Five worst umpiring calls in history

June, 13, 2012
6/13/12
11:00
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Jeffery MaierAP Photo/Mark LennihanDerek Jeter got an assist from 12-year-old fan Jeffrey Maier during Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS.
Umpires. Can't live with them, can't live without them. Well, maybe we could live without them, but I'm not quite ready to move to robotic umpires and computerized strike zones just yet.

Jerry Crasnick has a story on the state of umpiring in the major leagues. It's always a good topic for debate, especially with instant replay now a part of the game and potentially getting bigger. Now, if you've been watching the NBA playoffs, I think you'll agree that major league umpires still have much less of an influence on a game's outcome than NBA refs. That's not to say that umpires don't miss calls. Of course they do. And sometimes those bad calls can affect not only a game but potentially an entire series. Here are what I rate as the five worst calls ever and what went wrong, as those calls perhaps changed the course of baseball history.

5. Mauer's foul ball: 2009 ALDS Game 2 -- Yankees 4, Twins 3

The Twins lost to the Yankees in the 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 AL Division Series. The Yankees won 12 of the 14 games. But if not for a terrible call on a Joe Mauer line drive, maybe this 2009 game and series would have turned out differently.

The scene: The Yankees had won the series opener, but Game 2 was tied 3-3 when Mauer led off the top of the 11th inning.

What happened: Mauer lofted a high fly down the left-field line that Melky Cabrera failed to haul in, but left-field ump Phil Cuzzi, just a few feet from the play, called it foul. As announcer Ron Darling said on seeing the replay: "Fair ball, not even close." Mauer eventually singled and would have scored when Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer followed with base hits. Instead, the bases were loaded, and Yankees reliever David Robertson then worked out of the three-on, no-outs jam. Mark Teixeira homered in the bottom of the inning to win the game.

The aftermath: I offered up a list of possible worst calls to include in this piece to my pal Jim Caple, and he said this one was the second-worst. The call itself was clearly horrible, but did it really change history? Even if the Twins had won the game, the series would have been tied, and the Yankees were certainly the better team that year (103 wins to Minnesota's 87). A terrible call, but it's debatable whether it changed the ultimate result of the series.

[+] EnlargeTommy Lasorda
AP PhotoTommy Lasorda argued unsuccessfully that Reggie Jackson should have been called out.
4. Reggie's hip check: 1978 World Series Game 4 -- Yankees 4, Dodgers 3

After the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series, the teams met again in 1978. He didn't hit three home runs in this game, but Mr. October somehow made himself the focal point.

The scene: The Dodgers led 2 games to 1 and were leading Game 4 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth. With one out, the Yankees had Thurman Munson on second and Reggie Jackson on first with Lou Piniella up.

What happened: Piniella hit a low liner to shortstop Bill Russell. The runners had to hold to see if Russell caught the ball, but he dropped it, stepped on second to force Jackson and threw to first to complete the inning-ending double play. But Jackson remained in the baseline and appeared to move his hip slightly as the ball came toward him. The ball glanced off him, allowing Munson to score. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda argued interference with first-base ump Frank Pulli, saying Piniella should have been ruled out, but to no avail. The run stood.

The aftermath: The Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the eighth and won it in the 10th. (Jackson had a big single off Bob Welch in the winning rally.) As Thomas Boswell wrote in The Washington Post, "Someday, when folks read the history of Reggie Jackson's October shenanigans, they just aren't going to believe it. This guy can't even get hit between bases by a throw without becoming a hero. Sometimes the entire sport of baseball seems to rotate around him."

The Yankees won the next two games to take the World Series. "The interference issue with Reggie Jackson was the one that pulled the rug right out from under us, and that's still my biggest nightmare in baseball," Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey told MLB.com in 2007. "If the call is made properly and if they huddled together like they should have, we would have walked off the field with a 3-0 lead [actually, 3-1]. We end up losing that game. The next day we were flat, deflated. And so I feel legitimately that '78 was the one that got away, and it's still hard to talk about."

Was it the wrong call? Rule 7.09F says a baserunner cannot intentionally interfere with a thrown ball. Did Reggie simply hold his ground or flex his thigh muscle? Maybe it wasn't the easiest of calls, but if the Dodgers had won the game and taken a 3-1 lead, the course of that World Series likely would have changed.

3. Black Friday: 1977 NLCS Game 3 -- Dodgers 6, Phillies 5

For some reason, this game has been forgotten in playoff lore outside of Philadelphia, but you know things were bad when the losing team has a nickname for the game. Phillies fans refer to it as "Black Friday," and with good reason. Phillies reliever Gene Garber, the losing pitcher in the game, said in a 2007 story on Lancasteronline.com that "I still wake up with nightmares from that game."

The scene: It's Game 3 of the NLCS, series tied 1-1. Key historical note: The Phillies had never won a World Series at the time. Garber had entered in the seventh (remember when relievers pitched more than one inning?) and retired the first eight batters he faced. There were two outs in the ninth, the bases were empty, and the Phillies led 5-3. The Vet, packed with more than 63,000 fans, was rocking as fans chanted "Gen-o, Gen-o, Gen-o."

What happened: Pinch hitter Vic Davalillo reached on a bunt single. Pinch hitter Manny Mota hit a deep fly to left in the direction of Greg Luzinski. If you're too young to remember Luzinski, imagine Adam Dunn playing left field, and I don't mean it in a "He's big, but he's a better fielder than he looks" kind of way. "Luzinski put his glove up, and the ball hit in his glove, and somehow it came out of his glove," Garber said. "I don't know if it hit the wall or what. Bull was a good fielder. He didn't have a lot of range, but he was a good fielder. I never saw him drop a ball or miss a ball that was in his glove, and this one did." To make matters worse, Luzinski's throw back to the infield hit a seam in the turf and bounced away, allowing Mota to reach third.

