Can I Get a Witness?: Bunts Throw Umps for a Loss
Human beings are said to be the worst eyewitnesses imaginable even though they are the only creatures on Earth able to give voice to what they saw.
For instance, one person said the two bank robbers drove away in a black Chevy while another claimed it was a maroon Ford. The third witness said there were three robbers getting away in a brown pickup truck while the fourth swore there were four guys escaping in a gray mini van.
Security cameras (a bank’s instant replay system) pictured five robbers driving off in a stolen police car.
Just what should one call a quartet of witnesses like that?
Sometimes we refer to them as Major League Baseball umpires.
These men who are paid to see all and know all on MLB diamonds are, at times, about as reliable as those four who gave conflicting descriptions of a bank robbery getaway.
It happens every season and last month was no exception as this year’s MLB campaign began. Although experienced MLB umpires do good work in an often difficult job, they do mess things up from time to time, proving that instant replay is long overdue for other than home run disputes.
In a couple of cases last month umpires missed easy calls in unison when entire quartets of these witnesses/officials blew the calls. Quick instant replays would have made it possible to correct these mistakes within seconds.
Without such instant replay possible under current MLB rules, one team probably lost a game because of a bad call, and in another case no harm was done, although it conjured up memories of a historic non-home run.
Each of these situations involved a bunt.
Not Their Lucky Day
The first of these two plays was a bunt single by the Los Angeles Angels’ shortstop, Erick Aybar, with two out and the bases empty in the third inning of the New York Yankees’ home opener, Friday the 13th of last month. That day proved unlucky for the Angels as the Yanks won, 5-0.
Aybar, a switch hitter batting left-handed against the right-handed Yankee pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, moved so far forward to lay down his bunt that he stepped out of the batters box with his right or front foot. His left foot was also out of the box, planted between the batters box and home plate.
The bunt was laid down perfectly inside the third base line, catching Alex Rodriguez, the Yanks’ third baseman, playing well back. Aybar easily beat it out.
The problem is that MLB Rule 6.06 states: “A batter is out for illegal action when he hits a ball with one or both feet on the ground entirely outside the batters box.”
Mike DiMuro, the home plate umpire, did not call Aybar out for being outside the batters box. Obviously DiMuro, who has been an MLB umpire for 13 years, did not see what he should have seen.
But none of the other three umpires in that crew — James Hoye, Jim Joyce or Jim Reynolds — saw Aybar outside the batters box either. Now there was a prize quartet of witnesses. Joyce, who was the umpire at second base, was the umpire who ruined the perfect game by Detroit’s Armando Galarraga in June 2010 when he called the 27th batter for the Cleveland Indians, Jason Donald, safe at first on an infield grounder when he was actually out.
Bobby Abreu flied out to end the Angels’ third inning so that Aybar’s “single” did no harm to the Yankees despite what the umpires failed to see.
Can You See Me Now?
The other bunt in question here took place in the top of the 11th inning at Detroit’s Comerica Park, Sunday, April 22.
The Texas Rangers had the bases loaded with nobody out and the score tied at 2-2. Nelson Cruz was on third base and the batter was Alberto Gonzalez, the right-handed hitting Rangers’ third baseman. Thad Weber was pitching in relief for the Tigers.
Gonzalez laid down a squeeze bunt between the mound and third that was fielded by Weber. Cruz scored and Gonzalez was safe at first because nobody was covering first base.
The Tigers got the side out without any more scoring but lost the game, 3-2, when they could not score in the bottom of the 11th inning.
But Gonzalez’s bunt was the result of four umpires not seeing what happened before their eyes.
When Gonzalez bunted the ball, it went backward, not forward. The ball hit Gonzalez’s right thigh before he left the batters box. It then bounded forward into fair territory, appearing to these four umpires to be the well-placed bunt that Gonzalez beat out.
MLB rules stipulate that when a batted ball hits the batter while he is still in the batters box, it is a dead ball and if there are less than two strikes on the batter it is a strike.
Tim Welke, with 27 years’ experience as a MLB umpire, was behind home plate and missed the call. After the game he saw a replay and admitted the ball caromed off Gonzalez’ right leg so it should not have been a legal bunt and Cruz should have returned to third base.
Gonzalez also acknowledged the ball hit his leg. But he did the right thing as a player and ran it out when there was no umpire call of a dead ball.
This missed call probably gave the game to Texas and cost Detroit the game.
Worst Call of the Season
Welke blew another call badly last Wednesday during a Los Angeles Dodgers–Colorado Rockies game in Denver when he was the first base umpire. He called Jerry Hairston out at first when the Dodgers’ third baseman grounded to the Rockies’ third baseman, Chris Nelson, who threw way wide to first, pulling Todd Nelson, the Rockies’ first baseman, three feet off the bag.
One of the TV announcers said, as they showed the replay, “Look at this. It is the worst call you will see all season.”
In both of these cases of a bunt that should not have been a hit, instant replay would have resulted in a correction, and it would not have taken 30 seconds to resolve the matter. The same goes for Welke’s terrible call last Wednesday in Denver.
This can be done by having a fifth umpire in each crew sitting in the press box monitoring a TV screen. Since those of us watching these instances of missed calls on television were witness to instant replay before the next pitch was thrown, any fifth umpire would also see such a replay and inform the crew chief on the field to change the call.
Aybar’s bunt for a single when he was outside the batters box at Yankee Stadium last month brought back memories of a game in St. Louis, Aug. 18, 1965, between the Milwaukee Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. That was the last year the Braves played out of Milwaukee before moving south to Atlanta.
In the top of the eighth inning with the game tied, 3-3, Hank Aaron hit a ball off Curt Simmons onto the pavilion roof at the old Busch Stadium for a “home run.” But the home plate umpire, Chris Pelekoudas, said the right-handed hitting Aaron’s left foot was outside the batters box and called Aaron out, nullifying the homer.
As a result, Aaron ended his career in 1976 with “only” 755 home runs instead of 756. That was the MLB career record until Barry Bonds, playing through the “steroid era,” topped it with 762 home runs in his career that ended in 2007.
Pelekoudas did not need an assist from instant replay while Welke and DiMuro surely could use the help.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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