Chewing on Cuzzi's call

October, 12, 2009
10/12/09
2:09
PM ET
Of course it's history now, but umpire Phil Cuzzi's bizarrely blown call in Game 2 of the Twins-Yankees series will be remembered by Twins fans nearly as long as Nick Punto's bizarre baserunning blunder in Game 3. And Steve Politi, writing about Cuzzi's call, left me with plenty to chew on. Politi:
    Phil Cuzzi knows what you were thinking. He was standing right there, barely 10 feet away, with an unobstructed view. He saw the ball curve down the left-field line and bounce. He is an umpire with decades of experience, working at the highest level in his sport. How the heck did he miss that call?!

    --snip--

    Cuzzi had called it foul, negating a leadoff double, and he spent much of the next 24 hours trying to figure out what happened. Part of it, he thinks, was playing an unnatural position - baseball only uses umpires along the outfield foul lines in the postseason and for the All-Star Game.

    "We're not used to playing that far down the line,” Cuzzi said. "The instant the ball is hit, we usually start running. I think I may have been looking too closely at it. I never had a feel for where the left fielder was on the play."

When you see this photo, your natural reaction is, "How could he miss that call? He's so close!"

But I think Cuzzi's right; I think he was too close. Cuzzi hasn't followed the ball from the bat to the ground; when he sees where the ball is headed, he runs down the line, then (necessarily) loses sight of the ball while setting up to see where it lands. The ball then enters his vision and touches ground, and somewhere between vision and ground -- which happens very quickly -- he loses it. Yes, he should have gotten it right. But that call really was harder than it looked.

Let me ask you this, though: How many times during the regular season have you seen a fair/foul call missed that badly? I can't remember ever seeing one missed so badly. Certainly not in 2009. Not during the regular season. And the difference of course, is that during the regular season they use only four umpires.

Supposedly the fifth and sixth umpires were added, some years ago, to help on (yes) the calls down the line, but also (and most critically) on balls hit over the outfield fence (or not). But there's no need for help on those latter calls anymore. Not with the introduction of video review. Video review has obviated the need -- if there ever was a need -- for the fifth and sixth umpires. Now they're useful only on those calls down the lines. But as we saw the other night, and as Cuzzi essentially admitted, they're not much use for those, either. Especially not when you consider how rarely the calls down the line are missed during the regular season, with only four umpires.

Of course, the World Umpires Association will fight for those fifth and sixth spots until they're blue in the face, because umpires want to work on the big stage. The truth, though, is that there's no reason for them.*

* Oh, and if you think the umpires will fight for those fifth and sixth spots because they want the money, you'd be right ... except they don't have to fight for them. In return for making the postseason assignments (somewhat) merit-based, Major League Baseball pays postseason bonuses to all umpires, whether they work postseason games or not. Ah, unions.

More from Politi:

    In baseball, they call this the "human element,” and Cuzzi hopes his missed call is not used as a reason to move away from the tradition. The knee-jerk reaction in the postgame was easy: Baseball needs more instant replay. In a few years, we might have managers throwing red hankies onto the field and umpires in the press box overruling their peers on the field.

    It would be a disaster, one that would make long games even longer. Part of the allure of baseball is the imperfections - the odd field dimensions, the bullpens in play, the Hall of Fame debate. Most of the calls are correct on the field. Can baseball ever get them all right?

    The answer is no.

Of course the answer is no. But does accepting the inevitability of some errors mean we have to accept all errors? Of course the answer is of course not. The allure of baseball does include many things, including the lore of the horribly missed calls by the umpires. But if you're a Twins fan, wouldn't you trade a tiny bit of lore for a Joe Mauer double and a bit of prolonged life in October? I know I would. If you're a Rockies fan, wouldn't you trade a tiny bit of lore for an out in the ninth inning of Game 3 of a Division Series? I know I would.

So, what's to be done? A reader weighs in with this:

    I have long against instant replay, but in light of recent events, I am officially dropping my objections. I still have one large issue that I don't feel has really been addressed.

    In my unofficial and unscientific study, I have concluded that a massive percentage of bad calls actually pass without argument. Taking stolen bases as an example, very often we learn that a umpire actually blew the call long after the runner's trotted off the field, or the infielder's lobbed the ball back to the pitcher. If so many bad calls can happen without argument, it must mean the teams themselves don't really know what the call should be, and if THAT is the case, and the plays were reviewable, wouldn't it become a common event, seemingly even required, for the teams to start questioning all close calls?

    This issue needs to be addressed by process. When IR is instituted, it will need to be accompanied by a no-arguing-anything rule, and a process that ensures plays will be reviewed automatically, and overturned as needed, without interference from the participants. Any form of IR that does not define the proper course of action for the participants will make watching the game (potentially) unbearable.

    Your thoughts?

This is a brilliant observation, but I think there's already a general consensus that if video review is someday expanded, there will have to be some limits imposed, just as there are now in the NFL. You simply can't allow the managers to appeal every close play, because Matt is right: there would be no end to it. As for how those limits would work ... well, we can spend all day hashing that one out. But it's not hard to come up with some ideas, and at least one of those should work reasonably well.

The ultimate goal shouldn't be to embrace imperfections (i.e. failure). The ultimate goal should be to get as many calls right as humanly possible, and the obvious ways to get more calls right are 1) enhanced use of video review, and 2) better umpires. Speaking of which, I had no idea about this (more from Politi):

    The "human element,” it turns out, can apply to something else entirely. Cuzzi is human, and this is why he would never accept "no” as an answer when he chased his dream to become an umpire.

    Cuzzi had been let go once from that job, forced to work at the Short Hills Hilton as a concierge, when he saw an opportunity to get back into the game: Len Coleman, then the president of the National League, was staying as a guest in the hotel.

    So early one morning in 1996, Cuzzi stood in the hallway in front of Coleman's door and waited for it to open. Coleman was startled. Was it a stalker? No, Cuzzi told him, it was an umpire.

    "I initially jumped back, and then h
    e identified himself,” Coleman said. "He was working at the hotel and figured I'd be going out in the morning. He already had 140 major-league games under his belt, but I told him there was no way he was getting back to the big leagues unless he started at A ball.

    "So that's exactly what he did. He got back into his car and rode all over the country, umpiring A-ball games from one league to the next, all because he wanted to get back to the majors so badly.”

First off, nobody "forced" Cuzzi to work at the Hilton, anymore than someone forced me to roof houses after I flunked out of college. Those were choices that we made. And second -- and with all due respect -- is this really the absolute best way to find the best umpires? Phil Cuzzi was once a major-league umpire ... except he wasn't, officially. Officially, Cuzzi was just a Triple-A umpire in the early 1990s, but major-league umpires get a fair amount of time off during the baseball season, and their vacation replacements are Triple-A umpires. Including Phil Cuzzi.

Permanent major-league jobs open up rarely, though, and a fair number of Triple-A umpires -- even those selected to serve as substitutes in the majors -- are often let go after a few years. That's what happened to Cuzzi. In 1993 he was 38 and hadn't yet been chosen for a full-time job, and he was let go.

But he went back to the minors and was hired as a full-timer in the majors in 1999. Maybe he'd become a better umpire. Or maybe he had simply blown through the minor leagues because he was always the most experienced arbiter on the field. Either way, it seems to me a strange system. And I will note in passing that since Cuzzi became a full-timer 10 years ago, he has been selected to work in just four postseason series, including one LCS (2005) and zero World Series.

If Major League Baseball doesn't want more video review, they need to find more great umpires.

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