Sorry Buster, Selig Should Not Overturn the Botched Home Run Call

Trailing 4-3 with two outs in the ninth inning last night against the Indians, Adam Rosales hit a fly ball deep to left field that was initially ruled as a double.  Oakland’s manager Bob Melvin requested a review and after reviewing the play on instant replay, the umpires determined that the correct call had been made and Rosales remained on second base.  Unfortunately for the umpires, the instant replays shown on television appeared to clearly show that the ball actually traveled over the top of the wall, struck a railing, and careened back into play.   The correct call should have been a home run.

Oakland Athletics Adam Rosales

Adam Rosales thought he hit a game tying home run last night, but, even after reviewing the play, it was ruled a double. (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

In the wake of the umpires making an incorrect call even after utilizing instant replay, ESPN’s Buster Olney argues that “action is needed” and that the Commissioner must “use his powers and overturn the call.”  Olney advocates that, in order to ensure the integrity of the replay system, the Commissioner must change the call to a home run and then resume the game from that point in the ninth inning.   Olney contends that there is precedent for such a decision and cites to the infamous George Brett “pine tar game” for support.  (UPDATE: Ken Rosenthal takes a similar position over at Fox Sports.)

Let me preface this by saying that I enjoy reading Olney’s articles, and I read his blog daily.  However, in this instance, I vehemently disagree with his position.  What’s more, I believe that changing the call would be deleterious to the game of baseball’s integrity and create an unworkable precedent.

First, it is worth noting that under Major League Baseball’s replay rules, once a replay is requested, the play cannot be protested.  Thus, there is no mechanism by which the A’s can protest the call or seek league intervention.  That is why Olney calls on Commissioner Bud Selig to alter the call.

Second, even if such a process for initiating a formal protest existed, the protest would be denied based on the Official Baseball Rules and the instant replay policy.  Rule 4.19 states:

“Each league shall adopt rules governing procedure for protesting a game, when a manager claims that an umpire’s decision is in violation of these rules. No protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire.  In all protested games, the decision of the League President shall be final.  Even if it is held that the protested decision violated the rules, no replay of the game will be ordered unless in the opinion of the League President the violation adversely affected the protesting team’s chances of winning the game.”

When instant replay was formally introduced in baseball, the Commissioner’s Office explained:  “The decision to reverse a call will be at the sole discretion of the crew chief. The standard used by the crew chief when reviewing a play will be whether there is clear and convincing evidence that the umpire’s decision on the field was incorrect and should be reversed.”  Therefore, pursuant to Major League Baseball’s replay policy, any decision made after instant replay is a “judgment decision by the umpire” and cannot be protested.

Third, aside from the procedural issues, I submit that, contrary to Olney’s position, altering the call would have a negative effect on the integrity of the game and would contravene established precedent which holds that an umpire’s decision after consulting instant replay is a “judgment call.”

In 1999, nine years before instant replay was adopted in baseball, a dispute arose during a Marlins-Nationals game regarding whether Cliff Floyd’s drive to left field was a home run or a double.  Greg Gibson, the second base umpire, ruled it a double but after the Marlins argued, Frank Pulli, the crew chief, changed the call to a home run.  However, while the Cardinals were arguing, Pulli reviewed replays of the hit on television cameras near the Marlin dugout.  Based on the replays he saw, he ultimately changed the call back to a double.

The Marlins formally protested the use of a television replay, but the National League President, Len Coleman, denied the protest.  While he agreed that Pulli should not have consulted the television monitors when making that determination, the determination as to whether Floyd’s hit was a home run or a double was ultimately a “judgment call” and, per the explicit rules, could not be overturned with protests.  Thus, even though the umpire’s methods for making a determination were incorrect, the fact that the call was ultimately a “judgment decision” by the umpire precluded any formal protest.

A few years ago, Hunter Pence, who was on Philadelphia at the time, hit a ball to right field that was ruled a double on the field.  After consulting instant replay, the umpires ruled that Pence was actually out because the right fielder would have caught the ball if not for fan interference.  The Phillies lodged a formal protest with the National League.  The protest was denied as impermissible under the rules because the decision made after reviewing the instant replay as to whether the right fielder would have caught the ball is a judgment call and cannot be protested. 

As the above examples demonstrate, stepping in and changing Rosales’s hit to a home run would contravene the actual precedent involving protests of decisions made after instant replay.   Such a decision would clearly alter the landscape going forward and would allow the Commissioner to insert his judgment in place of an umpire.  This would create an unworkable standard.

