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Sunday, March 23, 2014
Updated: March 31, 10:25 AM ET
The Last Great Call(s)

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

DANA DEMUTH STILL can't forget the chaos that erupted after the most famous "safe" call of his life.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia remembers screaming: "What do you mean, safe? He can't be safe."

Allen Craig recalls lying in the dirt next to home plate, his sore foot throbbing, not sure whether he had just scored the winning run in a pivotal World Series game.

And Jim Joyce's heart still pounds a little harder when he thinks back on walking off the field, collapsing into his chair in the umpires' locker room, looking around at his fellow umpires and trying to comprehend a moment in October that none of them will ever forget.

It's been five months now. Five months. But the obstruction call that ended Game 3 of the 2013 World Series lives on.

It lives on not just because it made history as the first obstruction call ever to end a postseason baseball game. (And there have been 1,406 of them.)

It lives on not just because the winning run -- the run that caused the scoreboard to read: "Cardinals 5, Red Sox 4" -- was scored by a man (Craig) who never touched home plate.

It lives on not just because it might have been the most confusing finish to any World Series game in history.

No, it lives on because this, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of an era.

What this really was, when you think it through, was the Last Great Umpiring Call (or Calls) of the Pre-Instant Replay Era, the technology which -- beginning in 2014 -- will permeate the lives of every umpire who ever sets foot on a major league field from now on.

Never again will six men in blue work a World Series game, or any other game, knowing there is no replay machine, no technological wizardry, hovering in the background to serve as their safety net.

Never again will there be quite the same pressure on these men to make life-changing, season-defining, history-altering calls in intense, real-time moments.

Joyce was umpiring at third base when Craig and Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks somehow became tangled in the infield dirt. He knew, instantaneously, what that meant.

DeMuth was working the plate -- focused, immersed in the moment as the baseball flew in all directions and one of October's craziest plays ever arrived on his doorstep.

And as the pandemonium exploded all around them, they didn't crumble. They didn't hesitate. They didn't get caught up in the noise, the emotion, the volatility of the madness that seemed to be sucking up every other human in its path.

Instead, they made a call -- or was it two calls? -- that should go directly into the Umpires Hall of Fame (as soon as somebody builds one). Cool. Focused. Perfect. And 100 percent correct.

Why do we only celebrate that type of coolness and October perfection if we see it in a Derek Jeter, a David Ortiz or even a Michael Wacha? Why? Why can't we salute it when we see it in two men no one in that stadium was rooting for?

Those two men in the blue suits held this World Series in their hands, every bit as much as Craig or Middlebrooks or Saltalamacchia did. And five months later, we now know just how lucky the sport of baseball was that Joyce and DeMuth were on that field to give us their own Mr. October moment.

This is their story. The story of the Last Great Call(s) of what we might as well call the Age of the Human Element, carefully reconstructed from the viewpoint of everyone involved.

Will Middlebrooks, Allen Craig and Jim Joyce
The mayhem started here, when Allen Craig slid into third … and Will Middlebrooks.

There is one out in the ninth inning of a tied World Series game. Yadier Molina stands on third base. Allen Craig, playing just his third game after missing a month and a half with a still-painful foot injury, leads off second. Koji Uehara is on the mound. Jon Jay digs in to await an 0-1 pitch.

Craig: "In that situation, I was on second base, and just kind of going through my head what my responsibility was: `Don't get picked off. Don't get doubled off on a line drive. Don't tag up on a ball to the outfield and get thrown out at third before that run scores.' It's the kind of situation where you never expect to get involved in the play."

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (on why he hadn't inserted a pinch runner for Craig): "At the time, his run didn't mean anything. It was the run in front of him. So I didn't bother to pinch run for him because I wanted to make sure we had guys around in case we needed to go into extra innings. And I needed to save every player that we could."

Uehara serves up one of those killer splitters that has made him famous. Jay thumps it back up the middle. It looks, for a millisecond, like a game-winning single past a drawn-in infield ... until Dustin Pedroia unfurls one of those classic Pedroia moments -- willing himself to make a lunging, backhanded stab of a sizzling two-hopper, then picking himself up to nail Molina at the plate.

And then it happens. As the throw comes home, Craig takes off for third base. Saltalamacchia spots him from the corner of his eye and "knew he had his ankle injury, so he wasn't as fast as most guys." So the Red Sox catcher makes the decision -- and the ill-fated throw to third base -- that leads to all of this. The throw tails away from Middlebrooks and skids off Craig's left sleeve, just below the shoulder, and the insanity officially begins.

