Titanic is back in theaters, in 3D, and doing quite well for itself, again. I guess that’s what had me thinking about 1990s blockbuster films in general, and made me realize that The Truman Show, of all things, was most like the thing I really wanted to talk about today. (And then I had to think of two more things, not that you shouldn’t read those too.) Here we go!

Umpire Dale Scott is Truman Burbank.

I haven’t seen The Truman Show in at least twelve years, and I’m afraid that if I watched it again I might hate it, but hey, I thought it was pretty clever at the time. Jim Carrey’s Truman is a normal guy who has no idea that he’s actually the main character in the world’s most popular and absurdly implausible television show; everyone else in his universe is an actor, put there just to make him think things are normal, to allow other people to watch this normal guy acting normally (and actually, 14 years later, that part is very plausible; we’d totally watch that show).

It’s an incredibly intricate system that can handle a lot of stuff, but at bottom, it all depends on Truman being predictable — going to work and coming home at the same time every day, saying the same things to the same people,  and so forth. The real story starts as he begins to piece things together, and by way of fighting back, he mostly just acts in ways that can’t be anticipated. As soon as he starts acting in ways he’s not expected to, the whole system falls apart.

And of course that’s a very uplifting story about individualism and all that, but umpires aren’t supposed to be individuals. The umpire’s job is to interpret things that baseball players do, or that baseballs do, and that’s it. They’re usually right, but sometimes they’re wrong, and that’s…okay. (Note: not okay at all, actually. I’ve argued strenuously, many times,  for vastly expanded replay, and I think it’s ridiculous how long it’s taken baseball to start to come around to it. But no individual umpire’s judgment call is the end of the world.) Bad judgment calls have, in fact, always been part of the game (even though they no longer need to be). That’s how baseball works: stuff happens, umpires interpret it, they’re generally right, the world keeps turning.

But Dale Scott upset that system as the home plate ump for the Dodgers-Padres game on Sunday, throwing his arms up in exactly the way that has become the universal “dead ball” signal after a wildly inaccurate pitch heading straight for a squared-to-bunt Jesus Guzman hit Guzman’s bat. The ball hit behind the plate, then rolled back in front of it, and Scott eventually signaled that it was fair. The runners on first and second, reacting exactly as one would expect to Scott’s hand signals, didn’t run, and neither did Guzman. Catcher A.J. Ellis picked up the ball and fired it around the horn, recording maybe the strangest (and most egregiously incorrectly called) triple play in big-league history. It happened in the top of the ninth in a tie game, which the Dodgers broke to win it in the bottom half.

Dave Cameron, in the link above, argued that the inning should be replayed, and I can see some problems with that, but I’m inclined to agree. There’s a big difference between what happened there and a run-of-the-mill blown call. If the ball was foul and Scott had mistakenly called it fair (in fact, the consensus is that fair was the correct call), the players on the field have to execute the play. The runners run (or if they don’t, it’s their own failing), and the fielders thus have to complete the play under normal baseball conditions (the play as it actually happened was a series of lobs). If the fair/foul call was wrong, that’s a really unfortunate thing that I hope we’ll make use of modern technology to put a stop to, but it’s a certain type of unfortunate thing that we’ve been living with for 140 years.

What Scott did is different; like Truman, he departed from the normal course in a way that upsets the whole system. He clearly made the wrong call first, signaling a dead ball (a foul ball? HBP? Impossible to say), and then, after the runners had already seen and reacted to that call, decided to change it. At that point, the umpire stops just being a judge of the things that happen, and starts making things happen himself. The call (or rather, the sudden change in the call) didn’t just interpret the players’ actions, it caused them to act in a certain way. It’s impossible to guess at what happens if the ball were correctly called fair in the first instance and the Dodgers forced to execute it normally, but it’s almost inconceivable that they end up getting a triple play out of it.