Finally, Olney’s reference to the pine tar game as precedent to support a unilateral determination by the commissioner to change the call to a home run and resume play is misplaced.  Initially the Royals’ protest of the pine tar game was not heard by the Commissioner but, in keeping with the rules, was heard by the American League President, Lee MacPhail.  In that game, after George Brett hit a two-run homerun to take the lead in the ninth inning, Yankee manager Billy Martin asked to have Brett’s bat examined.  Rule 1.10(c), at that time, stated that pine tar on a bat may not exceed 18 inches, and that any such bat must be removed from the game.  Rule 6.06 also stated that the penalty for hitting an illegally batted ball was for the batter to be declared out.  The umpires combined the two rules to determine that Brett’s bat violated Rule 1.10(c) and that, consequently, he should be out for illegally hitting a baseball pursuant to Rule 6.06.

After a protest was lodged, MacPhail reversed the decision and restored Brett’s home run.  In so doing, he explained that the purpose of the pine tar rule had nothing to do with giving the batter an illegal advantage.  The purpose of the rule was to prevent batted balls being discolored with pine tar, which would require the ball to be replaced more often during the course of the game.  MacPhail held that Brett had not altered his bat to gain an advantage, and, therefore, should not have been called out.  Additionally, there was precedent for MacPhail’s decision.   In 1975, the Angels sought to have John Mayberry called out after hitting a home run for utilizing too much pine tar, but the umpires did not.  MacPhail denied the Angels’ protest, holding that the intent of the rule was to prevent baseballs from being discolored and Mayberry’s excessive use of pine tar did not affect the competitive balance of the game.

As such, after the protest of the pine tar game, MacPhail was not reviewing a discretionary decision by the umpire crew (i.e., fair/foul, safe/out, home run/double).  The American League President addressed whether the umpires’ interpretation of a rule was correct.  In other words, he was reviewing whether the umpire crew had correctly applied the established rules.  He was not weighing in on an umpire’s discretionary decision.  In last night’s A’s games, there is no allegation that the umpires misinterpreted or misapplied established rules.  Rather, the issue is that the umpires incorrectly ruled a home run to be a double.  This, by its very nature, is a judgment decision that cannot be protested or overturned.

Another significant distinction that Olney overlooks is the fact that in the pine tar game, there were two outs when Brett hit his home run.  After he was called out by the umpires, the game was over and no further at bats occurred.  Last night, after Rosales doubled, three more players had at bats in the ninth inning as the A’s loaded the bases before closer Chris Perez finally retired the side.  Selig would therefore not only have to change Rosales’s double to a home run but he would also have to delete the next three at bats from the record book.   This type of action would not only be extraordinary but would likely exceed the reach of the Commissioner’s powers.  Indeed, in 2010, amidst the outcry over the Jim Joyce blown call during Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game, Selig declined to wipe out Jason Donald’s hit and Trevor Crowe’s at-bat and award Galarraga a perfect game.  (And, in that instance, there was – at least arguably – some support for allowing the Commissioner’s Office to determine what is or is not a perfect game.)  From a practical perspective, it was the right call then and is the right call now.

The decision to award Rosales a double was a judgment call that cannot be challenged or reversed under the rules of baseball.  Stepping in, as Olney advocates, to change the ruling after-the-fact and wipe out the three at-bats that occurred after the disputed double would set a horrendous precedent; one that would expose baseball to numerous potential headaches in the future.  For example, the only reason this issue is even being discussed is because the call happened with two outs in the ninth inning in a one-run game.  Would there be this kind of outcry if the Rosales hit had occurred in the second inning and the game played on with the Indians eventually winning by one run?  Would people actually be arguing that the Commissioner should reverse the call, the remaining seven innings should be stricken from the history books, and play should resume from the point of the missed call?  No, they would not.

There is an old adage in the legal profession:  “Bad facts make bad law.”  The fact that Rosales’s hit occurred with two outs in the ninth and would have tied the game is an example of bad facts.  People think that correcting the call though any means necessary would be the “right” thing to do.  However, doing so would establish an awful precedent for future cases.   What if the home run only cut the opposing team’s lead to one run?  What if the home run occurred in the eighth inning?  Or the seventh?  Where would the line be drawn?

At the end of the day, the call cannot be reversed and the game should not be resumed.  The only take-away from last night’s situation should be that (if Angel Hernandez is believed and that the angles the umpires reviewed proved to be inconclusive) baseball may need to review the instant replay system and potentially update the equipment that is being utilized to ensure that the umpiring crew is in the best position to make the correct determination.

(However, as football has discovered and baseball is slowly realizing, the use of instant replay is not always infallible.  Even with replay, the correct call is not always made and, oftentimes, what is the “correct” call is debatable.  But, these are topics for a different day and a different post.)

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