The talk of baseball this morning is the pretty obviously blown home run call that cost the A's a game-tying home run in the ninth inning in Cleveland last night.
I know that managers love kicking up a fuss with umpires, with the hat backwards and the dirt kicking and the nose touching, but I never quite understand what the purpose of it is. I've never seen it actually do anything. The umpires never change the call. The manager never leaves the field happy. (He usually leaves the field much angrier than he entered it.) The players don't suddenly get all "oh, man, our manager is so mad, let's go hit better!" The whole thing is this weird kabuki theater construct, in which everybody playacts their roles out of some strange obligation. The manager screams, sometimes the umpire screams back, everything inches up to that invisible line, and when it's crossed, the umpire throws the manager out of the game. The manager gets one more set of yells in there, the crowd cheers and everyone comes away entertained. It is entertaining, but I never see what it accomplishes. It's like a hockey fight in which no one throws any punches.
But last night, man, I think A's manager Bob Melvin should have screamed for hours. He should have taken off his shirt and started doing the robot. He should have chained himself to the pitcher's mound and refused to leave.
There's something about missing a call on replay that feels a thousand times worse than missing a call in real time, even if the calls are equally wrong. We talk about getting the "human element" out of the game, but we still understand it: Sports happen really fast, and a human being missing a call that's a millimeter or split-second close is perfectly understandable, if still a little infuriating. But to miss a call in which the replay clearly shows -- in a plainly, obviously, jeez-man-can't-you-SEE-that? way -- what happened, in considerable detail, is to reject reality.
When Melvin is arguing at the end of the above clip, he's not having a debate: He's stating something that happened, a fact, to someone who refuses to believe it. He is trying to convince someone that the sky is not, in fact, purple. This is the worst kind of argument to be a part of not only because it is futile, but also because it is so irresistible. When someone is so wrong, you can't help yourself but try to force them to understand just how wrong they are. Why don't they get it? But when someone is wrong, particularly when an umpire is wrong, trying to make them understand why is just empty, implosive rage. The late comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked, "The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall." That's what arguing with an umpire who won't change his call is like. You'll never beat a wall.
Missing a call that can be overturned on replay is actually more than rejecting reality: It is in fact altering it. Which is where the name of that umpire comes in. You can probably guess: It was Angel Hernandez.
It's often said that you know an umpire is bad because you know his name, the idea being that good umpires are anonymous. (You learn an umpire's name because he made a terrible call, is calling attention to himself or both.) Angel Hernandez is that rare umpire whose name you not only know, you say it almost exclusively with spittle. Hernandez's exploits are legend, that impressive trifecta of incompetence, inconsistency and indignation.
Rangers manager Ron Washington called him "just bad." The book Major League Umpires' Performance 2007-2011 wrote, "He is among the most vilified umpires in the major leagues." He once threw former Bears lineman Steve McMichael out of the press box from the field for criticizing a call over the stadium speakers. Players despise him. He is responsible for the worst strike call I have ever seen in my entire life, from this year's World Baseball Classic. (The call is so bad, Erick Aybar looks like something bit him.) Hernandez is Melvin's brick wall. He's sort of everybody's. He has the exact skill set for the job: He's a bad umpire, and he's stubborn as a mule. He is the perfect brick wall. Video evidence will not make a difference. Reality will bend to his will.
Instant replay is just going to expand, but it is important to remember that even if we end up with robot umpires, people will still be in charge of those robots. Those people, being people, will do dumb things for dumb reasons. And they will absolutely convinced they are right. You can go ahead and be a member of the reality-based community. You are not the decider. Groucho Marx once had a joke about a man being caught by his wife with a another woman. He told her, "Who are you going to believe: me or your lying eyes?" Angel Hernandez thinks you have lying eyes. As long as he's in charge, I guess he's right.