Classy Move, Pittsburgh

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OK, so I missed it. If you have a job, you probably did, too. Somewhere around the point that it became evident that last night’s game between our Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates was going into extra innings, I turned off the television and went to sleep.

As we now know, last night’s game became this morning’s game. Nineteen innings, six-and-a-half hours – the longest game in franchise history for the Braves – ended with an all-in-all bad call.

Now, it was one of many that occurred that night, and all the ones I saw favored Pittsburgh. Nate McClouth and the (sometimes overly) docile Fredi Gonzalez were ejected for arguing strikes and balls while other players at the plate bit their lip over what were essentially awful calls.

But somewhere in the 19th inning, after a brutal dual that took its toll on both clubs (more so on Atlanta, I think personally) it’s as if home plate umpire Jerry Meals apparently decided that, if either team could get a runner within six feet of home plate, he’d call that a win. The runner was the Braves’ Julio Lugo – a player none of us had ever heard of before tonight and who we may never hear from again – and Pirates’ catcher Michael McKenry had him dead to rites. The tag was applied – twice, no less – before Lugo skidded across the plate.

“Safe!”

Ballgame.

Now (especially around these parts), Pittsburgh is going to get some grief because they’ve filed a formal complaint with Major League Baseball over how that game ended. The game meant a lot to both teams. The Braves, on a three-game losing streak, were sliding further behind the Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates are on the hunt for their first winning season in almost 20 years, and the loss dropped them a game out of first in their division. After 19 innings, it seems any momentum either team was hoping to build is most probably exhausted.

No one really seems to dispute that the call was botched – including Meals, who said as much in an interview after the game. It reminds me of that old Jerry Clower bit, about the fella’ who went ‘coon hunting and climbed up in the tree after his quarry, only to find that he had treed himself alongside a mountain lion. To his shotgun-wielding friend waiting on the ground, the narrator of Clower’s story urged him to fire up into the tree.

“I can’t!” the friend protested. “I might hit you!”

“Just shoot!” the hunter replied. “One of us has got to have some relief!”

The Pirates were angry. The Braves did the smart thing, and shut the hell up and quietly etched a tally mark on the “WIN” side on their chalkboards.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly earlier today released a statement to go along with their complaint. The tone of the statement seemed a bit off at first, what with the line about how he “cannot begin to understand” how Meals missed the call for a tag applied “three feet in front of the plate.” One gets the idea that, were Coonelly a middle school kid forced to write out an apology for a fit he threw in class in one of those exercises where it’s supposed to make you reflect on how you acted (not that I’ve ever had to write one of those, mind you), that part of Coonelly’s essay would be written especially dark, where he pressed down hard on the paper.

But then, Coonelly’s statement said something sort of profound, all things considered:

“Jerry Meals has been umpiring Major League games for 14 years and has always done so with integrity and professionalism. He got this one wrong.”

Period.

This isn’t about the umpire, who had no vendetta (and if he did, it was almost certainly against the Braves). If it’s hard to fathom playing big-league ball for six-and-a-half hours, think about calling big-league ball for six-and-a-half hours. These umpires don’t head back into the dugout between innings, folks – they’re calling every single pitch, every single play, until that show’s over. Maybe Meals felt contrite when he called Lugo safe, realizing that he’d erred so often earlier in the game. Maybe he’d nodded off for a second. These things happen. And I’m not sure what the remedy is, if there is one, for his mistake. Surely Major League Baseball isn’t going to overturn the victory for the Braves, and ties aren’t allowed. Maybe make the teams replay the inning? That seems like a bit much, don’t you think?

Nah, this one’s in the books. Saying the call was stupid is well within Pittsburgh’s rights; it was stupid. But it’s not going to lead to a fourth man on the officiating team, in the booth, watching the replays and checking the calls. It’s not to make replay mandatory, of force the officiating team to get a consensus before making a call.

I don’t fault folks for complaining. I fault them less when they do it with honor and with class. The Pittsburgh Pirates did.

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