Middlebrooks: "It was something that sort of happened so fast. After watching the replay, you see a lot more. But in the heat of the moment, you just go diving for the ball and then try to get up and try to find the ball, because I knew it hit him, and it was somewhere close. But I didn't know where it was. So I was just trying to get up and find the ball so the run didn't score. And then, in the midst of that, I get stepped on."

Craig: "I slid in hard. Felt the ball hit my arm. And I got up and turned and looked over my shoulder and saw it got away, and I was just trying to get home. And I couldn't get there."

Saltalamacchia: "You're taught to slide into third, pop up and then run straight home. Well, he had trouble getting up. And then ... as he got up, he was on the second-base side, and he had to run towards home. And his legs were dead, you know? So he was trying to jump over Will and tripped, which is weird, because you know, Will's not huge. He's probably only about 12 inches off the ground. So you'd think a guy could get over him. But I guess he was just gassed and couldn't do it. So it was a weird play."

Joyce: "My first instinct was to watch the ball because, working in a four-man system, you're responsible for that spectator-interference [call]. ... So as I turned to my right to watch the ball, I realized that [left-field umpire] John Hirschbeck was behind me. ... So I immediately turned back to the play at third base, to Will Middlebrooks and Allen Craig. And I see Allen on the ground and Will Middlebrooks on the ground, and I get a real good look at both of them."

After landing on his stomach, Middlebrooks wheels to look back for the ball. Craig steadies himself with one hand, picks himself up, glances behind him to try to find the baseball, then turns toward home, strangely, from the second-base side of the bag. He doesn't see Middlebrooks, sprawled directly in front of him, until he stumbles over him, just as Middlebrooks is starting to push himself up, legs in the air. Down goes Craig again. And Joyce lurches into action, pointing emphatically at the two men flopped in front of him.

Joyce: "Instinctively, it comes out. It just comes out: 'Obstruction' -- point -- 'Obstruction.'"

DeMuth: "I saw Salty throw to third, and I saw his throw was off. It got by third base and went on down to the foul line, to the out-of-play area. That put me looking in the right direction, to where I could see Jimmy [Joyce] and both the fielder and the runner laying on the ground at third. Then I saw him getting up and jumping over the third baseman. And that's when I knew there was obstruction. ... And I looked at Jimmy, and saw Jimmy watching the ball and looking back. And then I realized that he saw it, too."

At that point, it appears as if only two people in the entire park -- Joyce and DeMuth -- know that obstruction has been called. Seemingly, not a single player on either team has gotten that memo. And the play is far from over. Craig scrambles to his feet and begins to stagger home. Later that night, he says he felt as if he'd been running in slow motion. Looking back on it this spring, it still feels like an agonizingly slow trip to glory.

Craig: "I felt like everything was moving fast until I had to try to get up off the ground and run home. [Then] I felt like that was taking forever to get there. And I wasn't feeling great."

Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo: "I know he's hurt. But any time a third-base coach has a feel that a player with the speed that he has, at that moment, has a chance to score a run, he waves. If you feel he won't be able to score with what he has, you make a decision to stop him. It's [the ninth inning] of a game, you know? So you feel like, if you have a chance to score that winning run, you take the chance. Once he's tripped, I'm already committed to send him. So to stop him would be tough."

His foot aching, Craig lumbers toward the plate, as fast as his legs will allow. Meanwhile, the left fielder, Daniel Nava, makes an alert, still-underappreciated play himself, to back up the throw, chase it down in foul territory and fire it toward home, where Saltalamacchia is waiting, his pulse racing.

Saltalamacchia: "Even though the ball got away, and he was trying to score, I saw him trip. And I was like, 'All right, we've got him. He's dead. We've just got to make a good throw.'"

Middlebrooks: "I saw Nava make a perfect play and throw it home. And it would have been one of the coolest double plays in the World Series."

Oquendo: "The left fielder did a good job getting to that ball. And after that, I was trying to get out of the way. Why? [Laughs.] The ball was coming towards third, toward home plate. So I didn't want to be another controversy."

I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What do you mean, safe? He can't be safe. I tagged him out. I'm halfway up the baseline. I tagged him. He cannot be safe. It's impossible.’

