On any given day, an umpire may make a mistake in judgment behind the plate, or botch a call somewhere in the field. In what are commonly termed “bang-bang” plays, the action on the field occurs so quickly that often even the sharpest of umpires can be confused as to whether the tag was applied before the batter reached the base. However, on very few occasions, an umpire will make a grave mistake that remains firmly in the minds of fans long after the lights have been turned out and the players have left the clubhouse. In these rare situations, only two things can be blamed: either the umpire has lost his ability to see, or the umpire has a fundamental lack of understanding of the game and its long-established rules. And with the single-handed destruction of a perfect game committed by umpire Jim Joyce last week, many may wonder where this particularly horrendous call ranks with the worst calls in the history of Major League Baseball. In an age where umpiring performances seem to be getting consistently worse, below are the ten most nightmarish umpiring calls in the history of baseball. Unfortunately, these calls were not just bad dreams.
10. The Great Pine Tar Incident
On July 24, 1983, the Royals were playing the Yankees, down 4-3 in the top of the ninth inning. There were two outs, a runner on first base, and George Brett was up to bat against Goose Gossage. Miraculously, George Brett hit a home run, ultimately giving the Royals the 5-4 victory. However, the Yankees’ manager, Billy Martin, confronted home plate umpire Tim McClelland immediately following the home run, citing an obscure rule stating that any foreign substance on a bat could extend no further than 18 inches from the knob. As a result, Tim McClelland demanded Brett’s bat be inspected for the amount of pine tar used.
After a short umpire conference, McClelland confirmed that the pine tar extended higher up the bat than allowed, finding 24 inches of pine tar on the bat. As a result of this judgment, and at the insistence of the aforementioned Billy Martin, McClelland nullified Brett’s home run and called him out. This concluded the game and resulted in the surprising Yankee’s victory. George Brett’s animated and angry reaction to this determination is an iconic image of Major League Baseball in the 1980s.
As everyone knows, a livid Brett charged full-speed out of the dugout towards umpire McClelland and had to be restrained from further action. What many may not know is the rules dictate that the only proper punishment for breaking this pine tar regulation is the removal of that particular bat from the game. In the aftermath of this controversial umpiring decision, the Royals lodged an official protest, which was subsequently upheld by American League President, Lee MacPhail. In fact, pine tar is used for gripping the bat, and has never been shown to alter a bat’s hitting characteristics. McClelland was officially deemed incorrect for ejecting Brett and canceling his home run. Finally, it was ordered that the game be re-played, beginning after the Brett home run.
When the game resumed a month later, the Royals again won 5-4. With Brett being ultimately vindicated in the controversy, it is curious that his notorious temper tantrum is the lasting image from that game, and not the utter ignorance of the rules demonstrated by umpire Tim McClelland.
9. 2007 National League Playoff Play-In Between Rockies and Padres
In the 163rd game of the 2007 season, the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres battled to see who would be the Wild Card team representing the National League. Through the entire 162 game schedule, the Rockies and Padres finished in a dead tie in the Wild Card standings. In the bottom of the 13th inning, with the Rockies down 8-6 to the Padres, outfielder Matt Holliday hit a big triple to tie the game at 8-8. So with Holliday on third and still no outs in the inning, the Padres intentionally walked power hitter Todd Helton to bring the more average Jamey Carroll to bat. In his at-bat, Carroll hit a line drive to right field, which was caught by the Padres’ Brian Giles.
After the catch, Holliday tagged up at third and tried to beat Giles’ throw to home. The throw was on target and landed in front of Padres’ catcher Michael Barrett, who blocked the plate and applied the tag. Holliday slid. Then, everyone’s favorite umpire, Tim McClelland, made the delayed safe call, resulting in the 9-8 Rockies’ victory and their entrance into the postseason. Unfortunately, replays show that Holliday clearly never touched the plate. Moreover, baseball rumors have it that Holliday himself has admitted he does not know if he touched the plate either.
8. A.J. Pierzynski’s Non-Strikeout
In Game Two of the 2005 American League Championship Series, Chicago White Sox catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, was up to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Angels’ pitcher, Kelvim Escobar. The game was tied 1-1 at the time, and there were two outs. During this at-bat, Pierzynski swung at a low pitch and missed for strike three, but was allowed to take first base after the third strike allegedly bounced out of catcher Josh Paul’s glove.
