Once Again, Fairness vs. Integrity In A Baseball Controversy

George Brett was a bit chagrined when his home run was disallowed...

George Brett was a bit chagrined when his home run was disallowed…

It has happened again, as it has thousands of times since the great game of baseball was invented. A result that is permitted by the rules violates the sense of fairness of  objective observers, who thereupon demand that the result be “fixed,” after the fact, by baseball’s powers that be. The most infamous recent example of this scenario was in 2010, when umpire Jim Joyce robbed a deserving pitcher of the perfect game he had pitched (27 batters, 27 outs) by calling the final batter safe at first on a close play, when the player was obviously (to all but Joyce, that is), out. The umpire quickly and openly admitted his error after the game, but there is no provision in the baseball rules for the League or Major League Baseball reversing an umpire’s judgment call after the fact, no matter how bad it was or how unjust the results. Baseball’s Commissioner Bud Selig, to his credit, refused to yield to the popular outcry to give the unfortunate Detroit Tigers pitcher, Armando Galarraga, the achievement and place in baseball history that should have been his. The rules say that unless umpires have actually misinterpreted the black letter rules of the game, there is no remedy. Umpire errors, like player errors, are part of the game.

Last night, what should have been a game-winning home run was called a double by umpires, and what was worse, they held to their mistaken call even after the mandated video review MLB now allows for disputed home run calls. The umpires viewed video that clearly shows the Oakland A’s Adam Rosales’ hit clearing the wall, but crew chief Angel Hernandez bizarrely claimed that the video wasn’t conclusive enough to justify a reversal. Since the A’s lost the game by one run, this altered the result, and there have been calls for an official reversal with the game being replayed.

ESPN analyst Buster Olney cited the infamous pine tar game as precedent for such a ruling. This merely shows how wrong that decision was. As I wrote about this game earlier

“In 1983, Kansas City Royals star George Brett hit a game-winning home run against the New York Yankees, only to have it disqualified after Yankee manager Billy Martin pointed out to the umpires that Brett’s bat violated the rules by having pine tar more than 18 inches from the end. The episode caused an uproar, and the American League President, Lee MacPhail—wrongly, I think–overruled the umpires and ordered the game replayed from the point of the home run–hit with an illegal bat, under the rules— which now counted. He…was reacting to the problem of technicalities, those little details that dwell in all rules and that often seem to have disproportionate effects on things.  Technicalities set murderers free. Technicalities make policies malfunction. Technicalities make space shuttles explode. Going a couple of miles over the speed limit on an empty street is a technicality. Being a day late paying your insurance is a technicality. They always seem unfair when they are enforced, but technicalities are not unfair, unless they are hidden is some way.”

What is ultimately unfair is randomly ignoring rules when they don’t lead to the “right” outcome, because then we never know whether the rules are going to count, or not. Yes, doing so may remedy one unfair result—Galaraga deserved his perfect game, and the A’s deserved to have that home run count—but it will pave the way for chaos by scarring the integrity of the rules themselves. If the particular injustice makes a rules change logical and reasonable, fine—change the rule prospectively, but not retroactively. To randomly intervene to fix some umpire mistakes but not others would leave nearly every single game result in a state of uncertainty, because human judgment, and thus human error is a factor in determining most of them.

Nothing is stopping MLB from firing Angel Hernandez for rank incompetence, however, except perhaps the umpire’s union. That would be fair.


Pointer: NBC Sports (Craig Calcaterra)

Facts: Yahoo!

Graphic: Xmastime

2 thoughts on “Once Again, Fairness vs. Integrity In A Baseball Controversy

  1. None of it is “fair.” Watching the Red Sox nearly every night, and the “Amica pitch zone,” it is clear that umpires can be blind, stupid, and/or unable to do their jobs correctly and efficiently. They are human (if morons) after all. Unfortunately, the new seats on the “wall” of Fenway will continue to lead to this kind of controversy.

    As we know from all walks of life, “rules” don’t always make for the right decision. And I’m sure Galarraga isn’t the first to lose out to fame based on a bad call… by an individual umpire or a group of them. “Breaks of the game,” right?

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