This post was originally going to be my column for the new issue of Negative Waves, but since we didn’t have enough content for a new issue, we’ve decided to postpone until next week. So, instead I’m posting this here.
Last night the Chicago White Sox beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by a score of 2-1 on a double off the bat of third baseman Joe Crede that drove in pinch runner Pablo Ozuna from second base. For those of you who didn’t see the game, that play was preceded by one of the more controversial moments baseball has seen in awhile. It’s a play that will probably be talked about for some time. Especially if the White Sox win this series and go on to the World Series.
Let me recap what happened. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski struck out swinging at a breaking ball that was low and out of the strike zone. The swing was feeble and the pitch was good, clearly fooling Pierzynski. However, the controversy began when Angels catcher Josh Paul ran toward the dugout, flipping the ball back toward the pitchers mound.
The only problem was, the umpire hadn’t called Pierzynki out. He wheeled around in the batters box and alertly ran down to first base as a batter should when a catcher drops a third strike and first base is open. But the other big problem was that Paul actually caught the ball cleanly, it never touched the dirt, so Pierzynski shouldn’t have had the right to run to first.
As it happened, however, the umpire couldn’t tell that the ball was caught. He thought it hit the dirt. He made his motion indicating that the batter swung and missed the ball, and then made his motion indicating that the pitch was a strike. However, he never called the batter out.
Now here’s where all the controversy begins: everyone is confusing the umpire’s motion of calling the pitch a strike, with him calling the batter out. In fact, this is the same motion the umpire made on every single pitch throughout the game when a batter swung and missed a pitch. Regardless of whether or not it was strike one, strike two, or strike three, the umpire would motion to his right indicating a swing without contact, then close and pump his fist in front of him, indicating the pitch was a strike. He would make that same motion were it strike one in the first inning, as he did when it was strike three in the ninth inning.
So the issue that everyone is having is that it appears as though the ump is calling Pierzynski out. It appears that the inning is over. But he’s NOT calling him out. He is only calling a strike.
So the second issue that everyone is having is that this ball never actually touched the ground, therefore it should be a clean strike three and no play should be necessary at first base. This is absolutely true. The umpire missed that call. And that sucks. But umpires in every sport on every level miss a call on occasion. It’s part of the game and it’s unfortunate for the Angels that it had to happen in the bottom of the ninth inning and would eventually lead to the winning run crossing the plate.
However, I have to argue a few points here. First of all, when Josh Paul caught that ball, his mitt did hit the ground. Understand that Josh Paul was not the starting catcher. He’s a reserve catcher. (My friend Mike Beecher from Houston also claims to have once struck him out in a little league game as they both grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.) But regardless of how long Paul had been in the game, when you catch a pitch that results in strike three and your glove hits the ground, you have to be aware that the umpire may not have the best vantage point to make the call correctly. To put it simply, he had to make the tag.
How many times do you watch a baseball game during the regular season and you see a catcher snag a ball on strike three and nonchalantly place a tag on the batter? Probably at least once a game. It even happens at times when it appears that the catcher fielded the ball cleanly. But yet the catcher touches the batter with the ball nonetheless, just to be safe. I imagine that this is something catchers are taught from a very early instructional level. It’s something that Josh Paul should have done instinctually, regardless of whether or not he knew he made the catch.
I will admit that it seems wrong to put the blame on a player who executed the play perfectly. He made the catch, Pierzynski was out. So Paul shouldn’t have to shoulder the blame. But had he made the simple motion that catchers do in their sleep, this whole situation would have been avoided.
Second of all, the Angels were in a situation where they left the door open for factors other than their play on the field to come into play. The game was 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. They had opportunities to put runs on the board and they couldn’t. Granted, Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle threw a gem, giving up only five hits in the complete game, but still. If this exact scenario happens in the second inning, it may still be a big deal, but not nearly as much.
And credit has to be given to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for making the moves to put the Sox in a position to win this game. He pulled Pierzynski out of the game replacing him with the faster Ozuna. Guillen then ordered Ozuna to steal second, which he did successfully. Crede did the rest by blasting a double off the left field wall scoring Ozuna for the win.
The thing is, the Angels had two strikes on Crede, too. So blame the pitcher for serving up a split-fingered pitch that hung up a little too long. If they get Crede out then none of this matters. If anything, then the Sox are in a hole because they have their clutch hitting starting catcher out of the game.
Was the call a bad one? Yes! It was a clean third strike and Pierzynski should never have been on first. Is it the ump’s fault that the Angels lost that game? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Perhaps it’s his fault that the ninth inning was extended, but he’s not the one throwing the pitches. He simply couldn’t tell whether or not the ball hit the dirt. I mean if you watch the replay, that ball is less than half an inch off the ground. It’s almost impossible to call.
Josh Paul needs to make the tag.
Remember when Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls and that season the Bulls were beat by the New York Knicks in the playoffs? Do you remember the phantom foul that was called on Scottie Pippen, ultimately costing the Bulls the series? These sorts of things happen all the time. They are as much a part of the game as a homerun, or a touchdown, or a free throw. We as fans have to accept them and move on. Scottie didn’t foul that guy, but he was certainly close and shouldn’t have been. He should have known better. Paul should have known better.
It wasn’t Steve Bartman’s fault that the Cubs lost that game that night in 2003. Moises Alou is more to blame than Bartman for reacting the way he did. He’s a professional baseball player and should have known better than to act like that, rattling the other fans and his teammates. But if anyone is to blame for the loss of that game, it’s Alex Gonzalez for committing one of the most underrated errors in the history of post-season baseball. But the Cubs still had a chance to win and they didn’t. Things happen in sports all the time that people overreact to and want to blame their team’s shortcomings on. But it’s not that easy.
Put yourself in a position where you can’t get beat by the incidental things. Did the White Sox steal a game? Maybe. Should they feel bad about that win? Positively not.
There are probably more people out there who disagree with this than don’t, but the fact is, I’m right. Seriously though, whichever side of the fence you’re on, I think we can all agree that we’ll be hearing about this on sports radio for way too long. I’m already sick of it.