- Jarrod Saltalamacchia

The throw home is in time. Craig veers toward the infield side of the plate and tries to sneak in, but he winds up a couple of feet from home. Saltalamacchia applies the tag, raises his glove toward DeMuth to show him the ball ... then sees that the only man who matters is signaling "safe," not "out."

Saltalamacchia: "I was like, 'Wait a minute. What do you mean, safe? He can't be safe. I tagged him out. I'm halfway up the baseline. I tagged him. He cannot be safe. It's impossible.' And that's when he said it was obstruction. And I just, I wanted to lose it. But at that point, it was ... well, what are you gonna do?"

Unbeknownst to any of the 47,432 people in the seats, or even the men in uniform in the dugouts, something special is happening in the infield, even as Craig is limping toward home and Nava's throw is floating through the night: Two umpires who have known each other for more than three decades, since they worked together in the minor leagues in the early 1980s, are in nearly telepathic lockstep, communicating mostly via their actions, their gestures and an instinctive exercise in the art of eye contact. Without their intuitive feel for each other, and the unspoken realization that they are on exactly the same page, the chaos that is about to erupt around them would have been far worse.

Joyce:: "I'm thinking ... 'Allen is going to score easily.' And all of a sudden, I see Danny Nava pick up the ball and fire it to the plate, and it's like slow motion now. All of a sudden, that ball's coming in, and it's one of those uh-oh moments. And I look down, and I see Dana pointing and pointing and pointing. And I felt really good at that point because Dana had seen me call obstruction."

DeMuth: "I started to initiate the call of obstruction. And I saw Jimmy jumping right on it also, which made me very happy. So I yelled at the end, 'Obstruction,' to let Jimmy know that I saw it."

Joyce: "If you watch the replay of that play, you'll see as soon as I point and call obstruction, Dana immediately is pointing down. He's not pointing at the plate. He's pointing at me. And he's saying, 'Obstruction, obstruction, obstruction.' He did it three times. He was so emphatic. And when he calls him safe, he points down again twice. And that is textbook. That is exactly what a major league umpire should have done in that situation. And like I said, I think Dana should get the majority of the credit on this because he's the one that ... is making sure that everybody knows. He knows nobody's listening, and nobody is paying that much attention to Dana, because they're all focused on the play at the plate. And Dana, he immediately is pumping it out big-time. And there's no way he could have done it any better. There's no way."

Joyce (on whether he and DeMuth were in total sync because they'd done this for so long, because they'd worked together in the past or because they simply had a perfect feel for the moment): "I think you can take everything you just said and put it into one."

Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Dana DeMuth
As DeMuth pointed, all eyes turned to third base and Jim Joyce's instinctive obstruction call.

It is a scene unlike almost any other game-ending moment in World Series history. One team sprinting out of its dugout to celebrate; the other team racing toward the same spot on the field to point fingers at the umpire who has just made a call that will go down in World Series history. Here is some of the frantic commotion that ensues, according to the earwitnesses.

Saltalamacchia: "It was kind of chaotic after I heard the call, of him saying that he was safe when I know, for a fact, that I tagged him out before he touched home. I didn't quite understand that."

DeMuth: "Salty, he said something like, 'I tagged him.' And I was trying to explain to him, 'No, Salty. We had obstruction down there.' And then John [Farrell] was coming up from behind Salty, quick enough that I go, 'Let me explain it to John.' And with John, it was, 'What's going on?' And that's when I started going through exactly what I'm going through with you."

Joyce: "When John Farrell got out there, I went down there as fast as I could get down there. And Dana was explaining to him, matter-of-factly, that we had obstruction at third base, and that that run was going to be scored. When I got down there, I was saying exactly the same thing to John Farrell. I said, 'John, we had obstruction at third base.' I didn't say Middlebrooks didn't get out of his way. I said, 'He could not get out of his way.' And after Dana, me and then John [Hirschbeck] explained to him what had happened, it was like John [Farrell] accepted it. He didn't like it, but he accepted it. There was no screaming or yelling or anything like that. It was kind of like a calming moment, almost. ... I've watched the video a couple times, and John just seems to turn around and walk away."

Farrell:: "That rule is straightforward. ... There's no gray in that rule. It's very black and white. And when they made the call, they knew there's no going back on it. You can't argue that. It's just a straight determination of what took place."

