The Human Factor Be Damned

This is exactly what the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose surprising graduation from the National League’s near-two-decade doormats to legitimate National League Central contenders has been one of the season’s sweet surprises, don’t need.

Never mind pitching coach Ray Searage tweeting an outraged Tweeter, “Deal with it.” If the Pirates hold to that attitude and push it to one side, it will say plenty about the makeup of this year’s edition. But first the Pirates are going to let their feelings be known about home plate umpire Jerry Meals absolutely blowing the call on the run that won a game for the Atlanta Braves in the bottom of the nineteenth. And enough of everyone else are asking when baseball government is going to wise up and sanction instant replay.

It started when Atlanta reliever Scott Proctor—forced to bat because both sides had emptied their bullpens—batted one up the left side that was picked off cleanly by Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez on the run over the infield grass. Alvarez threw home on a perfect line to rookie catcher Michael McKenry and Julio Lugo, the Braves’ baserunner coming down from third, looked like a dead duck.

I hate to break it to you, but Julio Lugo was out at the plate . . .

McKenry was at least two feet up from the plate when he landed a ball-in-glove tag on Lugo sliding toward the plate. Any replay you care to review will show you McKenry got the glove on Lugo’s forward leg, well before Lugo could have crossed the plate. As a matter of fact, Lugo bounded up out of his slide at about the moment McKenry got the tag on him, and half-pirouetted around before he got half a foot on the plate standing up.

Meals winged his arms up in the safe call as Lugo stepped on the plate after the tag. It looked as though McKenry was replying to a Mears comment and saying he’d gotten the tag down. ““I saw the tag, but he looked like he oléd him and I called him safe for that,” Meals said after the game. “I looked at the replays and it appeared he might have got him on the shin area. I’m guessing he might have got him, but when I was out there when it happened I didn’t see a tag. I just saw the glove sweep up. I didn’t see the glove hit his leg.”

The Pirates may have been trying to be gracious in defeat, but it didn’t stop the organisation from filing a formal protest. “[We] are extremely disappointed by the way [our] 19-inning game against the Atlanta Braves ended earlier this morning. The game of baseball, and this game in particular, filled with superlative performances by players on both clubs, deserved much better,” said general manager Frank Coonelly in a formal statement. ” . . . While we cannot begin to understand how umpire Jerry meals did not see the tag . . . three feet in front of home plate, we do not question the integrity of Mr. Meals. Instead, we know that Mr. Meals’ intention was to get the call right. Jerry Meals has been umpiring major league games for 14 years and has always done so with integrity and professionalism. He got this one wrong.”

Indeed. And while it’s going to prove the launching pad for a showing of just what kind of mettle these plucky Pirates actually have going forward—they were leading the NL Central and playing a nail-driver against the NL East-contending Braves, against whom they have a history of heartbreak enough (the Sid Bream game in the 1992 National League Championship Series, anyone?)—it’s also proving evidence to spare on behalf of expanding replay’s use beyond mere home run calls.

Let’s get one thing straight right off. There appeared no malice in Meals’s miscall. This wasn’t a case of several National League umpires so fed up with Leo Durocher’s season-long baiting that any close call was going to go against the 1969 Chicago Cubs. This wasn’t an ump making a grudge call because a player had gotten in his grille once too often. Meals may have had a questionable strike zone much of the night—both sides but the Braves in particular fumed over it earlier in the game (especially when Nate McLouth got ejected fuming over a dubious strike-two call in the bottom of the ninth)—but in no way, shape, or form did it appear he was performing under less than professional mandate. He didn’t come out and apologise, a la Jim Joyce viz Armando Gallaraga’s should-have-been perfect game last year, but neither did he deny that he just might have been wrong.

Was the game perfect otherwise? Not exactly. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who’s making a solid case for Manager of the Year for getting this squad into the thick of the race after eighteen losing seasons, made a few mistakes well before Meals’ biggie. He let Daniel McCutchen throw 92 pitches compared to his previous season high of 52, and McCutchen was exhausted to every naked eye that could see after having pitched two straight days with 25 pitches total following a five-day layoff. And it’s going to be forgotten somehow that, even had Lugo been called out at the plate, the Braves would still have had one out yet to go.

Both teams left a small truckload of men on base. The Pirates actually had a shot at winning the game in the ninth, when McKenry managed an infield single off Craig Kimbrel and took third on pinch hitter Brandon Wood’s followup single, but McKenry stopped too late breaking from third as the Braves called a pitchout on an apparent suicide squeeze attempt. McCann fired a perfect strike up the line and McKenry was dead, before Kimbrel dispatched batter Xavier Paul to end the frame.

