In the bottom of the ninth, with one out, the score tied and the winning run on second, I was deliriously certain that Wilmer Flores would single, making the Mets walkoff winners and getting himself mobbed at first. When Flores grounded out instead, I was not particularly disheartened: The Braves walked John Buck (not sure why) and I was certain Travis d’Arnaud would single, making the Mets walkoff winners and getting himself mobbed at first. When d’Arnaud walked to load the bases, I was certain Juan Lagares would single, making the Mets walkoff winners and getting himself mobbed at first.
None of that was actual certainty; I’ve watched enough baseball to know better. But with Lagares at the plate against Luis Avilan, I was certain about one thing: Daniel Murphy had as much chance of batting in the bottom of the ninth as I did. Only Murph was in the on-deck circle at Citi Field and I was sprawled on my couch with my kid.
There was no scenario in the universe that would allow Murph to bat in the bottom of the ninth — Lagares’s AB was guaranteed to result in either a run, in which case the game would be over, or an out, in which case Murph’s next job would be to go out to his position for the top of the tenth. But there he was with his helmet on, taking practice swings and sizing up a pitcher he couldn’t hit against.
It’s silly, but it’s the rule — there has to be a guy in the on-deck circle even if he’s there for no conceivable purpose.
I decided we really need a name for this player waiting for a bus that cannot arrive, and so of course turned to Twitter. Here were my off-the-cuff ideas:
- the virtual batter
- the designated bystander
- the donut warmer
- baseball Godot
Not great, but the idea was to get brighter minds to weigh in. Which they did. Here are a few refinements:
- the sliding coach
- the Invisible Man
- dead man swinging
- Schrodinger’s batter
- the Vice-President
- Prince Charles
I think I like those last two the best, and would give the nod to “Prince Charles,” which makes you think a bit and has a certain Dada charm. (Tip of the cap to Patrick Donnelly.)
What I didn’t like and couldn’t guess was that Murph wouldn’t bat again — and not because Lagares delivered. (He didn’t.) In the top of the 10th, Andrelton Simmons singled with two out off Scott Atchison, prompting Terry Collins to call for Scott Rice to tackle nouveau Met-killer Freddie Freeman. Rice got Freeman to hit a comebacker, which hopped off his glove and trickled down the backside of the mound. Rice pounced on the ball and heaved it to Josh Satin at first, beating Freeman by less than a beard but more than a whisker.
Jerry Layne called Freeman safe.
Enter Terry, exit Rice, enter Greg Burke, exit pitch thrown to Chris Johnson, with the ball last seen vanishing into the left-field stands for a three-run homer as Craig Kimbrel waited vulturelike in the Atlanta pen. In other words, ballgame. Before Johnson even reached third base, Murph turned to bark at Layne, who promptly ejected him, bringing Terry back onto the field for his own eventual ejection, after which he stalked off without his just-flung cap. (It was one of those stupid orange-billed things; I’d have abandoned it too and gone off to get a real Mets cap.)
So. A few things regarding Mr. Layne, how we reached this unhappy place and where we’re headed.
1. It wasn’t that bad a call. It was a bang-bang play, and Layne got his bangs in the wrong order. A few years ago, before crystal-clear HD, we would have shrugged, tried to parse Rice’s reaction and written grumpy things about Burke.
2. Still, Layne got the call wrong. And the job of an umpire is to get the call right.
3. Technology has put umpires in a very bad place. There’s already instant replay in at least half the park — if I’m at Citi Field my head reflexively turns to find an overhead set after a close call. Pretty soon everybody in the park will have instant replay on his or her seatback or phone. I bet you umpires already know they’ve blown a call about 45 seconds after the play — because that’s how long it takes for the replays to be shown from multiple angles until a definitive judgment is rendered by the broadcast crew. That judgment is visible to a good chunk of the crowd and swiftly communicated to the dugouts and the field through renewed booing or surly silence. The umpires know; these days everybody does.
4. Baseball needs to fix this. The Mets lost today’s game because Jerry Layne blew a call. It’s more complicated than that, of course: They couldn’t get a hit with a runner in scoring position, and Jon Niese was understandably rattled after breaking Jason Heyward’s jaw with an errant fastball, with the stunned silence afterwards horrifying to witness. But it’s not wrong to say the Mets lost today’s game because Jerry Layne blew a call. So what was my reaction? I fussed and cussed a bit, but didn’t freak out too much — because I now expect some umpire somewhere will blow a crucial call pretty much every day. This level of numb acceptance is really bad for the sport.
5. Baseball is determined to fix this. Next year, apparently, managers will have a set number of challenges, like football coaches do today. When Terry came out to remove Rice, Justin Turner even helpfully piped up about this on the mound. Replied Collins, both philosophically and crabbily: “Yeah, well, that doesn’t help us today.”
6. Baseball’s idea for fixing this is stupid and half-assed. I’m not in favor of anything baseball does to make itself more like football, but I’m particularly opposed to a challenge system, because it takes an alarming amount of what sucks about football and rolls it up into one little red hankie — it’s bureaucratic, tedious and ultimately arbitrary. The idea is to get calls right, not to force managers to add game theory to their list of skills. If umpires blow more calls than a manager has challenges, nothing has been solved. If an umpire blows a call and the manager doesn’t challenge it, nothing has been solved. And does anyone really believe that a manager out of challenges will stand in the dugout in stoic acceptance of a blown call? It’s ridiculous, and surely the baseball brass know this.
7. If you’re gonna have an eye in the sky, use the damn thing. Guys at MLB headquarters watch every game. They buzz the on-field umps after a close call and consult an umpire on duty at headquarters. The on-field umps tell everyone to sit tight for a minute. The headquarters ump affirms the call or overturns it. Play resumes. Would there occasionally be judgment calls about where to put runners and other problems? Sure. But players would quickly learn to complete a play that might wind up disputed, and the new uncertainties would be better than what we have now.
8. But we’d still be looking for that first no-hitter! They’re not going to retroactively deprive us of it. Just deal.
9. Didn’t Angel Hernandez look at video of a blown home-run call and still blow it? Yes he did. Angel Hernandez is such a bad umpire that he can’t even watch TV correctly. This doesn’t really have much to do with the argument made above, but I’ve worked Angel Hernandez’s incompetence into far less relevant conversations, so there was no way I was missing this opportunity.