Joyce: "I remember [Dustin] Pedroia kind of standing there, with his hands stretched out, like, 'How?' Or 'Why?' Or 'What happened?' Or 'Why is it like this?' And I remember kind of just turning around. And I wanted to say to him, 'Because it's obstruction. It just happened.' I wanted to say, 'It's nobody's fault. It's a rule. And you have to enforce the rules. That's why we're here.' But nothing ever came out."

DeMuth:: "The game was over, and it was really noisy. And it was just trying to get it to where you could hear. If you look through that crowd, it was a number of us. Jimmy Joyce was trying to explain it to somebody. Hirschbeck finally got in from [left field], and he started trying to explain the obstruction rule to different people. And I remember [second-base umpire] Billy Miller was off to my right. He was trying to explain it ... to Pedroia. I remember seeing that, when I made the call, Pedroia was off to my right, in between the mound and home plate area. And I remember, when I made the call, looking towards Pedroia because he was coming towards me with a blank look on his face, like, 'How could you miss that?' That was [on] his face."

As Allen Craig lumbers toward the plate, Joyce and DeMuth eyeball him carefully. Craig's run can be awarded only if the play at the plate is so close that the obstruction rule applies. So the pressure is on the man running home -- except, that fact is completely unbeknownst to him. As Craig admits all these months later, he had no idea obstruction had just been called.

Craig: "I didn't know at the time because I was running home as hard as I could."

DeMuth: "I could have called him out if the throw from the outfield had gotten [home with] Craig halfway up the line. ... Let's say that the ball came in quicker. He does not automatically get home. The ruling of it is: 'Had the obstruction not occurred, in your judgment, would he have scored?' ... But here, seeing that obstruction happen, and seeing how close the play was at home ... that's where my judgment is that, had the obstruction not occurred, he would have scored. So there's judgment in this. It's not an automatic thing."

Craig: "I slid, and I didn't know if I was out or safe. Then I just kind of rolled over and saw everyone in the dugout cheering and jumping. So I knew that I was safe in some fashion. I didn't know if I beat the throw or not. I just saw them jumping up. And later, I found out that it was an obstruction call. ... At that point in time, it was so fast, I didn't know what happened. I was not feeling great. I was pretty sore. So I was just thinking that we won the game, and I was a little sore, and wondering if I was going to be able to get back out there."

I could have called him out if the throw from the outfield had gotten [home with] Craig halfway up the line. Let's say that the ball came in quicker. He does not automatically get home. … That's where my judgment is that, had the obstruction not occurred, he would have scored. So there's judgment in this. It's not an automatic thing.

- Dana DeMuth

Matheny: "The first thing I remember is that Allen was mad. ... So I go out there after I see all this happening, and everyone wants to go out there and jump on him. And he's mad, because I think he was kind of in shock about how his body was handling it. ... He's going from not really running much to, all of a sudden, that's all he was doing. He's a runner out there. And he was worried that his leg wasn't prepared for that. And it ended up that everything was fine. But it was kind of a shock."

As everyone celebrates around him, the manager has other things on his mind: (A) Was his first baseman OK? (B) Could he be absolutely sure the umpires weren't about to huddle and overturn this call, just as they'd done after a missed call at second base in Game 1? So Mike Matheny isn't sure what to do or say first.

Matheny: "Was I worried about Allen? No question. That's why I ran out there. And we couldn't get a read from him. Guys were wanting to dogpile him. He just wanted to get to the dugout, to figure out whether he was all right. And I tried to stop him. But he just kind of bulled his way through everybody to the dugout. I mean, this was a World Series game we just won, in pretty dramatic fashion. And I'm trying to figure out if he's all right or not, but I can't leave the field because I'm just waiting for them to overturn something [in case] I've got to go fish all the guys out of the clubhouse. I mean, it was major confusion for all those reasons."

Carlos Beltran (immediately after the game): "Oh, man, honestly, I didn't know what happened. I saw the guys celebrating, so I just went out there and celebrated. But I'm like, 'We win. I don't know how we win. But we did.' It's amazing, man."

Jarrod Saltalamacchia argues with Dana DeMuth
Could be that Demuth and Joyce were the calmest two people in the ballpark after the call.

Please recognize that to make these calls, under any circumstances, requires a special level of umpiring genius. But now it's time to remember something important: You could go to 100,000 baseball games, and this is a play, and a call, you might never see in any of them. First, it's believed, according to our friends at Retrosheet, that this was just the second game in modern history - regular season or postseason -- to end on any sort of obstruction call. (The other, a Seattle-Tampa Bay game on Aug. 6, 2004, bore no resemblance to this one.) Second, you almost never see any sort of obstruction call at third base. So think of the knowledge, instincts and feel for the moment an umpire has to draw upon, in a pressurized October instant, to make this call in this setting. Where does all that come from?