The bullpens had already been the heroes of the evening as it was. Both teams’ bulls had combined to throw 26 scoreless innings on the night, with Braves bull Cristhian Martinez throwing six scoreless just by himself. It may or may not have taken a little of the sting out of Atlanta losing Brian McCann to an oblique strain incurred when he threw high and into center field trying to bag Neil Walker stealing second.

What should get bagged, once and for all, are the arguments in favour of the, ahem, “human factor” and against “prolonging the games even more” that get deployed by the stubborn against deploying instant replay. Commissioner Bud Selig, who thinks himself a moderate willing to be persuaded either way on the matter, is already responsible for elongated games as it is. Or haven’t you noticed all the commercials squeezed in between innings all game long with or without extra innings? That’s been expanded under Selig’s watch.

Human factor, my spike. The umpire’s job is to get it right, case closed. Anyone arguing otherwise should be dismissed as a terminal philistine. And if the umpire needs a little technological help to get it right, get that help to him (them) post haste. “This isn’t about protecting baseball’s human element,” writes Yahoo! Sports’s Jeff Passan. “The idea that a person’s capability to miss a call supersedes the ability to use technology and ensure accuracy is so insulting, so wildly backward that it could come only from the offices of Major League Baseball.”

Actually, that argument also comes from people outside of baseball government who profess to stand on behalf protecting the game’s integrity. People who tend to refuse offering reasons why a near-flagrantly blown call doesn’t compromise the game’s integrity. People who have no idea about McKenry’s night’s work, catching every last one of Tuesday/Wednesday’s eighteen and two thirds innings, 303 pitches worth of catching, only to see it end with Meals telling him he hadn’t done what he and everyone watching the live play and about two dozen television replays knew he had done.

Reality check: There’s still a lot of baseball for the Pirates and the Braves to play yet. This call probably isn’t going to make the difference between the Pirates pulling off a miracle finish and going home empty, never mind that they’re having their best season since 1992. When an erstwhile Pirate on battered legs managed to score from second, sliding home with the Braves’ pennant-winning run ahead of a throw in from left, and everyone in Pittsburgh and beyond knew the club’s management wasn’t going to be able to keep the solid and National League East-owning team together.

Eighteen years, one division shift, and seven dead-last finishes worth of losing baseball later, the Pirates are America’s baseball feelgoods. They deserve to be. Watching winning baseball in and from Pittsburgh once again is an absolute treat. The Pirates can keep it that way indeed by shaking off Tuesday/Wednesday.

But they’re a lot more human than the fools perpetuating discredited arguments for the “human factor,” when even they admit that this one hurt like hell when it absolutely didn’t have to hurt.

SITUATION UPDATE

Joe Torre, the former longtime Yankee manager who now works as baseball government’s vice president for operations, weighs in on the Meals call. On the side of the human factor.

Unfortunately, it appears that the call was missed, as Jerry Meals acknowledged after the game.  Many swipe tags are not applied to the runner with solid contact, but the tag was applied and the game should have remained tied.  I have spoken with Jerry, who is a hard-working, respected umpire, and no one feels worse than him.  We know that this is not a product of a lack of effort. 

Having been the beneficiary of calls like this and having been on the other end in my experience as a player and as a manager, I have felt that this has always been a part of our game.  As a member of the Commissioner’s Special Committee for On-Field Matters, I have heard many discussions on umpiring and technology over the past two years, including both the pros and the cons of expanding replay.  However, most in the game recognize that the human element always will be part of baseball and instant replay can never replace all judgment calls by umpires. Obviously, a play like this is going to spark a lot of conversation, and we will continue to consider all viewpoints in our ongoing discussions regarding officiating in baseball.

We expect the best from our umpires, and an umpire would tell you he expects the best of himself.  We have to continue to strive for accuracy, consistency and professionalism day in and day out.

It should be noted that Torre himself was managing one side when, during the still-unforgettable 2004 American League Championship Series (you remember, Joe—the one your Yankees lost after having the Red Sox down to their final out of a potential series sweep), the series umpires conferred a number of times on close or strange plays in a bid to get the call right. I’m surprised, to say the least, that he didn’t say a single word or syllable in terms of calling on umps in similar situations to do likewise.

“We have to strive for accuracy, consistency, and professionalism day in and day out.” That appears, from a man intelligent enough to know better, to be a mealymouthed way of avoiding what we really have to strive for—getting it right. Not “accurate,” not “consistent,” not “professional” . . . right. And if Torre thinks replay will offset or eliminate the human factor, he doesn’t know as much about baseball as we thought he did.

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