World Series - Boston Red Sox v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three

Under Pressure: for World Series umpires failure is seized upon, success is ignored

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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.

Royals pay tribute to late Yordano Ventura during spring training opener

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 12: Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on August 12, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The Royals honored former pitcher Yordano Ventura prior to their first Cactus League game against the Rangers on Saturday. Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic in late January.

Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Carlos Gomez paid their respects to the pitcher with a floral arrangement that was laid on the mound. Both teams stood along the foul lines during a pregame video tribute that highlighted Ventura’s tenure with Kansas City. Following the game, Gomez spoke to the media about his relationship with Ventura, describing their frequent conversations during the season and commending the pitcher for having “the same passion that I had early in my career” (via WFAA.com’s Levi Weaver).

A plaque dedicated to the 25-year-old was also presented to club manager Ned Yost as a more permanent commemoration of Ventura’s contributions to the sport. Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star reports that the plaque will be mounted in the club’s spring training facilities alongside tributes to members of the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 playoff teams.

The full text of the plaque is below, via MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan:

A brother and a teammate, Yordano Ventura, passed away on the morning of January 22 in his native Dominican Republic, at the age of 25. He signed with the Royals as a 17-year-old, eventually making the big league team in 2013 as a 22-year-old. On most days, he could be found laughing and joking with his baseball family in the clubhouse. However, on days when he pitched, that smile was replaced by a quiet confidence and an intense fire, which he brought to the mound for every start. He had many highlights in his abbreviated career, not the least of which was throwing eight shutout innings in Game #6 of the 2014 World Series to force a Game #7 vs. San Francisco.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.