As you likely saw or heard about by now, yesterday’s Kentucky Derby finished with controversy, an objection, an instant replay and then a disqualification. Country House did not cross the finish line first, but he was named the winner of the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby after it was ruled that the horse which led wire-to-wire — Maximum Security — moved out of his lane and changed the outcome of the race. It was the first time ever that the horse which made it to the finish line first was not declared the winner.
I’ll leave it to the experts to argue about whether that was the right or wrong call, but the drama does put me in mind of how replay has changed sports so much over the past couple of decades, baseball included. We often lament that. We often complain about the mechanics of replay and the delays it sometimes occasions, but having it has never caused as much controversy as not having it did. Indeed, I vividly remember a call which was blown before replay was fully-implemented that was absolutely notorious. So notorious, in fact, that it went a long way toward ushering in the system we have today.
On June 2, 2010 the Cleveland Indians were in Detroit to face the Tigers. It was not a particularly important game. The Indians were already 11 games out of first place en route to a 93-loss season. The Tigers were in the hunt but they were four and a half games back and would end up at 81-81 on the year, thirteen games back in third place. They were playing out the string already, even if they didn’t know it yet. The game, however, would soon become something very, very special.
It was pitchers’ duel between Roberto Hernández of the Indians and Tigers starter Armando Galarraga. Hernandez was touched for a run in the second but would shake it off and blank the Tigers for the next five innings. Galarraga, however, was pitching a shutout. Wait, scratch that, he was pitching a no-hitter. Wait, scratch that, he hadn’t allowed a walk and the Tigers had committed no errors. Which meant that Galarraga, a back-of-the-rotation starter of little renown, was pitching a perfect game.
He carried that perfection into the ninth inning and where he retired Mark Grudzielanek and Mike Redmond for outs 25 and 26, respectively. All that stood in the way of Galarraga becoming the 21st man to throw a perfect game in baseball history was a little-regarded utility man named Jason Donald. With a 1-1 count Donald hit a slow roller to the right of first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Galarraga ran to cover as Cabrera ranged right, fielded the ball and fired it over. Donald was hustling and Galarraga had a bit of trouble finding the bag with his foot, but he caught the ball and stepped on the bag a moment before Donald’s foot hit. Donald was clearly out. Galarraga had, apparently, pitched a perfect game.
That was the call from first base umpire Jim Joyce. Everyone in the building, including the men in the Indians dugout, knew the call was blown. Before he left the ballpark that night Jim Joyce knew he had blown the call. Even if he missed it in real time, all it took for him to know he got it wrong was to watch a replay of it later that evening. It’s as easy as clicking play:
Joyce’s call would stand, however, because in 2010 Major League Baseball had yet to fully implement instant replay. It had adopted limited replay on home run calls in 2008, becoming the last of the four major North American sports to do so, but resisted expanding it to any other plays. Despite the fact that the technology existed and despite the nearly instant ability for everyone watching the game on TV to see when calls were blown, baseball, bound up in tradition and enamored with the so-called “human element,” refused to right clear wrongs. That refusal cost Armando Galarraga a place in the record book.
The weirdest thing about the call, though? It may have, actually, been the best possible thing that could’ve happened for Galarraga, for Joyce, and for Major League Baseball.
Sure, there was immediate outrage. Some intemperate hot-takers immediately took to their keyboards to register their anger. Joyce received some threats and a ton of unwanted media attention. Commissioner Bud Selig was besieged by calls to intercede and reverse the call by executive order (he would later, wisely, I argued at the time, decline to do so). But some good things came out of it.
For one thing, it led to an admirable display of sportsmanship. Right after the game Joyce admitted his error and apologized to Galarraga. Galarraga didn’t complain about the call. In fact, he empathized with Joyce, saying “he probably feels more bad than me.” The next day, Galarraga was chosen to take the Tigers’ lineup card to Joyce who was that game’s home plate umpire. The two shook hands and Joyce, with tears in his eyes, patted Galarraga on the shoulder. The crowd cheered them both. A year later the two of them would write a book about the experience together.
It was also probably better, personally speaking, for both Galarraga and Joyce. Galarraga was denied a perfect game but it ensured his place in history all the same. His career would only last six mostly below-average seasons, but he will always be remembered as a result of how big this story became. Joyce, meanwhile, was instantly infamous because of the call, but in the immediate aftermath players and managers all over baseball came to his defense and noted that he was probably the best umpire in the game. Everyone knows the bad umps by name while the good umps remain anonymous. Joyce’s worst mistake on the field, ironically, made the public aware of just how well-respected and admired he actually was.
Finally, the Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game was really what turned the tide on full instant replay in Major League Baseball.
The day after the blown call, Bud Selig announced that he would look at expanded replay and umpiring. His statement:
“There is no dispute that last night’s game should have ended differently. While the human element has always been an integral part of baseball, it is vital that mistakes on the field be addressed. Given last night’s call and other recent events, I will examine our umpiring system, the expanded use of instant replay and all other related features.”
The examining took a while. Nothing happens quickly in baseball and change came even more slowly during the Bud Selig years than it does now. But the Galarraga game turned up the heat on the long-simmering instant replay debate and, in all likelihood, was the tipping point in getting things changed. In 2013, Major League Baseball announced that it would adopt a full replay review system, handling most non-judgment calls. The rule went into effect for the 2014 season and, with a few tweaks here and there, remains an integral part of the game.
There are still a lot of complaints about replay in baseball. The system implemented — limited manager challenges initiating reviews rather than replay officials using their own judgment to correct umpire mistakes — makes little sense if your aim is to simply get calls right as opposed to turning it into a matter of gamesmanship. There is frequent debate about which calls should and should not be reviewable. The reviews often take a lot of time and it’s sometimes hard to understand why. Still, living with these flaws seems far more acceptable than living with another blown call like the one which cost Armando Galarraga his perfect game.
Today I’m wondering how Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West, his trainer, Jason Servis, and his jockey, Luis Saez, feel about such things. The situations are a bit different of course, but I also wonder if they, like Galarraga and Joyce, will bounce back from yesterday’s controversy with equanimity and grace. I wonder if, the next time out, Maximum Security — who himself has no idea about all of this fuss and is, in all likelihood, happily eating some high-quality hay at the moment — will bounce back, stay in his lane and win the next race.
Luckily, we only have to wait a couple of weeks to find out: he’ll be running in the Preakness — live on on NBC — on Saturday, May 18.