For more than a decade, umpire Ron Kulpa was best known for being head-butted back in 2000 by Carl Everett — then with the Boston Red Sox — in an argument over the inner boundary of the batter’s box.
Kulpa took a spot alongside Don Denkinger on Saturday night as an umpire turned World Series scapegoat.
Baseball is a game of imperfections, except when it comes to umpiring.
Kulpa wasn’t perfect in the top of the fourth inning of Game 3 of the World Series between St. Louis and Texas.
Albert Pujols led off the inning with a single, Matt Holliday followed with a routine double-play ground ball to short. Elvis Andrus made an easy feed to second baseman Ian Kinsler for the force of Pujols, but Kinsler’s throw to first was high and toward home plate, pulling Mike Napoli off the bag.
Napoli did catch the ball and replays showed he tagged Holliday well before Holliday got to first base, but Kulpa called Holliday safe. That set up a four-run St. Louis rally, and created a furor among fans, who quickly noted that Kulpa is a St. Louis native.
There also was an immediate whine to expand replays for baseball, but even replays aren’t perfect, either. It depends on the angles whether conclusive evidence to overturn a call.
The impact of Kulpa’s call remains to be seen.
The World Series isn’t over. Should the Rangers wind up claiming a championship, Kulpa will become a sidenote. Should the Rangers lose the best-of-seven showdown, however, Kulpa will undoubtedly become the fall guy from the Rangers’ view.
Denkinger knows all about that.
One of the most professional umpires of his generation, Denkinger is best remembered as the umpire who cost St. Louis the 1985 World Series.
Denkinger mistakenly called Jorge Orta safe at first on a ninth-inning ground ball in Game 6 that opened the way for Kansas City to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory, setting up Game 7, which Kansas City won 11-0.
Check out the Internet for controversial World Series calls, and Denkinger is at the top of every list. It hangs with him just like Kulpa will be scarred by the safe call on Holliday forever.
Umpires are on their own. They don’t have home parks. The fans are cheering for the Cardinals or the Rangers. Umpires? They generally have the image of a necessary evil.
And when they make a bad call in a game of the impact of a World Series game, they are given the bulk of the blame for what goes wrong.
Kulpa will have to carry an unfair share of the blame for that four-run fourth inning on Saturday, just like Denkinger is unfairly blamed for St. Louis losing the 1985 World Series to Kansas City.
Yes, Kulpa blew the call, but the Rangers had ample opportunity to get the job done if they performed their job as flawlessly as umpires are expected to perform.
Even with Kulpa’s call, there was one out and a runner on first.
After Lance Berkman singled Holliday to second, was it Kulpa’s fault that instead of challenging David Freese, Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison got predictable? The fifth consecutive pitch away that Harrison threw Freese, the Cardinals third baseman drove into right field for a run-scoring double.
After an intentional walk to Yadier Molina to load the bases, and bring up the left-handed hitting John Jay to face the left-handed Harrison, was it Kulpa’s fault that Jay hit a ground ball to Napoli (a catcher by trade who Texas manager Ron Washington decided to play at first), and Napoli made a wild throw to the plate, allowing two more runs to score?
Think about it. If Kinsler makes a routine throw on a routine double-play pivot, there’s no debate. If Napoli makes a solid throw home on a ground ball to first, the impact of the call is diminished.
The players didn’t do their job, but Kulpa becomes the villain.
It goes with the job of an umpire.
Did the fact he called Orta safe, mean that Jack Clark had to misplay a Steve Balboni foul pop up, giving Balboni another swing, which he turned into a single?
Did Denkinger’s call mean that after a Jim Sundberg sacrifice bunt attempt turned into a force at third, that catcher Darrell Porter had to allow a passed ball, which led to an intentional walk of Hal McRae, setting the stage for Dane Iorg’s two-run game-winning single?
Did it mean that Porter had to short-arm a tag attempt to Sundberg, as he slid in with the game-winning run?
Did it mean that the Cardinals had to fold in Game 7, John Tudor knocked out early, and both pitcher Joaquin Andujar and manager Whitey Herzog ejected in the midst of a six-run fifth that put the Royals up 11-0, which was the final score?
The Rangers had five at-bats on Saturday to ease the sting of Kulpa’s call, and they have at least two more World Series games to turn it into a sidenote.
But if the Rangers don’t do their job, fans won’t blame them. They will blame Kulpa.