Joyce: "We've been doing this -- me, John [Hirschbeck] and Dana -- have been doing this for over 28 years. And it's one of those things that we're trained to do, basically. We're trained to observe. And we're trained to have that timing. And in that brief timing period, you can't put a definition or a measurement on it. But it's a space where something happens; and in between there, everything starts clicking in your head on what you have in front of you. I like to say that, when we umpire, you can't do anything until something happens. And when that happens, I think, on a play like that, it's more instinct than anything else because I observe, I have a play, and then there's that period of time where I have to realize what just happened. And it clicks in your head: 'That's obstruction.' Boom. Automatic."

DeMuth: "I've had obstructions happen [in games] around second base. That happens a lot. I'd never had what happened to us in the World Series, except at umpires school. [Laughs.] ... You know, this is my 31st year. And that was my fifth World Series. And yes, I've had that call quite a few times. I instructed at the Wendelstedt [Umpire] School for 15 years. And we had it [long laugh] a number of times at the school. [Laughs again.] At the school, you always make these plays up for the students, to define what obstruction is and how you make the call and stuff. But in an actual game? No. No."

ESPN.com: "Really? Right there in the middle of a crazy play in a World Series game, you had a flashback to umpires school?"

DeMuth: "No. Not really. At the time, it's not a flashback. It's more of instinct."

Before we move on, let's not take that instinct for granted. To draw on that instinct, in real time, in the ninth inning of a World Series game, the way these men did, sums up the incredible skill of a major league umpire about as perfectly as any call, in any game, you will ever witness. So, does that one word, "instinct," truly describe it?

Joyce: "I've tried to find the words to explain. And it's hard to explain it, other than experience and instinctive. I wish I could find the words that would describe the feeling when it happens. But it's just instinctive. But if I say, 'instinctive' one more time, what is that, about 40 [times], just in this conversation?"

Try to imagine what it's like. Try to imagine being DeMuth and Joyce, umpiring home plate and third base in the ninth inning of a tied World Series game at Busch Stadium. The home team hitting. Winning run on third base. Crowd shrieking. Thousands of hearts pounding like a percussion section. Don't umpires have to get caught up in that, too?

DeMuth: "You don't think about it. You're numb. You go through what you go through every day of your life. In actuality, it is just another game. And the next day is another game. And you can't sit there and think, 'Oh my God. This is a World Series.' I mean, I can't. I can't think of that. ... So when that play happens, you're looking and concentrating so much on that play, that then you're looking for that next step, of 'What is my job?' My job is to see how close this play is at home. And then I have to make a judgment. That's what I was thinking of. And that's what happened. And then you pray that your judgment is correct -- like every play. [Laughs.]"

Joyce: "I think if you talked to all six of us [who umpired that World Series], they'd all say the same thing: Your adrenaline doesn't start pumping until the action starts, or the action finishes -- and that's exactly what happened on the obstruction call. I had no adrenaline going at all when the play happened because there's a play that's off the charts. That does not happen -- very seldom at third base. I've worked three World Series and never had an obstruction, or an interference, for that matter. So it's more your instinct and your experience that kicks in when something like that happens. ... I really don't think our adrenaline started pumping until actually we were inside the locker room, when we realized what had actually transpired, and how unusual, obviously, that was, and that a play like that would occur, of all places, at third base, in a World Series game, to end a World Series game."

DeMuth: "Yeah, that's when it hits you. When you get back in that locker room and you're sitting, and your partners are in there with you. Then Bill Miller and I looked at each other, and Jimmy and I looked at each other, and we said, 'Can you believe that?'"

Joyce: "We got to the locker room, and as we walked through the door, the very first person there was Joe Torre, then [MLB senior vice president] Peter Woodfork, then Randy Marsh, our supervisor. And each one of them, as we walked through, just basically said to us, 'Great job. Excellent. Couldn't have been better. Great, great job, guys.' And it was kind of like that 'wow factor' moment, like the breath was just taken out of you."

DeMuth: "And then you get kind of proud. You go through all your emotions then, when you're in that locker room. And one of the emotions is, 'Wow. What just happened?'"

