Commentary

Ump struggles knowing he blew call

Respected umpire Don Denkinger has moved on, but regrets he got call wrong

Updated: September 16, 2010, 11:36 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

Don Denkinger is a stand-up guy and a respected umpire -- crew chief for the '85 World Series, even -- but if he hadn't blown The Call late in Game 6, the Kansas City Royals might never have celebrated an autumn title. Just maybe, Whitey Herzog and his St. Louis Cardinals would have hung on to snag another championship to go with their '82 title and further enhanced their proud franchise legacy. Only history can't be rewritten.

That Saturday night in October, the Cardinals held a 1-0 lead and were three outs away from clinching the Series when Denkinger, the first-base umpire, ruled pinch hitter Jorge Orta safe in one of the most controversial postseason calls ever. First baseman Jack Clark fielded Orta's slow roller and made an underhand flip to pitcher Todd Worrell at first base. TV replays showed Worrell clearly winning the race to the bag, but the call gave the Royals hope, setting the stage for a two-run rally and sending the series to a Game 7.

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Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesDon Denkinger was an American League umpire from 1968 to 1998.

"If that doesn't happen, we probably don't win," said former Royals DH and clubhouse leader Hal McRae, offering a sentiment echoed by several teammates.

No one can say whether the Royals would have found a way to come back or not. But 25 years later, Denkinger isn't one to shy away from the obvious -- he got it wrong. It just bothers the old umpire, 74, to be defined by a singular ruling, to have his good name mentioned and his phone ring every time a bad call makes headlines.

By now, he's gotten past the vicious letters and phone calls, even the threats. He's made peace with Herzog and Cardinal Nation over the years. What still bugs him is how a good arbitrator, one who hung around the game another 13 seasons until his knees gave out, flubbed a call in the brightest of spotlights.

So what happened?

"Well, about 97 percent of the time when the ball is hit to the first baseman, he flips it to the pitcher running over to touch the bag," Denkinger said. "And in all of those cases, you get in where you get an angle. You get in close enough to see which foot got there first. It is not something you can stay back and watch. You got to get in and take a good look at it. That is exactly where I went. Unbeknownst to me, it was that other 3 percent where Clark had to dig the ball out of his glove. And when he finally threw it or underhanded it -- I don't even know what he did. I guess he threw it.

"Well, I am in too close. I looked up, and I saw him catch the ball. And when I looked down I saw [Orta's] foot on the bag, and I called him 'Safe!' That amount of time that it took me to look down, because I was in so close, permitted me to miss it."

All these years later, Denkinger says he would have welcomed the opportunity for video replay to correct his screwup. That night he had to wait until reaching the dressing room after the game to ask then commissioner Peter Ueberroth what the audience at home had seen live, and then replay after replay of, on TV.

"I immediately asked him if I got it right or wrong, because up to that point I didn't know," Denkinger said. "He said, 'No, I don't think so. I don't think you got it right.' You just get that sick feeling."

Orta remains coy about whether he was safe, just thankful he didn't give up on the play. "Whatever he called -- he called safe," he said. "My reaction was positive, because I hustled down the line."

The ninth-inning meltdown carried over to Game 7, when the Royals won an 11-0 laugher.

"The next day they weren't competing like they were," Orta recalled of the Cardinals. "The level of concentration wasn't the same."

In retrospect, Denkinger's call wouldn't be infamous if the Cardinals hadn't started impersonating Casey Stengel's hapless '62 Mets. After Orta reached, Steve Balboni lifted a seemingly harmless popup in foul territory near the Royals' dugout that landed at the feet of Clark. Balboni took advantage of the reprieve and grounded a single to left. A passed ball, an intentional walk, a Dane Iorg two-run single later and the Royals were primed for Game 7.

"That didn't help our cause," said Clark, reflecting on the miscommunication between himself and catcher Darrell Porter on the popup. "Darrell was calling for it. My thinking was to get over there in case there was a deflection like with [Pete] Rose [in the '80 World Series]. At the last minute he called, 'I don't have it.'

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Courtesy of Don DenkingerDon Denkinger received dozens of threats and hate-filled letters after missing the Series call.

"We still had an opportunity to win the game. Once we lost the game you didn't have a real good feeling about Game 7."

On the eve of Game 7, only the Royals were enjoying life. Denkinger and his wife, Gayle, skipped a cocktail party they planned to attend after Game 6 and the stunned Cardinals checked back into their suburban Kansas City hotel. Denkinger didn't flip on the TV or read the morning newspaper. The next day, he sat quietly in a friend's Arrowhead Stadium suite watching the first half of a Kansas City Chiefs game.

That night, the crew chief was assigned home plate for the deciding Game 7, a sight that seemed only to further unnerve the Cardinals. The ugly 11-0 blowout didn't end until Herzog and Joaquin Andujar, pitching in relief, were ejected by Denkinger.

If only that were the end of it. Denkinger estimates receiving upwards of 250 threats and angry letters in the days just after the Series. One concluded, "YOU BLEW IT. I wish you the worst." Another warned, "DON'T EVER SHOW YOUR [BLEEPIN'] FACE AROUND ST. LOUIS."

The day after the Series ended, Denkinger and his wife drove 300 miles north to their home in Waterloo, Iowa, only to find police blocking both ends of their street. His in-laws, who had been baby-sitting the couple's then school-age children, received a call threatening to burn down the umpire's house.

"I'm driving up from Kansas City thinking about writing a report on the ejections of the seventh game, so I had no idea any of this was going on," Denkinger said. "I ended up with a box of letters, most of them calling me everything under the sun."

One letter writer in particular, a St. Louis construction company owner, mailed vulgar handwritten dispatches to a Waterloo eatery Denkinger owned at the time -- the Silver Fox Restaurant. FBI forensic experts linked the St. Louis businessman to an unsigned postcard mailed two years later that Denkinger remembers saying, among other things, "When I point my .357 magnum at you I will just blow you away."

According to Denkinger, agents almost immediately detected a similarity between the postcard and the earlier letters the businiess owner had signed -- the word "restaurant" was misspelled in all the correspondence. The way Denkinger tells it, FBI agents visited the letter writer and told him, "You're done. This is the end of it. You will not correspond with him in any manner, and life will go on."

And it has.

When news of the threats got out, another batch of letters, these penned in sympathetic tones, showed up at Denkinger's home and restaurant. One writer sent a year's supply of multivitamins for the Denkinger family. Another sent flea collars and treats for the family dog. A limousine owner offered a ride if the Denkingers ever visited San Francisco.

Herzog softened enough to personally invite Denkinger to the Cardinals' 10-year reunion banquet. The loquacious ump regaled the crowd with colorful tales of baseball and its characters. As he returned to his seat alongside his wife, the St. Louis crowd gave him a nice ovation.

"Then, Whitey jumped up and said, 'Just a minute, Don. We have something for you,'" Denkinger recalled. "So I went back to the podium and he says, 'We got this gift for you and we'd appreciate it if you would open it up.' It was a Braille watch.

"Of course, he thought that was the funniest damn thing."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.