During my adolescent afternoons playing one-on-one stickball in the East School playground, the dolphin served as our first base foul line. My favorite ground rule was if you hit it under the dolphin's snout, it was fair. If you hit it under the tail or over the dolphin altogether, foul. Hitting the dolphin created a matter open to interpretation.
Third base foul line was the staircase that led into the cafeteria. Single was a ball that you didn't pick up within the fair confines of the playground. Double went over the short chain link fence out onto Neptune Boulevard. Home run went into the front yard of the house across the street. Triples didn't seem to exist.
If there was festering uncertainty on what happened to a batted ball, there'd be lots of arguing. Me and my stickball cohort were such lousy hitters that if we actually got a piece of the fuzzy yellow sphere (we used tennis balls in Long Beach, not the Spaldeens of urban legend), we wanted credit for accomplishing something. If one of us was sure a ball should have been a double and the other thought it went foul, maybe, after exhausting our junior high debating skills and threatening to go home, we would have split the difference, called it a single and kept playing.
It's not like we had anything better to do.
The bottom of the third at Shea today was East School writ large. In front of a makeup crowd relatively comparable to the two second-graders who might linger at our flailings before opting for the see-saw, a Major League umpiring crew applied schoolyard logic to their own fair/foul dispute.
Beltran on third, Delgado on first, Wright up. He lines one in the vicinity of the third base bag. It takes a funny bounce. Obviously it hit the bag, obviously Beltran will score, obviously it's a two-base hit for Wright, second and third.
Given the umpiring acumen associated with Randy Marsh (the third base official who displayed such a creative strike zone Saturday night) and Angel Hernandez (behind home plate and generally a more reliable Met villain than Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard combined), anything could have happened and anything did.
Marsh called it foul.
Manny Acta pointed. The ball took a crazy hop right there at the bag. How could have it not hit third base? But Marsh wouldn't budge. The replay wasn't definitive. Gary and Ron thought maybe there was a rock or spike mark, because it didn't necessarily seem to make contact with the bag…nah, it had to, it was too close. Willie came out to have a word. Marsh consented to a conference with his fellow umps. The only man in blue who could have seen the ball was Hernandez. Another replay showed the third baseman, Abraham Nuñez, probably blocked Marsh's view.
The umps caucused. Willie waited. Charlie Manuel emerged. Much talmudic scholarship was swapped (Ron noticed the umps covered their mouths the way a pitcher would in going over signals with his catcher). White smoke was released into the sky. Marsh, likely relying on Hernandez's sudden bout of judgment, told Randolph something. Randolph hung around. He told Manuel something. Manuel chatted more than argued. Manuel kept chatting — chatting a little too much, apparently. Marsh rather lethargically raised his right arm in the ol' heave-ho. Manuel loped out of sight.
The decision: Beltran, you trot home from third. Delgado, you head to second. Wright, you're no longer in a slump, go stand at first. Carlos D was thoughtful enough to wait before advancing so he could give David a little fist knock of congratulations.
What the hell was that?
We've seen a jillion lousy fair/foul calls in our lives, but most of them are of the whaddayagonnado? variety. Balls that wrap the fair pole (of course it's the FAIR pole, it's a FAIR ball!) are occasionally challenged and once in a blue moon reversed. But a ball hit down the line that was obviously going for a double first called wrong and then called a single? There was no interference, there was just a mistake. It was then corrected with Solomonic wisdom, the kind you never see in the big leagues, the kind we often resorted to in order to keep from killing each other at East School.
Ah, call it a single and let's keep playing.
It didn't feel quite right but it wasn't all wrong. We did get a run and a runner out of it. Green and Woodward made sure everybody who deserved to score eventually scored. And we won, plugged the hole in the schedule, finished with the Phillies as far as we can tell, reached 31 games above .500 for the first time since Leiter two-hit the Reds on 10/4/99, extended our lead to 15-1/2 for the first time since '86 and whittled our Number of Numbers to a Magical 18.
It's been the kind of year when everything we hit rolls clean under the dolphin.