Under Pressure: for World Series umpires failure is seized upon, success is ignored
BOSTON -- An early morning direct flight from St. Louis to Boston the day after Game 5 of the World Series is bound to be full of folks with baseball connections. The lineup for this Southwest Airlines flight is certainly no exception. As I take my place in line to board I notice at least a dozen baseball writers, television personalities and no shortage whatsoever of fans clad in Red Sox and Cardinals gear.
But one person in particular catches my eye in this boarding queue. A balding man with a walrus-like mustache. Indeed, he has an absolutely unmistakable face. Which is sort of a problem. Because, in his line of work, people knowing who you are is generally considered a sign that you’ve done something wrong. The man is a major league umpire, and major league umpires are usually only recognized when they’re on the field clad in blue. And even at that, no one should know their name as easily and readily as people know this man’s name. But this man is the most famous major league umpire of them all. This man is Jim Joyce.
Joyce is famous, of course, for one of the most monumental screw-ups in umpiring history: the blown call of what would have and should have been the 27th and final out of Armando Galarraga’s perfect game back on June 2, 2010. The baserunner was out, Joyce called him safe and from that day forward any chance of Joyce walking through an airport anonymously was gone for good.
And even if there was a chance that the Galarraga call had faded from some people’s memories in the past three years, on this day, in this city, Joyce’s face is back in everyone’s mind due to a much-discussed call less than three days earlier: the obstruction call on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks which ended Game 3 of the World Series. That call Joyce got right. But given the rarity of such calls and the spotlight it was given due to when and where it occurred, it brought intense scrutiny down on Joyce once again.
It wasn’t the first time in this World Series that an umpire’s call was a big part of the story. In Game 1 second base umpire Dana DeMuth ruled that Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma made a putout at second on a potential double play ball. It was a clearly the wrong call -- Kozma never had possession of the ball to begin with -- and if it wasn’t for DeMuth’s colleagues converging on him and conferring to overturn it, it might have changed the complexion of the game and certainly would have stood as one of the worst calls in World Series history.
The hard truth about being an umpire is that no one remembers the best calls you’ve made. The hundreds if not thousands of calls -- tough ones too -- that you got right. It’s not even that they’re merely expected and thus go unremarked upon. They’re simply ignored as umpire calls altogether and the plays are remembered, if they are remembered, for the players involved, not the call itself. Indeed, I can think of no other job where one’s failure is so thoroughly cataloged and one’s competence or even excellence is so thoroughly ignored.
But that’s how it is. Tell me: which good calls stuck out to you in Game 5, which ended less than 48 hours ago? Give up? Me too, and I was there watching the thing. Now, tell me if you remember a 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reaching over the fence and pulling a Derek Jeter ball into the bleachers for a home run which umpire Rich Garcia should have called fan interference. Or how about Phil Cuzzi calling Joe Mauer’s double down the left field line foul when it clearly was fair, costing the Minnesota Twins runs and, maybe, the 2009 AL Division Series. Or -- and you either remember this vividly or have been told about it so much that you feel like you do -- how about Don Denkinger’s calling Jorge Orta safe when he should have been out, more or less giving the 1985 World Series to the Kansas City Royals? Indeed, bad calls from umpires, in the World Series or otherwise, are both memorable and legion.
As the 2013 season comes to a close, there is much talk about Major League Baseball’s intent and desire to institute instant replay. If and when it does that -- and there are still a lot of “ifs” about it -- the most egregiously blown calls will, hopefully, become a thing of the past. But of course not all calls will be subject to instant replay. Balls and strikes won’t be, and while no one ball or strike call draws the intense ire of fans like a blown call on the bases, the low-level ire of each one does make up for it in volume. And even if bad calls are corrected, fans of teams on the short end of those calls will still boo and jeer because, well, they’re fans and rationality is not an essential or even common part of fandom. And when they do, the umpires will feel the heat.
But if Jim Joyce feels the heat, he’s certainly not withering under it. Back in the St. Louis airport, Joyce is recognized by more people than just a baseball writer. Fans call him by name. One compliments him on correctly calling obstruction on Middlebrooks in Game 3. Another praises him for that time he saved a woman’s life by performing CPR at Chase Field. Another -- wearing a Boston Red Sox sweatshirt -- correctly notes that Joyce is working home plate for tonight’s Game 6 and jokingly tells Joyce that, “for the good of the game, your strike zone needs to be toes to eyeballs -- for the Cardinals only!” Joyce smiles, nods and says “no comment.”
Another fan brings up a more difficult subject. He compliments Joyce on the way he handled the aftermath of the Galarraga call. Though the fan focuses on the positives of the incident -- Joyce was widely praised for his grace and humility in the days following that game -- it unavoidably serves as an obvious reminder of Joyce’s biggest professional failure.
My eyes immediately go to Joyce’s face, as I want to see if the comment registers with him negatively. If there are any tells that the comment or the memory it no doubt inspires hit Joyce hard.
“Thank you,” Joyce says, again giving a small nod in the direction of the man talking to him.
He says it immediately and effortlessly. There is no trace of a negative emotional reaction on Joyce’s part. There isn’t even a suggestion that his reply was studied or practiced by virtue of having to respond to such things for the past three years. His comment was no different than if you told him you liked his shoes. Everything about Joyce, from the way he stands to the way he holds his carry-on bag to the way he talks to the people around him evinces calm confidence.
Between the crowd at Fenway Park and the people watching Game 6 on television, there will be upwards of twenty million pairs of eyes focusing on everything Joyce does tonight. If something goes sideways with the umpiring in this game, those eyes and millions more will narrow and look askance at Joyce and his colleagues. There will be no one in the world of sports under more pressure given the size of the stage.
But as geology tells us, if you don’t have pressure, you don’t get diamonds. Jim Joyce has felt the pressure before and it has never, ever crushed him. And as such, it’s hard to imagine Major League Baseball wanting anyone other than Jim Joyce on its diamond tonight.