By making the right call, but doing it in a way that thrust him into the middle of the proceedings and forced the players to stay at their bases when they shouldn’t have, in my mind, Scott crossed a pretty important line. The actors had to be prepared to ad lib a little bit when Truman didn’t follow precisely the same script every day, and (until they come to their senses and introduce meaningful replay), we’ve got to be prepared to expect a few bad judgment calls by umpires. But when the umpires are not only screwing up the interpretation of what happens on the field, but screwing with what actually happens? That just can’t be.  I’d replay that inning, from Guzman’s at-bat onward, as Cameron suggests. And I’d put rules in place to set very clear procedures for how to handle situations like that going forward.

The Red Sox are Titanic.

Too easy? Too easy. But everyone knew (and almost everyone still knows) that that damned ship was going down, and they just couldn’t stop watching. (Simple-minded, 18-year-old me went a bunch of times, I’ll admit — but I won’t tell you how many times.) It’s a 3.5-hour disaster, and you know it’s going to be a disaster and that there are very real limits as to how happily it could possibly end for anybody, yet, it was (and still is, apparently) one of the most beloved and successful films of all time.

Right now, the three straight wins of last weekend aside, the Red Sox are the kind of very slow-buildup disaster the Titanic film was. Injuries, pitching problems, Bobby Valentine slamming his own players to the media. It’s getting hard to watch, but you can’t look away.

Which isn’t to say I think the whole season is a sinking ship. I think they’re still a very, very good team, and while I suspect the Yankees and probably the Rays are a bit better, it’s not by so much that they can’t wind up on top. But, hey: the Titanic would’ve been really interesting if it had made its trip across the Atlantic, too, the biggest and most luxurious ship in the ocean (just not as interesting, not the kind of thing you make movies about).

Either way, the Red Sox are the league’s greatest spectacle, a never-ending source of…well, interest, if not entertainment. So maybe the whole thing won’t be the kind of unqualified disaster it feels like it’s heading toward right now (in fact, I’m almost sure it won’t be), but I’m comfortable with the Titanic label regardless.

Jack Zduriencik’s Mariners are like Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park was the third-highest grossing film of the decade (behind Titanic and The Phantom Menace), and for basically one reason: special effects. The reviews excerpted on Rotten Tomatoes say things like “You won’t believe your eyes” and “Terrifyingly realistic dinos run amok,” and extol its “excitement, suspense and the stupendous realization of giant reptiles.”

Seen the movie lately, though? It holds up pretty well considering it turns twenty next year, and there are probably significant elements of it that are a lot better than the great majority of action/suspense movies today, but purely in terms of realism, those animatronic dinosaurs just don’t stack up well against the modern, computer-driven effects spectacles. The special effects, the one thing the film was most noted for, really haven’t stood the test of time.

Neither has Jack Zduriencik, though unlike Jurassic Park, he could always redeem himself. I have no problem admitting that I was totally on the Jack Z bandwagon back before the 2010 season, when he seemed to latch onto the UZR-loving defense-first movement and build a team of undervalued, defensive superstars that figured to shake things up.

Well, there was a lot of bad luck in what happened to the Mariners, but it turns out that you need to score runs every now and then, too, and that maybe we don’t know as much about defense as we thought we did. He’s made some nice moves since then — I loved the Pineda-for-Montero deal at the time, and it’s sure looked good so far, and I think Justin Smoak could still be excellent — but the 2012 Mariners are substantially the same team as the 2010 Mariners, a bunch with pretty good defense and pitching that figures to finish with an offense near the bottom of the AL (even once you adjust for that huge park they play in). And like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, that same thing somehow just doesn’t look as good now as it did then.

Editorial note: Any and all references to Jurassic Park must be followed by this (DP):

Comments (6)

  1. Jurassic Park is my favorite movie.

  2. When I went to see Jurassic Park as a kid it was sold out, so my family went down the street and we watched Super Mario Bros instead. Now THAT movie had special effects!

