Commentary

Umpire errors a real embarrassment

Three incorrect calls in Game 4 point to the definite need to expand instant replay

Originally Published: October 20, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- This was the worst umpiring performance at an Angels game since Leslie Nielsen in "The Naked Gun."

First, Dale Scott called New York's Nick Swisher safe when he was most definitely out on a pickoff play at second base in the fourth inning. Then, a few minutes later, Tim McClelland ruled Swisher out for leaving third base too soon after a fly out when it appeared otherwise. Worse, McClelland blew an obvious call on what should have been a double play at third base in the fifth inning. It was such a blatantly bad call that not even McClelland could say why he missed it, though Derek Jeter had the most likely explanation.

[+] EnlargeTim McClelland
Harry How/Getty ImagesWhy wasn't it a double play? Mike Scioscia questions umpire Tim McClelland about his call at third base.

"Umpires are human. They make mistakes sometimes," Jeter said. "Umpires are trying their best. Sometimes you get calls and sometimes you don't. I don't think it had any effect on this game."

Jeter is correct that none of those plays affected the outcome. The Yankees blew out the Angels, and New York's 10-1 victory was rarely in doubt after Alex Rodriguez's two-run home run gave New York a 5-0 lead in the fifth. And yes, umpires are human and they make mistakes. And many of the "blown calls" are on plays so close that we recognize the mistaken call only after the fifth viewing in hi-def and ultra-slow-motion from the seventh camera angle.

The problem, however, has been the sheer volume of calls this postseason that range from the merely mistaken to the embarrassingly wrong.

In ascending order of error, there was the missed foul ball on Chase Utley's hit in the Phillies-Rockies series, C.B. Bucknor's "controversial" calls at first base in the Red Sox-Angels series, and Phil Cuzzi's call in the Yankees-Twins series when the left-field umpire somehow ruled Joe Mauer's drive that clearly hit fair was actually a foul ball -- and got no help from his crewmates.

And then there was Tuesday's fiasco.

First, Scott messed up the pickoff attempt on Swisher. Swisher clearly was out diving back into second base -- shortstop Erick Aybar's tag was right on his hand several inches in front of the bag -- but Scott called him safe. No matter. McClelland made up for it moments later when he called Swisher out for leaving too soon on a fly out to center fielder Torii Hunter.

"I said in my heart I thought he left too soon, but the replay showed that he didn't," McClelland acknowledged.

Consider those calls a wash -- Swisher should have been ruled out at second but instead was ruled out at third. McClelland's next call was just plain awful.

I said in my heart I thought [Nick Swisher] left too soon [on a fly ball], but the replay showed that he didn't.

-- Umpire Tim McClelland

With one out in the fifth, Jorge Posada was on third base and Robinson Cano was on second. Melky Cabrera hit a bouncer back to the mound. Darren Oliver fielded the ball and tossed it to catcher Mike Napoli, who chased Posada back to third base. Unfortunately for Posada, Cano had already reached third base. Napoli clearly tagged Cano when he was off third base and then tagged Posada, who also was standing off the base.

McClelland, however, did not see what everyone else in the park and watching on TV saw.

"I thought Cano was on the base," McClelland said. "I was waiting for two players to be on the base, and then there was never the situation where both of them were on the base at the same time. When [Napoli] tagged Cano, I thought Cano was on the base, and when [Napoli] tagged Posada out, I thought Posada was out.

"[The replay] showed that Cano was off the bag when he was tagged. I did not see that for whatever reason. So obviously there were two missed calls. Obviously or not obviously, but there were two missed calls. And I'm just out there trying to do my job and do it the best I can."

McClelland is one of the game's best umpires, but he had a very bad night. It happens. But it's happened too often this postseason, and the question is: What can be done to improve the situation?

First of all, umpires should be assigned to the postseason on the basis of merit. As it is now, various requirements that umpires can't work consecutive postseason series prohibit that. Those requirements should and probably will be changed this winter.

As McClelland demonstrated, however, having good umpires isn't always enough. Which is why another layer of replay needs to be added.

I generally do not favor increased instant replay. One, as Joe Girardi says, it will disrupt the game's flow and the flow is already glacial in the postseason. Secondly, replay almost always will wind up going against your team. How this is possible, I don't know, but that's just the way it is.

Nonetheless, there should be a league official in a video booth who can quickly overrule an obvious mistake. I'm not talking about a bang-bang play at first base or a play at home that has to be rerun multiple times from multiple angles at various speeds before you know precisely what happened. I'm not even talking about calls like Tuesday night's on Swisher.

I'm talking about obvious plays like the Mauer ball down the line or the Posada-Cano tag play or the Jeffrey Maier home run ball that only make umpires look bad when they aren't overturned.

Think of this replay official not as a judge but as a friendly editor. I'm often saved from embarrassing errors by editors who correct a silly typo or clear up a brain fart by pointing out that it's Roy Halladay who pitches for Toronto and Matt Holliday who plays outfield for St. Louis. We all make mistakes like this occasionally and it's nice to have someone correct them before we look bad. That's all the replay official would be doing: Pointing out an obvious mistake before it causes any harm or embarrassment.

It would make sure the game is called as accurately as possible, which would benefit the teams and their fans. And it would also benefit the umpires. After all, wouldn't an ump rather have someone help him out by overturning a bad call rather than let him endure sleepless nights, hate mail and years of heckling from outraged fans?

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com