For his part, Pierzynski first took a couple of steps towards the dugout, then upon not hearing himself called out, he turn and ran to first base before a majority of the Angels even knew what had happened. However, the third strike was not dropped by the catcher, and Pierzynski should not have been allowed to take first base. Paul said after the game, “I caught the ball so I thought the inning was over.” In reality, Paul caught the ball, thought the game was over, and released the ball.
Umpire Doug Eddings never called Pierzynski out and made no audible call, although he did perform a wishy-washy clutching of the fist. Eddings did not use any no-catch signals at all during the game. Eddings later stated that he believed the ball had not been caught legally. Upon his reaching first, Pierzynski was pulled for a pinch runner, and ultimately came around to score the winning run. The White Sox went on to win their first World Series since 1917, so it is probably pretty easy to guess that Doug Eddings is a well-liked person in the city of Chicago. The good news, however, is that since then, a professional umpiring mechanic has been added to indicate a specific no-catch signal or a “no catch” verbalization after an uncaught third strike.
7. Interference in the 1975 World Series
Many Red Sox fans wholeheartedly believe that a non-call on player interference cost the team the 1975 World Series. In Game Three, the awesomely-named Cesar Geronimo of the Cincinnati Reds led off the 10th inning with a single. Then, pinch hitter Ed Armbrister dropped down a sacrifice bunt that bounced high in front of home plate.
When Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk attempted to field the ball, Armbrister intentionally collided with him, instigating a wild throw to second base in an attempt to throw out the lead runner, Mr. Geronimo. The Red Sox immediately protested that Armbrister should have been called out for interference by home plate umpire Larry Barnett, as he clearly interfered with Fisk as he attempted to field the ball. They also argued that Geronimo should have to return to first base. This in-game appeal was rejected, and Fisk was charged with an error on the play.
After this dramatic play, Joe Morgan hit the single that scored Geronimo. This gave the Reds the 6-5 victory. At least Red Sox fans can forgive and forget, as rumor has it Barnett received several death threats. It should also be noted that Barnett was booed in every subsequent appearance at Fenway Park, until he finally retired in 1999.
6. Ron Gant Gets Pushed Off First Base
In the third inning of Game Two of the 1991 World Series, the Atlanta Braves’ Ron Gant singled to left field, taking a wide turn as he rounded first. Gant was headed towards second when a surprise throw into the infield forced him to retreat quickly back to first. However, the quick-footed Gant returned safely back to the bag, albeit slightly off-balanced. The Twins’ big first baseman, Kent Hrbek, applied a “tag,” which was more-or-less a blatant attempt to push Gant off first base. Hrbek, as a much larger man, was easily able to accomplish this illegal goal and Gant’s leg came off the base. Announcers Jack Buck and Tim McCarver were adamant that Hrbek had pulled Gant off the bag at first.
Unfortunately, the umpire at first base that night, Drew Coble, mistakenly called Gant out, believing that Gant’s momentum had pulled him off the base, which would have been grounds for him being called out. Coble later said that his judgment was that Gant was falling over as he headed back to the base, his own momentum caused him to get tangled with Hrbek and that was what caused him to be out. The Braves lost Game Two by a score of 3-2, and ended up losing the World Series in seven games.
5. The Jeffrey Maier Incident
Few can forget the impact a 12-year-old Yankees fan had on Game One of the 1996 American League Championship Series, especially not fans of the Baltimore Orioles. This single at-bat also became the beginning act of an illustrious playoff career for then-rookie shortstop, Derek Jeter. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Yankees were losing 4-3, and the phenom, Jeter, was up to bat. Jeter proceeded to hit a long fly ball back to deep right field. As outfielder Tony Tarasco of the Baltimore Orioles backed up to make the catch against the wall, Yankees’ fan Jeffrey Maier, aged 12, clearly reached down and deflected the ball into the stands.
The rules state that baseball fans are permitted to catch balls hit into the stands, but if “a spectator reaches out of the stands, or goes on the playing field, and touches a live ball,” then spectator interference should be called. It was a simple call of fan interference, which would have most likely rendered Jeter out. In fact, replays at the time unmistakably showed Maier’s arm reaching far below the top of the wall to retrieve what, in reality, was Jeter’s fly ball out. Unfortunately, right field umpire Rich Garcia inexplicably called it a home run, tying the game at 4-4. After viewing the replay, Garcia finally admitted that there was spectator interference, although he still believed the ball was not catchable. However, the legitimacy of Jeter’s home run has been widely disputed by experts ever since.
