It’s true: Umpires get mad at you when they mess up. It doesn’t matter to whom “you” is referencing in this instance, because it’s always true: Umpires get mad at you when they mess up. Umpires are salty dudes, and they’re particularly salty when interviewed because the only time they’re interviewed—the only time they’re allowed to be interviewed—is when they mess up, at which point they’re mad at you for interviewing them and for questioning their authority, which is absolute and infinite, and if you question it, how dare you come into my locker room with a recorder and a tucked-in shirt and question me?
Angel Hernandez, who is stupid, blew a call last night in the ninth inning of the A’s-Indians game. Adam Rosales hit a ball initially ruled a double, and video evidence clearly showed it was a home run. Hernandez, the crew chief, inspected the video evidence and maintained it was a double. The home run, which would have tied the game in the ninth inning with two out, was a double, Oakland wasn’t able to move Rosales around to score, and the A’s lost by one run.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle was the pool reporter who interviewed Hernandez after the game—when officials are interviewed, instead of answering questions from all reporters interested, the pool of reporters is to select one representative who does the interview then makes sure all reporters interested get the quotes—and Hernandez was as cooperative with the interviewer as expected. He told Slusser she could not record audio of the interview, and this is a sampling of how the interview went:
I asked several questions about the angles available and the quality of the replay equipment but he repeated only that they did not find that there was enough evidence to reverse the call. I also asked if he believes that it would be better for a centralized office to review plays, much the way the NHL does in New York, and he declined to answer, referring me to the league office.
I’ve been the pool reporter assigned to interview an umpire before. Only once, actually. It was during an NCAA Tournament regional last June in a game in which Kent State clinched a super regional berth against Kentucky. It was a big game. Kent State won 3-2 on a three-run home run in the eighth inning that, upon video inspection, was not a home run.
Two things made that situation different than Wednesday’s in Cleveland: It was even harder to tell in real-time that the ball was not a home run, and because it’s the NCAA, instant replay is not allowed. Still, the umpire I interviewed, the assistant crew chief named Travis Katzenmeier (as the officials rotated throughout the series, the crew chief was the reserve for this particular game and not on the field), was mad. He stared at me so cold and spoke so flat, I may as well have not been there at all. I was an inanimate interlocutor as he attempted to justify what was, at best, lazy umpiring. I was a mirror.
Umpires are funny. Even when they know they’ve missed a call, they stand with conviction that the missed call, which they know they missed, was the right call. In what other profession is that an acceptable means of decision-making? This blog post would be a disaster if every word I rolled off was written purely instinctually with no backspacing (I backspaced six times writing this one sentence and once writing this parenthetical phrase).
I consider myself an OK writer, as I’m sure Angel Hernandez and Travis Katzenmeier and many, many others consider themselves fine umpires. In my profession, information and clarity are priorities, so I backspace and edit and constantly self-evaluate as I’m writing so that I may do my job better. Sometimes, changes have to be made after publication, and that’s fine. In umpiring, it seems pride and authority are largely on the same priority plane as proper rules enforcement. Instinct is final. First is last and no other shred of information, no matter how relevant or inconclusive, may supersede. May we all toil infinitely in the ninth circle of Hell for suggesting otherwise.
It’s difficult to say what Travis Katzenmeier and his crew in Gary, Ind., would have done that night were they allowed the relative luxury of video instant replay. As you may read pasted below in the full story I wrote from that night, the video we saw (the only camera that was on in the entire ballpark) conclusively showed it was not a home run. Then again, the video we saw Wednesday in Cleveland showed that Adam Rosales did hit a home run.
I went to a performing arts high school. I was a music major. At a performing arts high school around music majors (most of whom are very talented but some of whom clearly got in because they had a talented older sibling who flourished in the program, so maybe they’ll figure it out before it’s too late), you’re bound to run into at least one kid who says he has perfect pitch but totally doesn’t have perfect pitch. Ask him to sing a D, and he sings something else entirely. What he sings is hardly even a note. His voice cracks a little bit, and he kind of wavers between half-steps before settling on something weirdly in between. He knows he isn’t singing a D. Somebody somewhere along the way told him he might not have perfect pitch, so he snuck into the piano lab to check his accuracy. They were right. He doesn’t have perfect pitch, but he has a reputation to uphold. That’s what’s important (especially in high school, and I’m not really saying this part sarcastically). He’ll provide hundreds of bad Es for guitar tunings, continually amazing the oblivious with a skill he doesn’t have. He is the type of person who grows up to become an umpire.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote the night I interviewed an umpire who was mad at me because he messed up.