Allen Craig, Mike Matheny and Greg Houck
Among the uncertainties, Craig was't sure he could keep playing through extra innings.

Even as the umpires try to catch their breath and settle their emotions, their work isn't done because "to sell it afterward is the hard part," Joyce said. "Even though you're 100 percent right on a call like that, to explain it, to try to tell a manager, press, everybody else, that you're right, is the hardest part." So they march to the interview room and explain themselves.

But two men still don't totally understand: the catcher and the third baseman who wound up on the wrong end of it.

Saltalamacchia: "Walking in the clubhouse, I was just dumbfounded. I didn't understand. I'm like, 'These guys are paid to get the rules. They know the rules. There's no way. How do I try to persuade them or make them understand that this is the rule, that this is what happened?' I mean, he ran towards second and then came around. That's just like going out of the baseline. You know, I wanted so bad to [say that]. But you know, the rules are obviously, sometimes, hard to understand, and they're put in different contexts that sometimes, we as players, don't understand as much. But you know, I would really love to kind of review it and go over it and see if, you know, maybe I was wrong. But I just truly, still to this day, think that I was right."

Middlebrooks: "Everyone was at home plate discussing it, and I was asking, 'Why was it interference? There was literally nothing I could do there.' And they were saying, 'You just have to disappear.'"

ESPN.com: "Did you ever determine how you were supposed to disappear?"

Middlebrooks: "I certainly don't have magical powers. Too bad, right?"

I've tried to find the words to explain. And it's hard to explain it, other than experience and instinctive. I wish I could find the words that would describe the feeling when it happens. But it's just instinctive. But if I say ‘instinctive’ one more time, what is that, about 40 [times], just in this conversation?

- Jim Joyce

ESPN.com: "Did you ever try to talk to Jim Joyce or Dana DeMuth? Didn't you want someone to explain it to you?"

Middlebrooks: "No. I have ESPN. They explained it over and over and over again. So I got plenty of explanation."

Farrell: "It was a rare play. I think that was where a lot of the discussion and disbelief came in. And I think sometimes, the natural reaction will be, 'How can you call that in such a key moment in such a key game?' But that's the integrity of the game."

Joyce: "You want to know something? I can understand that part of it. I can understand the part where people say that maybe the game shouldn't have ended that way. I understand the fans' feeling, or even the players' feeling, about that. I do. Believe me, I do. But my job, at that particular time, or for any game that I do, I have to do what I'm trained to do or what the rulebook says to do. But I can understand those feelings."

ESPN.com: "Do you think it would even have been possible to sell or explain that call in New England if the Red Sox had lost the World Series?"

Joyce: [Laughing] "I might be looking to see if I could get Boston taken off my schedule."

We know now how that World Series turned out. We know now that the obstruction call didn't decide who won it all. But we didn't know that then. So the players in the middle of that nutty play can't help but look back on that night with very different emotions and perspectives. Try to picture the furor in New England if the Red Sox hadn't come back to win the World Series. Try to picture what life for Saltalamacchia and Middlebrooks might have been like on, say, Planet Buckner. And then there's Craig, a man who made all sorts of history thanks to that mad dash home, and isn't sure he deserved to make any of it.

Saltalamacchia (on the fateful decision to launch the throw): "That could have changed the whole Series, you know? If we as a team weren't so good at just being able to squash it and move on, that could change everything. ... The dynamics. Gets the momentum on their side. They were at home. I mean, it completely could have switched. ... All because I made a throw."

ESPN.com: "So how grateful are you that your team won the World Series and you didn't have to spend the next 100 years hearing about that throw?"

Saltalamacchia: [Laughing] "Oh, very grateful, now that you put it that way."

Middlebrooks: "I had a tough year last year, dealing with injuries and being up and down to the minor leagues. That was tough for me, to come in late in the game. And they rely on me to play good defense. ... I just got caught up in a crazy play that ultimately lost the game for us. And as much as I care for my teammates, that really got to me, because if I'm in there, I want to help us win the game. So it was tough. It would have been tough in any game. But you throw the World Series on [top of] it, that's tough. ... Like I've said a thousand times, I think they made the right call. Unfortunately, it was what it was, and we ended up losing that game. But thank God it didn't cost us the World Series."

Craig: "I was just happy that we won. That's why we play the game -- to get that end result. It was definitely a little bit of a funky fashion to end the game. But that's baseball. You never know what's going to happen. That's why this game is so great. I was standing on second, not anticipating being involved in that play like that. Then, sure enough, things happened."

