MLB: World Series-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox

There is no doubt the decision of John Hirschbeck and his umpiring crew to reverse Dana DeMuth’s out call at second base in the first inning of last night’s Game 1 of the World Series was the correct decision. Kozma never caught the ball, as replays clearly showed. Mike Matheny went out to argue, and he was angered at his post-game press conference as well, but his arguments had little substance — he knew, just as everybody else knew.

But Matheny had a simple and understandable gripe all but the most fortunate in human history have shared at some point: “Why me?” Matheny thought he had another season until MLB’s planned instant replay system enters the equation. “It’s a pretty tough time to debut that overruled call in the World Series. I get… trying to get the right call,” Matheny said. “I get that. Tough one to swallow.”

At least according to my digging through the historical record, Matheny appears right. For all the controversial calls to ravage the World Series in its 109-year history, there doesn’t appear to have been a reversal of a call like what John Hirschbeck’s crew did to Dana DeMuth’s decision Wednesday night. But it certainly isn’t the first time such a call has happened in major league baseball, including the playoffs.

Specifically, we can turn to a pair of plays in the mid-2000s. In 2004, the Red Sox benefitted from another overturned call, this time in the American League Championship Series — the Alex Rodriguez Slap Play. The play is more remembered for the hilarity of Rodriguez’s decision to slap the baseball out of Bronson Arroyo‘s glove. As Curt Schilling reminded us after Game 1 last night, however, the umpires needed to convene and overturn the original call of safe, which would have put the Yankees down by one with Rodriguez on second and one out.

The other play, from Game 5 of the 2005 American League Championship Series, bears more resemblance to the Game 1 rhubarb. With two outs and the score tie, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski hit a dribbler up the first base line. Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar fielded the ball and appeared at first to put a tag on Pierzynski. However, Escobar was holding the ball in his bare hand as he tagged Pierzynski with the glove, and after consultation with home plate umpire Ed Rapuano, first base umpire Randy Marsh ruled Pierzynksi safe. The White Sox scored on a Joe Crede single on the next at-bat to take a 4-3 lead, and they eventually won the game 6-3 to advance to the World Series.

The controversy was minimal — much as the controversy surrounding the Game 1 call last night has been. The call was clear — replays and even the real-time broadcast showed the ball in Escobar’s bare hand. Although Angels manager Mike Scioscia argued the decision to overturn, he caved after the game. “They got the call right,” he told reporters.

Whether the call is obvious or not, an overturned umpiring decision will inevitably incense those on the losing end, particularly the managers. So many incorrect calls never get overturned, and to see one overturned to your detriment seems particularly cruel. Most managers don’t pacify as easily as Scioscia.

It should come as no surprise one of the most tumultuous responses to an overturned call came from Lou Piniella. In 1991, Piniella was managing the defending champion Cincinnati Reds. They were making a charge up the standings in June. Umpire Gary Darling reversed a Bill Doran home run and declared it a foul ball in a game the Reds eventually lost 5-2.

Piniella kicked a bunch of dirt over home plate and was ejected — standard Lou. The anger carried over into the postgame, where Piniella accused Darling of anti-Reds bias. Piniella ranted, “He’s (umpire union chief Richie Phillips) going to say I should be fined and suspended. Fined and suspended for what? Because one of his umpires made a mistake? Let’s get real. Let’s live in the real world.”

The next day, the umpires union filed a $5 million lawsuit against Piniella. The two parties settled out of court and Piniella apologized profusely. From Piniella’s statement, issued from the office of the commissioner (via the New York Times):

“I have high regard for Gary Darling’s integrity and deeply regret comments that may have maligned his character in any way. Like his fellow umpires, he does his utmost day in and day out to fairly and dispassionately get the right call. I may not agree with each and every call, but that does not alter the fact that the major league umpires are essentially simply the best.”

From the heart, clearly.

All of these incidents shine light on one of the fundamental dilemmas organized sports constantly faces. Humans — impartial or not — will always disagree about what they see on the field. But the game must go on, and in order for that to happen, the umpire needs to be authoritative.

In the late 19th century, Albert Spalding said, “In harassing umpires, people are merely exercising their right to oppose tyrants.” One assumes tongue was planted firmly in Spalding’s cheek, but “tyrant” is an apt word for the umpire, particularly pre-replay. What he says becomes the capital-t Truth, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Most tyrants would enact stricter punishment on a subject kicking up dirt or throwing second base than mere ejection, to be sure, but the umpire acts a final, absolute authority — a tyrant.

And this is why the overturned call is so rare and so shocking. The truest tyrants never give any sign their authority is anything less than absolute. However, replay systems and the like have taken a firm hold in the sports world, especially in recent years, and with them the authority of the umpire — at least, the umpire in the moment — has begun to wither.

By this time next season, there will be no need for the huddle up consultation between the other five umpires that eventually led to overturning DeMuth’s blown call. John Farrell would have thrown his challenge flag, the play would have been seen clearly on replay, and the play would have been overturned. The end of the 2013 World Series will mark the end of an era for the umpire in major league baseball. Hopefully, the era it ushers in is much simpler: the era of the correct call.