Leader Blues

Saturday, October 24, 2009

SPORTS >> Where would we be without umpires, refs?

There has been a whole lot of fussing about penalty flags lately.

Fans of the grid-Hogs of Arkansas, especially, are boo-hooing into their Cardinal-red hankies over the yellow ones thrown by officials in last week’s 23-20 loss to the top-ranked Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla.

The Southeastern Conference has suspended the officiating crew for bogus personal foul and pass interference calls that aided the Gators’ drive that tied it 20-20 in the fourth quarter, as well as for blown calls made in the Georgia-LSU game.

It has been that kind of week. Multiple blown calls in the baseball playoffs led Major League Baseball to announce it is using strictly experienced umpires for the World Series, breaking a tradition of having one newcomer on the six-man crew.

Officials must be accountable, and I imagine these punishments and adjustments are deserved. But the men in stripes and their brothers in blue ultimately did not cost teams their games last week.

We all love having a scapegoat, but shouldn’t the Razorbacks’ goat be Alex Tejada, who missed his go-ahead field-goal attempt very wide left to leave it tied 20-20 with 3:08 left last week? And certainly, with the Hogs’ defense sacking Tim Tebow four times and recovering four fumbles, Arkansas had plenty of other chances to win, yet it was Florida that kicked the winning field goal in the closing seconds.

In Tuesday’s American League Championship Series game between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels, veteran umpire Tim McClelland clearly blew it when he ruled one out had been made on an obvious, unassisted double play in a rundown by Angels’ catcher Mike Napoli.

But how deadly could McClelland’s blunder have been to an Angels team on its way to losing 10-1?

It certainly wasn’t as bad as the infamous Don Denkinger safe call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, a game St. Louis Cardinals fans are still mourning.

Denkinger’s obviously muffed call in the ninth inning, with St. Louis leading the Kansas City Royals 1-0, put Jorge Orta on first and opened the door for a two-run inning and a stunning, 2-1 Kansas City victory that tied the Series 3-3.

Denkinger’s goof is No. 1 on the list of the 10 worst referee calls at askmen.com, and perhaps more than any other miscue by an official, it had the most direct impact on the outcome of a game.

But couldn’t St. Louis have just gotten the outs? First baseman Jack Clark couldn’t handle a foul popup by the next hitter, Steve Balboni, and catcher Darrell Porter allowed a passed ball that advanced runners into scoring position later in the inning. You can’t blame those on Denkinger.

And there is no excuse for the Cards’ implosion the following night, when they lost Game 7 and the Series 11-0.

Denkinger’s call didn’t beat St. Louis, McClelland’s call didn’t beat Los Angeles and last week’s penalty flags didn’t beat the Razorbacks either.

The point is, there are numerous chances for a team to win a game. The outcome is based on a series of events, not one. And to hang a loss around the necks of the refs is often taking the easy way out.

I believe I witnessed the granddaddy of blown calls personally, though it wasn’t in a nationally televised, big league game. It was Game 4 of the 2005 Texas League Championship Series between the Arkansas Travelers and Midland RockHounds at old Ray Winder Field.

Arkansas was already looking at a 2-1 deficit in the best of 5 series and trailed 5-4 entering the ninth. With two outs, Jason Aspito was at the plate for the Travelers with league-hits leader Erick Aybar, now with the Angels, representing the winning run on deck.

Aspito worked the count full and took ball four — and it was ball four, as anyone keeping play by play could prove — but home plate umpire Steve Fritzoni lost track of the count and kept Aspito in the batter’s box on what was essentially a 4-2 count.

Aspito struck out on the next pitch to end the series, and while Midland celebrated on the field and the home fans chanted “Four balls,” in protest, confusion reigned in the Travs’ dugout. Manager Tom Gamboa didn’t protest and apparently wasn’t sure if the count on the scoreboard was accurate, primarily because the Ray Winder scoreboard operators, usually forced to work the public address at the same time, had been a day late and a dollar short most of the season.

But rather than blame Fritzoni, who for some reason was promoted from the Class AA Texas League to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League the following season — maybe to keep him out of Arkansas — Gamboa instead pointed out the Travs were down 5-4 by their own doing.

“We’re not going to cry over spilled milk,” Gamboa insisted.

“We had our chances,” Gamboa said.

And he was right.

So did the Hogs last Saturday, so did the Cards in ’85 and so did the Angels on Tuesday night.

Certainly let’s hold the refs up to high standards. Maybe get them some extra manpower for really important games. Maybe re-evaluate how our umpires and referees are trained in every aspect, from the angles they take on calls to their conditioning and fitness.

Maybe football replay needs to be refined so fewer officiating mistakes are made. And maybe it is time for more extensive replay in baseball, especially in the postseason, as long as a way is found to keep games from lasting beyond their already intolerable five-hour length.

But no camera can keep order on the field. No camera can break up a long mound meeting or get between scuffling players.

Sure the refs screw up. But try one game without them and let’s see how we like it then.