Because those things happened, Craig became the first player to score the winning run of a World Series game on a game-ending error since Ray Knight, after the fabled Bill Buckner error in 1986. Craig also became the first man to rap an extra-base hit as a pinch hitter and then score the game-ending, game-winning run in the same inning of a World Series game since Kirk Gibson hit that legendary home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 in 1988. Add in the limp and no wonder Craig's teammate Matt Carpenter called his buddy's heroics that night "Gibson-esque."

Craig: "'Gibson-esque'? Oh man. I don't know if I want to go that far. Kirk Gibson hit a walk-off home run. I was just out there doing what I could to contribute."

It's five months later, and they're still talking about that call. Five months later, and "even today, it feels like it just happened," Joyce says. That's not unprecedented in the umpiring business, of course. But usually it's because of a missed call, not a call the men in blue totally nailed. Funny how no one has to explain that to either of these guys.

Joyce understands that his infamous Armando Galarraga call, on what should have been the 27th out of a perfect game, will hang over him forever. DeMuth is still tormented by missing the first significant call of the 2013 World Series, a fumbled Pete Kozma catch at second that was later reversed by his fellow umpires. But then came Game 3. And the Last Great Call(s), for both of them, has transformed the conversation to something just as memorable, and far more satisfying.

Joyce: "I do have a tendency, every once in a while out there, to second-guess myself. And I do put a lot of pressure on myself when I walk out on the field. I've had good things happen. I've had bad things happen -- obviously. But on that particular [obstruction] play, I can honestly say that I ... knew I was 100 percent right on that call."

DeMuth: "In the first game of the World Series last year, I'm at second base. And that still goes through my mind. How in the hell, in the first inning, did I miss that call [on Kozma]? And I thank the Lord every single day ... that I had partners that said the same thing: 'Holy mackerel. How did you miss that call?' [Laughs.] ... There's nothing more [painful] than going home after a ballgame, laying in your hotel room, sitting in there, all alone, and that feeling you've got in your gut, knowing that 'Oh my God, how did I miss that? Why did I call that?' And that lays in your gut for days. Now, to have the opportunity to make that all right, it's easier to swallow. You know what I mean?"

Like I've said a thousand times, I think they made the right call. Unfortunately, it was what it was, and we ended up losing that game. But thank God it didn't cost us the World Series.

- Will Middlebrooks

Joyce: "We're going to miss plays. There's no doubt about that. Believe me, I'm the poster boy for that one. And it happens. But why it happens? You know what? You could take every scientist, doctor, sociologist, whatever you want, and you're never going to be able to figure that out. But we are very good at what we do."

It isn't only their fellow umpires who recognize that. As much time as the men in uniform might seem to spend grumbling about umpires, when they see truly great umpiring in action, as they did when that obstruction call came along, even people on the wrong end of it aren't afraid to admit they have great admiration for the umpires who made it.

Farrell: "You do. And that admiration continues to grow because, when you have plays that come into question ... they have one opportunity in real time to make that decision, to make a call, and get it right."

Saltalamacchia: "I've read some of the rules, and there's a lot of rules in that rulebook that you have to know. So it boggles my mind that they're able to make that call. But they did a great job in that World Series."

Middlebrooks: "Those guys, they know the rulebook inside and out. We're the best in the world at what we do. And they're the best in the world at what they do."

Never again. Never again will any umpires have to take the field in the major leagues, knowing they have only their minds, their guts and their eyeballs to rely on to make the right call. The replay machines are already whirring this spring. They'll be whirring all season. They'll be whirring forever now. And forever is a long time -- longer even than a Yankees-Red Sox game.

In a way, it's ironic that obstruction calls won't be eligible for review via replay, at least in the beginning. But the bottom line is the world is changing. So if this is where we wave goodbye to that part of baseball history -- to the beauty and purity of dramatic, spontaneous, in-the-moment umpiring decisions in a world with no tech support -- what better way to end that era than with the Last Great Call(s)?

Joyce: "I don't think there's any doubt about it. As a matter of fact, we talked about it after the World Series. ... We all went out after Game 6. And we sat around and actually talked that way. The World Series was over. And I think it was John Hirschbeck that said, 'Boys, we just came to the end of an era, because we did everything we were supposed to do, and we did it very well.' And everybody knew what he meant -- that the game is going to change. Starting now."