Still, the Phillies led 5-4 with Davey Lopes up. Then came the call. Lopes hit a hard grounder that bounced off Mike Schmidt's glove but bounded to shortstop Larry Bowa, who barehanded the ball and threw Lopes out at first. At least, replays showed Lopes was out (forward to the 1:25 mark). Umpire Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe. The game was tied. Lopes then advanced to second when first baseman Richie Hebner missed a pickoff throw, and Bill Russell singled in Lopes with the go-ahead run. "You ask yourself why those things happened," Garber recalled all those years later. "You just think, that's the way baseball is."

The aftermath: The Phillies had Steve Carlton going in Game 4, but Dusty Baker hit a big two-run homer, and the Dodgers won 4-1 to clinch the series. Obviously, if Lopes had been called out, the series would have taken on an entirely different dimension. Maybe Carlton would have been held back to start Game 5 with an extra day of rest. Maybe the Phillies would have felt less pressure in Game 4. Maybe they would have gone on to face the Yankees in the World Series.

[+] EnlargeUmpire Don Denkinger
AP Photo/The Kansas City Star/Patrick SullivanThis play at first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series prompted death threats against umpire Don Denkinger.
2. Denkinger's debacle: 1985 World Series Game 6 -- Royals 2, Cardinals 1

Perhaps the most famous blown call in World Series history. But perhaps also the most overrated. Let me explain.

The scene: The Cardinals led Game 6 1-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth, scoring an eighth-inning run to break up a pitcher's duel between Danny Cox and Charlie Leibrandt. They were three outs from the World Series title when rookie reliever Todd Worrell came on to close it out. The Cardinals were 91-0 on the season when they led heading into the ninth.

What happened: Jorge Orta pinch-hit for the Royals to lead off and tapped a grounder wide of first base that Jack Clark fielded and tossed to Worrell. Umpire Don Denkinger ruled that Orta beat Worrell to the bag. Replays showed otherwise. From there, the inning unraveled for the Cardinals -- but mostly by their own undoing. Steve Balboni was up next and hit a foul pop that should have been caught but dropped between Clark and catcher Darrell Porter; Balboni then singled. Jim Sundberg bunted, but the Cardinals forced Orta out at third. But Porter's passed ball allowed the runners to move up. Hal McRae was intentionally walked, and Dane Iorg -- another pinch hitter -- then singled in two runs to win the game.

Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog went ballistic afterward. "The two best teams are supposed to be in the World Series,'' he said. ''They ought to have the best umpires in it, too. I think it's a disgrace. It's a joke. We haven't got one call from the three American League umpires in this thing. You want my opinion? It stinks."

"The whole inning was screwed up when he missed the call at first," Herzog said in his office after the game. "I went out and asked why he was safe, and the umpire said he beat the throw. I said how the hell could he be safe when he stepped on Worrell's foot going across the bag?"

Whitey wasn't done.

''When I went out, I thought it was a question of Worrell missing the bag. If he'd have said Worrell missed the bag, I'd have shut up. But he didn't. He said Orta beat the throw. But he didn't beat the throw. He was out by two steps. I'm not supposed to say anything about the umpires. But I sit here and manage this club, and I see what happens. We haven't got one call from those guys, and I mean the three from the American League."

Of course, it didn't matter that Kansas City's two previous wins were by 6-1 scores, so the umps clearly had little to do with those defeats. Or that if Clark had caught the foul pop or the passed ball hadn't happened, the Cardinals likely would have escaped the inning anyway. Blaming Denkinger was the easy thing to do.

The aftermath: With Denkinger behind the plate in Game 7, Cardinals ace John Tudor got blasted, Bret Saberhagen pitched a masterpiece and the Royals won 11-0. Herzog got ejected and was still blaming Denkinger for his team's collapse. "I did say to him that we shouldn't be here tonight anyway," he said. "He blew the call at first base Saturday. If he calls him out, I guarantee you we stuff them. He knows he blew the call, and so do 200 million people."

1. The Jeffrey Maier affair: 1996 ALCS Game 1 -- Yankees 5, Orioles 4

This call was astronomically horrible and had far-reaching implications that possibly altered not only the future of baseball but also the space-time continuum.

The scene: The Yankees, in the ALCS for the time first since 1981, trailed the Orioles 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth when rookie Derek Jeter stepped in to face hard-throwing reliever Armando Benitez.

What happened: Jeter lofted a fly ball toward the short right-field fence at Yankee Stadium. Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco camped under the ball, reached up ... and the ball disappeared into the stands. Jeffrey Maier, a 12-year-old Yankees fan, reached several feet over the fence and pulled the ball into the bleachers. Umpire Rich Garcia, standing right by the play, somehow missed the obvious fan interference. Jeter's home run tied the game, which the Yankees won in extra innings.

The aftermath: The Yankees eventually won the series in five games and went on to capture their first of four World Series championships in a five-year span. But what would have happened if Garcia had made the correct call? The Orioles would have won the game and, after winning Game 2, would have held a 2-0 series advantage. The Yankees likely would lose the series, George Steinbrenner probably would fire Joe Torre, Benitez and not Mariano Rivera would turn into the greatest closer of all time and the whole Yankees dynasty never would materialize. Wow. As Andy Pettitte says in the video link above, "You gotta have luck."

David Schoenfield | email

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