  3. I’m completely ready to move on from this, but I feel I owe Bill a reply.

    “It’s impossible to guess at what happens if the ball were correctly called fair in the first instance and the Dodgers forced to execute it normally, but it’s almost inconceivable that they end up getting a triple play out of it.”

    I realize this isn’t the central issue, but this statement is incorrect.

    The ball was picked up by Ellis less than two seconds after it was bunted. (It occurs at 0:03 of the video on MLB.com). If Scott doesn’t signal anything but fair ball, Ellis throws to third, gets that runner. Easily. Uribe then either throws to second or first base. It’s a sure double play and quite possibly still a triple play. That’s just pure observation.

    Look at where the first-base runner is when the camera comes on him. He’s not retreating to the bag. He’s flat-footed at first base. Again, almost no time has elapsed. That he would have been safe at second if he had been running full-bore is dubious.

    It was, effectively, a terrible bunt, and if Scott doesn’t wave his arms, it’s at best for the Padres runner on second with two out.

    But again, that’s not really the issue.

    As for the rest of the post, the case still hasn’t been made that the impact of this call is worse than the impact of the thousand of other bad calls. Yes, I get that the umpire influenced the runners’ behavior. However, the outcome of the play is not unique, especially when you consider that the true outcome was, at minimum, a double play.

    And the only reason you’re worried about the influence on the baserunners is because of the outcome. If, for example, the runners had reached second and third bases, despite Scott waving his arms, would you or Dave be calling for the game to be replayed? I don’t believe you would. And that’s what makes this play no different from other shaky umpire calls. You guys say it’s about the nature of the mistake, but if Scott waves his arms, but Ellis picks up the ball and simply throws to first, Dave doesn’t write his post. It’s about the outcome.

    You’re fixated on the dead ball issue as if that is somehow more egregious than, say, calling a runner out at home with two outs and the bases loaded when he was actually safe. How is it worse? The dead ball issue didn’t even necessarily change the outcome of the inning, whereas we know with an incorrect call at the plate that the score of the game was changed.

    In either example – calling a runner out, or waving your arms to influence the runners to freeze – the umpire has made a mistake that affects the game. They are different kinds of mistakes, but in the end, there is no way to argue that one type of mistake is inherently more significant than the other.

    And most important of all – and the topic that you and Dave have both completely ignored – the Padres didn’t protest. In short, whatever Scott did, there’s an established path for creating a replay situation, but the team that had the most interest in pulling that trigger did not do so. How can you call for the game to be replayed when the Padres didn’t?

    Last thing I’ll say is I loved “The Truman Show” – it’s one of my all-time favorites and certainly holds up :)

    • It’s not the impact of the play that’s so much worse than any other blown call, it’s the nature of it. An umpire calling a guy out at home who is really safe is acting within his appointed sphere — he’s doing a bad job of it, but until we get meaningful replay, that kind of crap happens. This is a totally different thing. In fact, the actual outcome doesn’t matter to me at all — yes, it had to be a particularly egregious outcome to get anyone to pay attention to it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the conduct, regardless of outcome, that needs to be addressed. It’s different (and substantially worse) than your bad-call example in at least two ways (probably many more I’m not coherent enough to pull together right now): (1) it’s not inherently part of the job; and (2) it’s considerably easier to address and correct than your typical blown judgment call (until replay, again).

      You’re right that if the Padres aren’t going to protest it, there’s no way to justify replaying it. It’s very bizarre to me that they didn’t do that.

      Glad to hear The Truman Show holds up. I know I have it on DVD somewhere…

  4. There is clear rules in place for situations like this. The umpire’s call is final. And the umpire decided that his fair ball call was the right one and allowed the play to stand. Which was absolutely the wrong call. But it was his call.

    In order to replay the game, those rules would have had to be in place before the game. You cannot suddenly decide this is grounds to replay the game after the game has been finished and the call has already been made. If MLB wants to make this the case for the future, I’m all for it. But you can’t change the rules mid-stream.

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