The game ended with a Yankees’ victory in 11 innings, when Bernie Williams hit a walk-off home run, and the Yankees ultimately won the series in five games. Little Jeffrey Maier, although probably not so little anymore, should have been named the series MVP.
4. Umpire Forgets Rules in 2009 American League Championship Series
The Most Valuable Player, if you will, of crummy umpiring is clearly Mr. Tim McClelland, who is now making his third appearance on our list. To many, missed calls involving the eye are excusable, as human beings are inherently imperfect. However, when a veteran umpire like McClelland shows a complete ignorance of baseball’s rules, fans worldwide should be horrified. During the top of the fifth inning, in what many immediately labeled, “The Worst Call of All Time,” the New York Yankees’ outfielder, Melky Cabrera, hit a ground ball back to the Angels’ pitcher, Darren Oliver, when runners were at second and third.
Oliver threw the ball immediately to home, thereby catching the base runner, catcher Jorge Posada, in a rundown between third and home. As Posada was caught in this pickle, the Yankees’ Robinson Cano appropriately moved from second to third on the play. However, when the Angels’ catcher, Mike Napoli, finally caught up with Posada near third base, he noticed that Cano was inexplicably standing off the bag. Napoli alertly and correctly tagged Cano and then turned back and tagged Posada, who was also standing absentmindedly off the bag, past the foul line.
Anyone with a working knowledge of the Major League Baseball rules would know that this base running brain fart should have rendered both Yankees’ runners out. However, our hero in this tale, umpire Tim McClelland, who happened to be standing right in front of the play, ruled only Posada out and called Cano safe at third. Coincidentally, McClelland did not see what everyone else in the park and in America saw that night. Further, the insanely dumbfounding call made by McClelland should have been overruled by one of the other five umpires in the game that night. Later, McClelland admitted, “[The replay] showed that Cano was off the bag when he was tagged. I did not see that for whatever reason… I’m just out there trying to do my job and do it the best I can.”
Luckily, no runs were scored in the inning; however, the thought that this lowly umpiring exists in the MLB playoffs is disturbing, to say the least. And for many, when you’re “best” includes making the most asinine of errors in an important playoff series, then you’re best simply isn’t good enough.
3. The Chuck Knoblauch Phantom Tag
The fan reaction to this horrendous call in Game Four of the 1999 American League Championship Series was enough to make the oft-frustrated Boston Red Sox fans throw garbage onto the field in protest. In this controversial play occurring in the ninth inning, the Red Sox’ John Valentin hit a routine ground ball to the second baseman, causing the man previously standing on first, Jose Offerman, to proceed towards second. The Yankees’ second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, fielded the ball, tagged the runner, and then threw the ball to first base. Or so it seemed. Actually, when Knoblauch attempted to tag the runner, he clearly missed him by a few gigantic feet. It was not even close. However, second base umpire Tim Tschida immediately affirmed that Offerman was out and that the inning-ending double play had been successfully turned.
Replays from every possible angle repeatedly showed that Knoblauch missed the runner by what amounts to a mile in the baseball world. In reality, only Valentin should have been called out, and this with the throw to first base. If the correct call had been made, beloved shortshop, Nomar Garciaparra, would have been up with a runner in scoring position and two outs, thereby giving the team an excellent chance to score some runs.
The call halted the potential rally begun by the Red Sox and the final score of the game was 9-2. In fact, many Red Sox faithful cite this as the play that single-handedly destroyed their chances of beating their mortal enemies, the New York Yankees, and moving on to the 1999 World Series. In a meaningless, after-the-fact admission that offered little solace to Red Sox Nation, umpire Tim Tschida admitted he blew the call.
2. An Imperfect Call in Armando Galarraga’s Perfect Game
The blown call at first base committed by long-time umpire Jim Joyce stands as an open wound to baseball fans the world over. On June 2, 2010, 28-year-old Venezuelan pitcher, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers, was on the cusp of completing only the 21st perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball.
With the first at-bat at the top of the ninth inning, outfielder Austin Jackson made a miraculous, running, over-the-shoulder catch preserving the perfect game bid, and it looked to be the play of the game. After another ground ball, there were two outs and Galarraga was one out away from history. On a routine, slowly-hit ground ball hit by the Cleveland Indians’ Jason Donald that pulled first baseman Miguel Cabrera off the bag and forced Galarraga himself to cover, Cabrera fielded the ball cleanly, threw the ball to Galarraga, who was now covering first, and got Donald out at first base. At least this is the way the play appeared to fans watching the game nationwide.
