Mistakes happen in baseball, but rules are rules

John Farrell

John Farrell has reason to be upset with the umpires after they botched  a call in a game against the Tigers last month.

Mistakes. Baseball is full of them. Everyone associated with the game makes them. The game’s a lot like life. If you’re going to survive and prosper, you must find a way to learn from your mistakes.

In the major leagues, you’re always on display. There is no place to hide. Anyone can see your mistakes and second-guess you.
Sometimes one game is full of glaring mistakes interspersed with serendipity and surprising feats. Case in point: the June 23 Tigers game against the Boston Red Sox.

Justin Verlander is on the mound, struggling to right himself during a puzzling season. It doesn’t help when Jhonny Peralta throws away a routine ground ball. Mistake one. And then the official scorer, who can also commit goofs, rules it a hit. Mistake number two.
It’s not much later that Verlander gives up a tweener or two and uncharacteristically loses his command and exits after five innings. Stuff happens.

More surprises follow, baseball is a game that continually can amaze. Victor Martinez, who plays the field only about once a month, makes an absolutely spectacular play at first base, knocking down a grounder and then, prone and with his back to the base, flips the ball blindly backwards to the pitcher for the out.

A little later, when Torii Hunter hits a line drive to Dustin Pedroia at second base with Austin Jackson on first, the ball hits Pedroia’s glove and falls to the dirt. He picks the ball up and throws to Mike Napoli at first base, who catches the ball with his foot on the bag and then tags Jackson, who is standing on the base.

The umpire at first calls Hunter out and Jackson safe. The Tigers’ TV announcers, Rod Allen and Mario Impemba, then discuss whether Pedroia deliberately dropped the ball to coax a double play and guess that the umpire has ruled that he did. But replays show Pedroia never securely held the ball, which fell off the heel of his glove. It’s the announcers’ mistake (and hardly a rare one for them): after many minutes of discussion, neither of these so-called experts, who are paid to explain things to their audience, has any notion what happened. Napoli was the only one who made a mistake. If he had tagged out Jackson first and then tagged the bag, he would have had a double play. But his catch of the throw with his foot on the bag took the force off, and Jackson had safe haven. Read the rule book sometime, guys. You’re being paid to be authorities, but you’re too often clueless.

But the really epic fail was still to come. In the bottom of the eighth, with the game tied, right fielder Daniel Nava caught a fly ball and then, as he was transferring the ball to his throwing hand, dropped it. The umpires ruled he didn’t catch it! The Red Sox protest, the umpires huddle, and the ruling is upheld. It’s a terrible call, and it costs Boston the game as the Tigers score two runs and win, 7-5.

Finally, as icing on the cake, Hunter saves the game in the ninth with a spectacular diving, rolling shoestring catch.

To some observers, including me, none of these strange occurrences was as surprising as the fact that Jim Leyland managed his bullpen wonderfully, using Drew Smyly to pitch 2 2/3 scoreless innings and bringing in Joaquin Benoit to get the last four outs and the win!

All’s well that ends well. The Tigers got a lucky break. But then, in their next game, they made the ungodly total of six errors. They are swept by the Los Angeles Angels, who have underachieved all season long. Such is baseball. Such is life.

And, a disastrous week later, on Canada Day in Toronto, Detroit falls out of first place. The season is half over, and the Tigers are 43 and 38. Ugh.

Like life, baseball’s tough and unpredictable. From moment to moment, there are amazing highs and stumblebum lows.

The game I have recapped would be Exhibit A for those who want to expand instant replay. There’s a growing notion in American sports, and in our culture generally, that technology can get us closer to perfection, to a world where mistakes don’t happen. We already took one step down that road when the designated hitter was invented to prevent the terribly embarrassing spectacle of a pitcher batting.

But mistakes and incompetency and failure are part of the fabric of baseball. To try to get rid of them is folly.

Over the course of a season, many believe the luck evens out. But of course it doesn’t. There’s no statistical law that says it has to. Just as there are no guarantees in life that good fortune will balance out the bad.

All you can do is roll with the punches.

Of course, it also helps if you know the rules.