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Ump Admits Lugo Was Out: Give Us Replay, Selig

You’ve probably seen the end of Tuesday night’s Pirates-Braves game. For the few of you who haven’t, a quick recap: After each team had scored three runs in the first three innings, both teams went scoreless for the next 15. Finally, in the bottom of the ninth nineteenth inning, the game ended after Julio Lugo slid through catcher Michael McKenry’s swipe tag five feet from the plate and umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe. In a video posted on mlb.com, you can see the play from three different angles. They all make it look like a tag was applied, though in Jack Moore’s words, it’s more of a “tangent-point tag” than a catcher bear hug. (McKenry used a swipe tag, not blocking the plate. Could that have anything to do with the Buster Posey injury?)

If you squinted, the replay angles were slightly inconclusive — it looked like McKenry got him, but it also looked like it was possible that he missed Lugo by picometers, rather than brushing his glove across his uniform. A few people defended the call: Rob Neyer thought that the ump “might have been right”; Jonah Keri wrote that “he may have been safe”; and Jack Moore mused, “I’m just not so sure it’s as obvious as everybody says it is.” But then, in a postscript, Meals viewed replays of the play and announced, “I was incorrect.” Joe Torre, the Executive Vice President for Operations for MLB, said the same: “The tag was applied and the game should have remained tied.”

Torre admitted that the Braves won the game on an incorrect call. But nothing can be done. The Pirates filed an official protest, but even that might have been illegal: as Craig Calcaterra pointed out, the official rules specify that “no protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire.”

The upshot is that nothing can change the incorrect result of the game. And that’s simply unfair. A lot of writers, including Keri and Jeff Passan, think Meals’s blown call should be an impetus for the expansion of instant replay. I strongly agree.

Like Keri, I’ve been an advocate of increased use of instant replay for years. The chief arguments against replay are tradition and delay of game, and both are easily solved; the first by fiat and the second by adding a replay-booth umpire who can look at replays in the time that it takes a TV production crew to show the moment on television. The biggest impediment isn’t reason, it’s inertia. I can’t fathom an argument against adding instant replay for disputed game-ending calls like this — it’s not like you’re delaying the game at that point. You’re just preventing the game from ending with the incorrect result.

So how would it work? This is where it gets a little tricky. In the debated play, there were runners at second (Jordan Schafer) and third (Julio Lugo) and pitcher Scott Proctor at the plate. Proctor grounded the ball to third and stumbled coming out of the box. If the play had gone as expected, McKenry likely would have tagged Lugo out at home and then thrown to first to complete an inning-ending double play. If the replay overturned the “safe” call at the plate and made Lugo out, then what happens to Schafer and Proctor? There are essentially three options:

  1. 1. The umpires call Proctor back to the plate and call a do-over on the at-bat.
  2. 2. The umpires make a judgment call and assume that Proctor would have been called out at first, sending the game to the 20th inning.
  3. 3. The umpires make a judgment call and award Proctor first base. If this happens, all runners would need to advance a base from where they originally stood, so Schafer moves to third.

The first option is unsatisfying, but there is precedent — the Pine Tar game. George Brett hit a game-winning homer that was later called an out when Yankee manager Billy Martin asked the umpires to examine Brett’s bat to see whether there was an illegal amount of pine tar on the barrel. Brett’s out then became the last out of the game and the Yankees won. The Royals then protested the result to the league office, which upheld their protest, declared the home run valid and ordered that the game be restarted from the moment after Brett’s at-bat. (Brett himself was ordered to be ejected from the game for arguing.)

The second option is unpleasant because of the precedent that it could set. In this case, Proctor would clearly have been out — he stumbled out of the box and fell flat on his stomach. There would have been no way he could have made it to first base. But it’s easy to imagine a faster runner making a close play at first, and the standard baseball principle is that you never assume a double play will be successfully turned.

The third option is better than the second, even if it is, perhaps, still a bit unfair to the Pirates. It gives them credit for one thing they did correctly — throwing out Lugo at the plate — but gives the Braves another chance they probably never should have had, along with another runner at third that they never should have had. It’s clearly better than option two, but it’s not clear that it’s better than option one.

Frankly, I’d be fine with either the first or the third option. Neither is ideal, but either would be much better than letting a blown call stand as the end of the game. In this era of high-tech gadgets and multiple-angle television replays, there’s no reason that an incorrect call should be allowed to stand.