(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
Armando Galarraga now toils for the Colorado Sky Sox, a step away from the big leagues but light years removed from the night that almost was.
Had an umpire’s call gone his way – the right way – in Detroit in 2010 he would be in baseball’s record books as one of a select few pitchers ever to throw a perfect game. Instead, he’ll always be known as the victim of perhaps the worst blown call of all time, a call at first base that should have ended the game but didn’t.
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It wasn’t quite so dramatic for Joe Mauer, though for Minnesota Twins fans it still smarts. His blooper that landed fair but was ruled foul in the 11th inning of a 2009 playoff game with the New York Yankees might have very well cost the Twins the game and any chance of advancing against the eventual World Series champions.
”It’s easy to look back on that,” Mauer said Friday night before the Twins played the Chicago White Sox. ”Obviously, that would’ve made a difference.”
It would have made a big difference in the 1985 World Series, too, when umpire Don Denkinger ruled that Jorge Orta of the Kansas City Royals was safe leading off the ninth inning of Game 6 in a call that clearly should have gone the other way. The Royals rallied to score two runs, winning 2-1, and took Game 7 from the St. Louis, infuriating fans so much that Denkinger was the target of death threats.
Human error may be a part of the game, but it doesn’t have to decide a game. Judging by the muted reaction to Major League Baseball’s announcement of expanded instant replay next year, that’s a position both players and fans seem to be comfortable with in an era when high definition television shows all.
Indeed, about the only question most have to the news is this: What took so long?
”I’m just happy that they’re striving to try to get all the plays right,” Mauer said. ”I haven’t really seen what exactly is going to be implemented, but I definitely like the idea of trying to get the calls right.”
Umpires have done their best to do just that for more than a century, of course, and for the most part they do get them right. But arrogance and ineptitude have gotten in the way too often, changing the outcome of games and even seasons.
Earlier this year, even instant replay didn’t stop umpires from upholding a call that a home run didn’t clear the fence in Cleveland when the video evidence showed clearly that it was a tying home run by Adam Rosales of the Oakland A’s. The new system would take that review out of the hands of the umpires onsite and let an official in the league office make the final call off of TV.
There are still some kinks to work out, and the players and umpires need to get on board. But baseball is clearly transitioning into the modern age, and you can expect instant replay on almost all calls except balls and strikes beginning next season.
It’s going to change baseball, and mostly for the better. Yes, the game will become a bit more sterile, with fewer dirt kicking, base tossing fits by irate managers. The late Earl Weaver wouldn’t recognize it, though the longtime manager of the Baltimore Orioles would surely find a way to argue something with an umpire just for the sport of it.
But it will also become more fair because, no matter what grizzled veterans of the dugout say, bad calls do not necessarily even out over time.
The question about whether it will become slower is yet to be answered, though Atlanta Braves President John Schuerholz, a member of the replay committee, said having a direct line linking the league office with ballparks should cut replay time from 3 minutes to 1 minute, 15 seconds. But get a game with five or six challenges (the plan is for one challenge per manager for first six innings, and two after that) and the game is sure to drag on longer no matter how fast the replays are worked.
Baseball has always been slow to warm to instant replay, and with good reason. Before HD television and the addition of more camera angles in stadiums it would have been inconclusive on some plays. Even now, bang-bang plays at first base can be hard to judge when replayed in super slow motion.
Umpires will also have to adjust to the idea that they are not perfect and not take an overturned call as a personal affront. If anything they should be grateful they will not be on the hook any longer for blown calls they are too proud – or too obstinate – to reverse.
Umpire Jim Joyce surely would have liked the backup in Detroit that day in 2010 when he called Cleveland’s Jason Donald safe in what should have been the last out of Galarraga’s perfect game. Joyce was devastated after finding out he blew the call and said it haunted him for a long time afterward.
Unfortunately, instant replay is not retroactive. It won’t give Galarraga his perfect game, and it won’t allow the Twins another chance to beat the Yankees.
But it will put another eye in the mix to make sure those things don’t happen again.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg