We’re only six weeks into the 2013 MLB season, and already we’ve seen umpires blow a number of calls that have had real impacts on the outcomes of games. Are the umpires somehow worse than they used to be? Probably not. The increase in the number of bad calls probably has more to do with our ability to perceive them—things like HD television and pitch-trackers—than a decline in umpiring ability. Still, that doesn’t make them any easier for fans to swallow, and it certainly does feel like expanded use of instant replay is just over the horizon…finally.
In any case, in light of all the terrible calls we’ve seen so far this season, today we’re going to take a look at the most infamous blown calls in MLB history. After all, though we see more terrible calls today than we used to, they are nothing new. Human error is and always will be a part of the game, and not even instant replay is going to change that. (Just see number three if you don’t believe me.) So sit back, grab a fresh cup of coffee, and be prepared to re-live your frustrations all over again.
Umpire Bruce Froemming was involved in a couple of extremely controversial situations in his career. In 1972 he called two consecutive pitches from Milt Pappas balls, giving a walk to Larry Stahl. If one of those pitches had been called a strike, Pappas would have a perfect game on his pitching resume—which is kind of a big deal.
However, bad calls on balls and strikes aren't big enough to make this list because strike zones are inherently subjective, and in my opinion you can't really blame a guy for borderline pitches—though Milt Pappas certainly does. Instead, umpire Bruce Froemming makes this list for a call he made during Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS between the Phillies and Dodgers.
The best-of-five series was tied 1-1, and in Game 3 the Phillies had a 5-3 lead with two outs and nobody on in the top of the 9th...in front of 63,000 Phillies fans who, at that point, had never seen their team win a World Series. Reliever Gene Garber then gave up a bunt single, which was followed by an error by outfielder Greg Luzinski. That made it 5-4—but still two outs. The next batter was Davey Lopes, and he hit a hard ground ball to third. Mike Schmidt couldn't field the ball cleanly, but it bounced over to Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa, who grabbed it and fired a strike over to first base in time to get Lopes and end the game.
The problem? Froemming called Lopes safe, allowing the tying run to cross the plate. Then Lopes advanced to second on a botched pickoff and was singled home to score the go-ahead run.
If the Phillies had won that game like they should have, they would have been just one win away from the World Series. Instead they lost Game 4 and saw their season come to an abrupt stop.
9. Froemming's Black Friday
On July 26, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves played an epic 19-inning, 6:39 game that ended at 1:50 AM local time. Unfortunately, the end to that game came on one of the most ridiculous calls you'll ever see. Braves infielder Julio Lugo charged toward home plate on a chopper to third. Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez fielded the ball cleanly and threw to catcher Mike McKenry, who tagged Lugo out by a mile. Nevertheless, home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe, and the Braves won.
To his credit, after the game Meals admitted his mistake. And, really, after six and a half hours behind the plate, you can't blame the guy if his vision started getting blurry.
Still, if this call had come in a game that really mattered it might just be the worst one in the history of the game. As it is, it still comes in at number eight.
8. Meals Must Hate Julio Lugo
At number seven on this list is the only call for which we can't find video. Of course, you don't need to see the video to know how bad it was. This photo says it all.
The Yankees were up 2-1 in the 1999 ALCS against the Red Sox, and 3-2 in the bottom of the eight inning in Game 4. With a man on first and one out, Boston's John Valentin hit a grounder to second base, and it looked like a sure-fire inning-ending double play. However, when Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch went to apply a tag on the baserunner, he completely whiffed. Everyone in the stands saw it, and everyone watching on TV (outside New York) saw it.
But guess who didn't see it? That's right, umpire Tim Tschida. He saw what Red Sox fans will forever call the "phantom tag," so instead of Nomar coming to the plate with a runner in scoring position and two outs, the Yanks got out of a jam and would win the game, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead.
7. Tschida Sees Knoblauch's Phantom Tag
The 2009 New York Yankees were a lot better than the 2009 Minnesota Twins. They had won 103 games during the regular season, while the Twins had won just 87. Then the Yankees won the first game of the best-of-five series. So even if Minnesota had pulled out a victory in Game 2, New York would have been in good shape. That being said, anything can happen in baseball, and the Twins sure would have liked the chance to win Game 2 and then go from there. Instead they were denied...by an umpire.