GARY, Ind.—Kentucky’s season, one of the best in school history, came down to one swing and one umpire’s ruling. The Cats lost in an NCAA Tournament regional final Sunday, 3-2 to Kent State, ending their season. The game, brilliantly pitched by UK’s Chandler Shepherd and Kent State’s Tyler Skulina, was won on a three-run home run in the top of the eighth inning by Evan Campbell, the Golden Flashes’ center fielder.
But was it a home run?
The naked-eyed viewer perceived it as such: Left-handed Campbell turned on a fastball from UK lefty Alex Phillips, brought in specifically to get out one left-handed batter, and pulled it down the right-field line. The ball ricocheted off something—whatever it was, it was virtually indeterminable at game speed, though those in attendance had competing theories: Was it the wall? Was it a chair back or a rail beyond the wall?—and bounced back into play. First-base umpire Ken Durham immediately ruled it a home run with the authority as if it were rolling around on Interstate 90.
It was the first homer hit in six games at the Gary Regional in US Steel Yard, a park as oppressive to home runs as any college baseball team could encounter. The warning track had hardly been challenged to that point in the weekend, so this was big. But was it a home run?
As stated above, the ball bounced back into play toward UK right fielder Cameron Flynn. Flynn fielded the ball out of the air and didn’t hesitate throwing it back toward the infield; he had the same level of conviction that it was in play as Durham had that it wasn’t.
“I thought it hit the guard rail and came back and then turned around to get the ball, and the umpire called a home run,” Flynn said.
The question was: Did the ball ricochet off a point below, on or above the yellow line along the wall? Was it a home run?
According to assistant crew chief Travis Katzenmeier, a ball must clear the yellow line to be a home run at US Steel Yard. “It must leave the stadium,” Katzenmeier said after the game. If the ball hits the wall on or below the yellow line, it’s in play.
A quirk in the construction of the right-field wall at US Steel Yard obscured the judgment on Campbell’s shot. The wall from its base to the yellow line is about 10 feet tall, but a foot or so at the top of the wall is a chain-link fence; this is the area that Flynn described as the “guard rail.” The chain-link fence does not run on the same vertical plane as the actual wall. It’s offset, running parallel, with a small gap between the two not big enough to fit a baseball. It’s possible for a ball to ricochet off one into the other.
Brian Milan, a sports anchor for WKYT-TV in Lexington, was filming the game Sunday night. Because the game wasn’t televised, Milam was the only videographer shooting the game. He captured it expertly, and he showed the film to members of the media after the game. Inspecting the clip in real-time was a fruitless exercise. In frame-by-frame viewing, it’s only then clear that the ball hit the guard rail right on the yellow line, ricocheted downward and bounced off the top of the padded wall, high in the air and eventually into Flynn’s glove. The ball never left the stadium, fulfilling Katzenmeier’s stated requirement for a ball in play as opposed to a ball hit for a home run.
Katzenmeier said the call was in Durham’s jurisdiction since it was down the first-base line. Katzenmeier confirmed that the umpires never conferenced and that he never doubted Durham’s call or had any reason to alter it.
“That’s correct,” Katzenmeier said. “That’s his call.”
Flynn and the Cats’ outfielders all thought the ball stayed in the park, and they huddled up with second-base umpire Adam Dowdy to tell him what they thought. UK coach Gary Henderson never left the dugout.
“My first initial thought was he couldn’t have missed three plays,” Henderson said, referring to Durham. “The law of averages is staggering for that to happen, so I just kind of assumed he got it right. That’s obviously on me at that point. No doubt about that. I should have been out there jumping up and down and hollering, but I actually thought he got it right. The guy is on the line, he should be able to get that.”
(The other two plays to which Henderson was alluding: a pick-off play at first base in which UK second baseman J.T. Riddle was called out in the third inning, and a safe call at first base in the top of the sixth when UK thought it had turned a 6-4-3 double play.)
If any rogue cameras were shooting the game, or even if the game had been televised with cameras filming every square inch of the playing field in high definition from several angles, the NCAA rules do not allow for any sort of video instant replay. The umpires could have conferenced and overturned their call—if that were the case, a ground-rule double would have been awarded, and Kent State would have scored one run, taken a 1-0 lead in the top of he eighth, and had a two-out, two-on situation—but Katzenmeier reiterated a conference was never considered.
“I didn’t have anything that would alter the first-base umpire’s decision,” he said.
Without the luxury to play through it, nobody will ever know how the game would have been impacted if it were ruled a double instead of a home run. Without the luxury to review it, the umpires were forced to make a call which no naked eye could ever perfectly perceive. Katzenmeier stood by Durham’s decision, a home run. Durham was not available for interviews, but video evidence—video evidence, again, which was not available for the rules-enforcers to inspect at any point—proved that the ground rules for home runs against the funky fence meant Campbell’s liner was not a home run. Instead the play was seen in real-time, incorrectly by one man, only a human, and it ultimately ended a team’s season.