ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the 1985 World Series, umpire Don Denkinger blew a call and paid the price for an entire winter as the target of abuse from outraged St. Louis Cardinals fans. He received angry letters, death threats and abusive phone calls from those folks who were mad enough and determined enough to track down his home number.
When Ron Kulpa erred in Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday, the reaction was widespread and instantaneous: Tweeters came out en masse with the inevitable pleas for instant replay, and by the fifth inning, his Wikipedia page had been updated with all the gory details.
For an hour or two, Kulpa appeared to be the embodiment of commissioner Bud Selig's worst World Series nightmare. By the end of St. Louis' 16-7 victory over Texas, he was a footnote to Albert Pujols' 14 total bases and some memorably bad pitching on the part of the Rangers.
We've had Doppler-related fiascoes in the early rounds of the postseason, but the umpires have mercifully steered clear of controversy. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa created a stir when he complained about umpire Jerry Meals' strike zone during a dugout interview in the Division Series, and there was a brief flap in the ALCS over whether Texas pitcher Derek Holland hit Detroit's Victor Martinez in the foot with a pitch. But that's been about it for "men in blue" related dramatics.
That changed in the fourth inning on Saturday, when Kulpa went to that special place where umpires never want to go. It's called Doug Eddings-land.
With St. Louis leading 1-0 and Pujols on first base, Matt Holliday hit a sure double-play grounder to Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, but Ian Kinsler's pivot throw sailed high and pulled first baseman Mike Napoli off the bag. Napoli spun and tagged Holliday on the shoulder for the out -- a step before Holliday stumbled over the bag. But Kulpa ruled Holliday safe, and Rangers manager Ron Washington bolted from the dugout to argue.
"He missed the play, and I knew he missed the play when I went out there," Washington said.
Kulpa told a pool reporter after the game that he was aware Napoli had tagged Holliday, but he thought Holliday's foot was already on the base. He did not give any thought to asking home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez or anyone else on the crew for a second opinion.
"On that type of play, I'm not going to ask for help," Kulpa said. "Ron didn't ask me to get any help, either."
Napoli said he knew Holliday was out, and Holliday was still waiting to see the replay. He was fortunate to avoid injury when he tripped over the bag and landed on his knee.
"As a runner, you don't have time to know what's going on," Holliday said. "We're smashing into each other and I'm on the ground, and I don't know if I'm safe or out and whether he tagged me or where. The whole thing happened so fast."
Kulpa's error in judgment could have quickly faded into nothing, but it was magnified by the events that followed. A Lance Berkman single and David Freese double extended St. Louis' lead to 2-0. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Napoli threw wildly on an attempted force play at the plate to make it 4-0. And an RBI single by Ryan Theriot continued the onslaught, extending the Cardinals' lead to five runs.
"I might have had a little more time," Napoli said of his errant throw. "But in the heat of the moment, coming in like that and throwing on the run, I just yanked it a little bit."
The entire sequence couldn't have been easy for Kulpa, a 13-year MLB veteran who came into the World Series as a feel-good story. Kulpa is a St. Louis native. But for reasons wholly separate from his upbringing, he was understandably overjoyed when he received a call from Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, telling him that he would be umpiring in his first career World Series this year.
Kulpa told USA Today that he and his father, Joe, shared tears of joy and sadness over his big assignment. Kulpa's mother, Flavie, died of brain cancer two years ago. "This is a dream come true," he told the newspaper.
When the Game 3 pool reporter mentioned Kulpa's St. Louis roots, Kulpa said his background had "nothing to do" with the controversial play. Umpires are accustomed to having their calls second-guessed, but they understandably don't care for having their integrity questioned for geographical reasons. Perhaps that's why crew chief Jerry Layne jumped into the conversation and steered the reporter's line of questioning in a different direction.
Before Saturday, Kulpa was probably best known as the umpire Carl Everett head-butted to earn a 10-game suspension in 2000. He was also behind the plate when Justin Verlander pitched his first career no-hitter in 2007 against Milwaukee.
Did Kulpa's missed call in Game 3 precede a whole lot of zaniness? Sure. But if Kinsler makes an accurate throw to complete the double play, it's a nonissue. If Napoli doesn't yank his throw home, the damage is minimized. And if starter Matt Harrison and Texas' bullpen don't give up four straight multiple-run innings, it might have been an actual game and not a Texas-sized walkover for the Cardinals.
"[The call] didn't affect me," Harrison said. "Once it happened, I just blew a little steam off before I got back on the mound and let it go. Just because that happened, the game's not over. You still have to keep pitching and playing ball. You just have to move on. I'm not mad at the guy or anything."
Rangers fans might not be so favorably inclined toward Kulpa, but MLB skirted a major PR fiasco in the end. When the postgame focus was on Pujols' five hits and three home runs instead of an umpire's tough night, you know things could have been a heck of a lot worse.
Life can change in a hurry, for umpires as well as players. Kulpa was hailed for making the right call on Kinsler's pivotal stolen base in the ninth inning of Game 2, and he'll be behind the plate Sunday night calling balls and strikes. It's just another day and another game in the unpredictable life of a big league umpire.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.