With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the 11th inning of Game 2, Joe Mauer sliced a ground rule double a foot inside the left field foul line. However, despite being only 20 feet away, umpire Phil Cuzzi called the ball foul. Mauer would go on to get a single in that at bat, but if he had been on second instead of first when Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer followed him with singles, Mauer would have scored to give the Twins the lead. Instead the Twins left the bases loaded in the top of the 11th, and then the Yankees' Mark Teixeira hit a home run to win the game in the bottom half of the inning.
6. Cuzzi Couldn't See
This was a really bad call. In fact, it was so bad that, in St. Louis, it's known simply as "the call." However, it wasn't as important to the outcome of the 1985 World Series as many Cardinals fans believe.
The Cardinals were up 3-2 in that World Series against the Kansas City Royals, and in Game 6 they had a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the 9th inning. If they got just three more outs, they'd be world champs for the second time in four years. Then the Royals' Jorge Ortega hit a chopper down the first base line. First baseman Jack Clark fielded the ball and threw to pitcher Todd Worrell covering first base, beating Ortega by a full step. That should have left just two more outs to go.
However, first base umpire Don Denkinger called Ortega safe at first, which kept the Royals alive. And here is where history gets a little muddled in the minds of Cardinals fans. You see, many of them still think that Denkinger is the reason the Cardinals would go on the lose the 1985 World Series. But what they forget is that, after Ortego reached first base, there was a ball in foul territory that should have been caught, a passed ball, and an intentional walk, all of which set up the bases loaded game-winning single off the bat of Dane Iorg. And of course, Denkinger then had nothing to do with Kansas City's 11-0 shellacking of the Cardinals in Game 7.
Still, that was a pretty brutal call at first base.
5. Denkinger's Call Unravels Cardinals
Ah, the Jeffrey Maier home run. It ruined the childhood of so many Orioles fans and helped establish the myth of Derek Jeter that would establish the new Yankees dynasty.
What am I talking about? Well you see, in 1996, the Yankees hadn't even been to the ALCS (let alone won the World Series) since 1981. The Orioles, meanwhile, looked to be re-establishing themselves as a premier franchise. And in Game 1, the Orioles held a 3-2 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth with star closer Armando Benitez taking the mound.
However, what should have been the first out of the inning on a long fly ball to the warning track ended up a home run when a 12-year-old Yankees fan named Jeffrey Maier reached out at least a foot over the wall to make the catch. For some reason, umpire Rich Garcia refused to rule fan interference on the play, so rookie shortstop Derek Jeter wound up with a "clutch" game-tying home run instead of a routine pop fly out. Then the Yankees would go on to win the game, the series, and the World Series, while the Orioles would become...well, the Orioles.
4. Garcia Ignores Jeffrey Maier
At number three we have one of the blown calls from 2013 that inspired the list. It comes to us from the Indians-Athletics game on May 8. And while you may think it's a little early to be calling this one of the worst calls in MLB history, it really isn't at all.
This call was just historically bad. Unlike every other call on this list, the umpires in this case didn't have to rely solely on their initial impressions to make the call. Angel Hernandez and company got to go inside, take a deep breath, look at all the video replays, and talk it over. And yet they still blew it.
I mean, seriously, how is this possible? As you can see from this video, both the Oakland announcers and the Cleveland announcers saw that the ball should have been a home run. The only explanation is that the umpires didn't actually look at the replays, and that's just embarrassing.
3. Hernandez Blows Home Run Replay Call
This play may not have had a dramatic effect on the outcome of the 1991 World Series, but it sure was ridiculous. Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek basically lifted the Ron Gant's foot off the bag so he could tag him out, but first base umpire Drew Coble didn't see that. He thought it was Gant's momentum that took him off the bag. So he called Gant out, ending the inning.
2. Coble Thinks Ron Gant Can Float
This is not the most obviously wrong call in baseball history. Numbers two, three, and eight on this list were all worse in that regard. However, in terms of significance, this one takes the cake.
Of course, you probably know the story already: in 2010, the Detroit Tigers' Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game against the Indians—the rarest feat a pitcher can achieve—when he induced a ground ball from Jason Donald. First baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and tossed it to Galarraga over at first, beating the runner by half a step. However, first base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, ruining the perfect game.
No single call in the history of MLB has had the clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it impact that this once had. It was a zero-sum situation. Right call equals perfect game. Wrong call equals zilch. And Joyce made the wrong call.
Fortunately, Galarrago and Joyce both handled the situation like true class acts.