There was controversy in Boston on Monday night. In a 2-1 game in the bottom of the eighth inning, Boston pinch-runner Daniel Nava tagged up on a flyball to Rays left fielder Sam Fuld. With a beautiful throw and a tremendous block by the catcher, Nava was called out by plate umpire Jerry Meals, ending the inning and, eventually, costing the Red Sox the game. The Red Sox, understandably, did not agree with the call. Boston manager John Farrell came out to argue and got tossed; Nava shouted some choice words from the dugout. They made no difference as Meals stood by his call.
That is, until he saw a replay after the game. From Ian Browne's game story:
"What I saw was: Molina blocked the plate and Nava's foot lifted," Meals said to a pool reporter. "But in the replays, you could clearly see Nava's foot got under for a split second and then lifted, so I was wrong on my decision. From the angle I had, I did not see his foot get under Molina's shin guard."
There's a lot that can be predictable after a close, potentially game-deciding missed call like this. Irate callers lighting up the NESN and WEEI switchboards in Boston. Farrell calling for extended replay. A Ray telling the Red Sox to "stop crying". What isn't so predictable is the umpire coming out right after the game and admitting his mistake. Especially on a game-changing play at the plate! I mean, since when do Major League umpires -- the men whose authority must not be questioned at all costs -- so freely admit their mistakes? It just doesn't happen, right?
Below is an incomplete list of umpires who have fessed up to blown calls in the last couple of years. It might surprise you, how frequent this phenomenon can be ... even if it still doesn't happen as often as you'd like.
Jim Joyce & Armando Galarraga - June 2, 2010
The godfather of all recent umpire gaffes. You remember, of course. Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game. The ground ball to first, Galarraga covers the bag cleanly, beating the runner by more than a step and somehow Jim Joyce calls him safe. The whole stadium knew the call was wrong almost immediately and Joyce fessed up shortly after the game. "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [stuff] out of it... I just cost that kid a perfect game."
Gary Cederstrom & Johnny Damon - June 26, 2010
Only a few weeks later, Johnny Damon watched ball four go by in the top of the ninth inning in a game against the Braves. With the bases loaded and two outs, the pitch should have tied the game and given Detroit new life. Instead, Cederstrom punched him out. After the game, the umpire told Tigers manager Jim Leyland "I kicked it. I knew it right away." Cederstrom explained to the AP, "My timing was fast. Whenever you have fast timing as an umpire, you usually get in trouble."
Ron Kulpa & Matt Holliday - October 22, 2011
Game 3 of the World Series saw the Cardinals embarrass the Rangers in Texas, taking the game 16-7. With a score like that, any single missed call isn't going to mean much either way. Still, the bad calls count and umpires do regret them. For Ron Kulpa, it came on a ground ball in the fourth inning. Matt Holliday was tagged out by first baseman Mike Napoli on a bad throw, but Kulpa thought he saw Holliday's foot touch the bag first. It didn't take long for him to notice his mistake. "I saw a replay when I walked off the field and the tag was applied before his foot hit the bag."
Mike DiMuro & Dewayne Wise - June 26, 2012
You'd think that if a player falls into the stands on a foul ball and comes up acting like the ball is in his mitt, the umpire might ask to see the ball before calling the batter out. When DeWayne Wise did that in the Bronx in 2012, however, Mike DiMuro was fooled by the act, calling batter Jack Hannahan out without so much as a glance at the mitt (a fan had the ball). He would later toss Hannahan for arguing. After the game, DiMuro took his turn as Captain Obvious: "Now that I see the tape it's obvious that the ball fell out. In hindsight I should have asked him to show me the ball."
Marty Foster & Ben Zobrist - April 8, 2013
Another blown call at the plate to end a game. This time, Tampa Bay was trailing Texas 5-4 in the ninth inning when Ben Zobrist watched a curve ball break well off the outside corner. Thinking it was ball four, he started towards first before being punched out by Marty Foster. The strikeout gave Texas closer Joe Nathan his 300th career save, but not everyone was happy with it. Foster: "But had I had a chance to do it again, I wouldn't call that pitch a strike."
Tim Welke & Jerry Hairston - May 2, 2013
It took a few weeks, but Jerry Hairston finally got his apology. The play Tim Welke was apologizing for? Only one of the worst blunders you'll ever see from an umpire -- the type of gaffe you wouldn't even expect from a crew back in the days before television existed. On a routine groundball, Colorado first baseman Todd Helton was pulled three feet -- literally three feet -- off the bag when receiving the throw from third base. Somehow, Welke was positioned in such a way that Helton's foot appeared to be touching the bag despite the acres of infield dirt between the two. Hairston was called out and the country spent the next three weeks laughing at the absurdity of the call. Finally, on May 27, Welke was able to apologize to Hairston in person when the Dodgers met the Astros. Hairston relayed the conversation. "He said he was sorry. … But I told him if I get stuck on 2,999 [hits], I'm calling him."
Jeff Nelson & Jesus Sucre - May 24, 2013
It was one of the strangest plays you'll ever see. On what should have been a classic 3-6-3 double play, Texas pitcher Justin Grimm, thinking that he needed to cover first, stepped in front of first baseman Mitch Moreland and intercepted the relay throw from Elvis Andrus. The problem was that while Moreland had his foot on the bag when the baseball arrived, Grimm did not. To umpire Jeff Nelson, however, it seemed perfectly normal. He saw the first baseman's foot on the base and heard the ball hit leather before the batter reached first. It was only later, when everyone realized that Grimm had the ball and not Moreland, that the error came to light. "The pitcher kind of came out of nowhere on that play. I didn't pick that up. Obviously, looking at the replays, I wish I had."
Clearly, there are many more blown calls than admitted blown calls. This list, incomplete as it is, makes that obvious. Would Marty Foster have admitted that the pitch to Zobrist wasn't a strike if it didn't happen to end the game for Tampa Bay? What about Ron Kulpa? Would his gaffe have been acknowledged if he wasn't on the biggest stage in baseball? How often do such blunders go overlooked because they didn't ultimately affect the game?
To find the names here, I took the roster of active MLB umpires shown on MLB.com (which isn't as up-to-date as you'd expect) and googled "umpire [NAME] admits missed call." And although that ends up being close to 100 searches, it still netted a much sparser list than you'd like. The process did, however, highlight just how common blown calls are. Nearly every single umpire on the list came with some sort of "[UMPIRE] blows call" story within the last couple of years. Since only egregious or game-changing missed calls tend to make it into game stories, that says something about the umpiring corps, even if they never felt the need to admit it on the record.
Umpiring is a tough job, made much tougher in this day and age by advances in technology that magnify any mistake to the umpteenth degree. Because of this, it's becoming more and more common for these umpires to publicly admit to these mistakes and maybe even offer an apology. It's better than pretending the call never happened, after all. As heartening as this new trend is, however, it's nowhere near as good as the alternative: implementing a replay system that makes these mistakes extinct.
Now who is going to apologize to us for that?