Shockingly, umpire Jim Joyce emphatically called Donald save at first base, ending Galarraga’s perfect game bid on the 27th out, with two outs in the ninth inning. Replays, both in real-time and slow motion, showed the throw beating Donald to first base by a full half-step. The replays also showed Galarraga’s foot firmly on the bag at first. A stunned Galarraga could only look towards Joyce in disbelief. The reaction of his teammates and manager, Jim Leyland, was one of unmistakable anger. During the game, Joyce defended his call, stating that Donald had beaten the throw. This was clearly not the case, as Jim Joyce himself regrettably admitted following his review of the play immediately after the game. However, not only did Joyce rip Galarraga’s perfect game away from him, but he also undid the records for the fewest pitches in a perfect game since 1908, the shortest perfect game since Sandy Koufax in 1965, and the second most perfect games in one decade, behind only the 1990s.
1. The Denkinger Call
The call most commonly held as the worst in the history of baseball occurred in Game Six of the 1985 World Series between the Midwest’s own St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals. The culprit, Don Denkinger, was the first base umpire. The series was at 3-2, with the St. Louis Cardinals on the verge of World Series triumph. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Royals losing 1-0, the Royals’ lead-off batter, Jorge Orta, hit a routine, slow ground ball up the line to veteran first baseman Jack Clark, who cleanly fielded the ball and threw it, without incident, to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was now covered the bag at first. He was clearly out and St. Louis should have been celebrating their second World Series win of the 1980s. Except, the umpire making the big call at first, Don Denkinger, ruled Orta safe, despite the fact he was out by almost an entire half-step.
Later in this unjustly continued inning, and with the Cardinals reeling, the Royals got runs in scoring position with a passed ball by the Cardinals’ catcher, Darrell Porter. And then, after intentionally walking the bases loaded, the Royals’ pinch hitter, Dane Iorg, hit the game-winning, two-run single with two outs, securing the comeback victory for the Royals. After a lengthy and heated argument involving the Cardinals’ manager and players, Denkinger refused to reverse his call, and he continually refused to admit he was wrong until a meeting later convened by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. Making matters worse, Denkinger became a further distraction while working behind the plate the following game. Pitcher Todd Worrell would later compare the idea of Don Denkinger working behind home plate to putting a stick of dynamite back there and lighting it. The Cardinals’ frustrations were obvious throughout the game, and the presence of Denkinger behind the plate clearly affected the Cardinals’ game-play. By way of example, ace pitcher John Tudor gave up five earned runs and four walks in only two and one-third innings. Then, a disgusted Tudor punched an electrical fan with his pitching hand. Television cameras caught the Cardinals’ manager, Whitey Herzog, screaming and belittling Denkinger from the Cardinals’ dugout.
Pitcher Joaquín Andújar exploded twice over Denkinger’s calls at the plate during the fifth inning. He was ejected, along with Herzog, after a heated argument with Denkinger regarding the strike zone. Herzog also informed Denkinger that had he gotten “the call” right in Game Six, the Cardinals would not have even been subjected to a seventh game in the first place. To complete the team’s emotional meltdown, Andújar later smashed a toilet in the clubhouse. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals lost Game Seven by a score of 11-0. Most Cardinals fans blame Denkinger for this defeat, believing the team was simply unable to regroup from the blatant injustice committed against them.
Two St. Louis disc jockeys went so far as to reveal Denkinger’s telephone number and home address. Ultimately, it is undisputed that the horrendous call made by Denkinger, which in essence stole the Series from the Cardinals, dramatically and unfairly altered the outcome of 1985 World Series. Today, a retired Don Denkinger is held in esteem as the go-to source when it comes to bad umpiring, giving his valuable insight into the anatomy of bad calls and supporting baseball’s need for widespread instant replay.
Umpires are a pure, “human element,” original to the game of baseball, but they are not in existence to otherwise determine the outcome of a game. Umpires are not supposed to be actors within the game, but rather, they are theoretically there to maintain order and fairness. When umpires become a liability detrimental to the game, as presently seems to be the case, it is time for the league to change its archaic practices.
About the author:
Dana Bashor has absolutely no formal writing credentials whatsoever, but that doesn’t stop her from writing on topics that catch her attention. Dana loves to write and contribute to the World Wide Web. Follow her on Twitter @Dana_Bashor