing to happen to Major League Baseball.”

He knows instant replay would have been the greatest thing to happen to him, had it been around in 1985 to catch his mistake as quickly as a national television audience did. “They wouldn’t throw my name around, just for one reason,” says Denkinger, 76. “Nobody talks about the other 29 years I worked. But I have no problem with it. I understand it. Still, nobody likes to be ridiculed, and told they cost their team a championship.”

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig declared Thursday a “historic” day for the game, since MLB will finally implement an instant-replay system in which safe-or-out calls, as well as fair-or-foul calls, can be corrected. Common sense — it often takes seconds for millions of fans, watching a replay, to figure out that the ump screwed up — is rarely granted such lofty status. But no matter: it’s nice to see baseball dispensing justice, and without the letters PED involved.

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Managers will now be allowed to challenge close calls, like NFL coaches do. Teams get one challenge over the first six innings of the game. (For fun, rather than throwing a flag to signal a challenge, like the NFL coaches do, managers should chuck a base from the dugout. In honor of Lou Piniella.) From the seventh inning until the end of the game, managers get two more. An unused challenge from the first six innings doesn’t carry over — use it or lose it. Teams keep the challenges that they win. Home runs will still be subject to review, like they are now. Balls and strikes, and hit batsmen, are not reviewable. The on-field umps don’t make the final replay calls. A crew sitting in MLB headquarters, in New York City, will handle that task.

The system does have potential issues. Why, for example, are the challenges weighted toward the end of the game? Blown calls in the early innings can have a huge impact. In a truly just world, you wouldn’t need a strict challenge system. Those guys in New York City or in a stadium or anywhere can just spot a close play, watch it and correct it in a minute or so, and text or call the crew chief. Baseball has a natural pause after a fair-foul call — a ball has to get back to the pitcher, who preps his next pitch, etc. Same thing with safe-out play. Or the ump can call time if a team is trying to rush in the next pitch before a questionable call so that it can’t be reversed. Or an ump can just text the New York City office for help.

You can make corrections in baseball without severely disrupting flow. If unlimited access to replay slows down what is already a relatively leisurely game, so be it. Getting it right matters, for all fans and players. Baseball has its share of calls that even replay won’t solve for sure. Still, don’t most baseball plays seem easier to decipher on replay than, say, a receiver toeing the line on a leaping catch, with two defenders covering him, and all those arms and legs obstructing the view? Baseball, with today’s technology, just begs for full access to replay.

And yet the challenge system deserves a shot. You can’t boo progress that loudly. Too bad that for guys like Armando Galarraga and Tony Tarasco and Denkinger, common sense came way too late.

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