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Monday, October 18, 1999

  Playoff Blues

We're more than half way through the final round of the American League playoffs, and one thing is clear.

The fix is in.

How else to explain the horrific, tide-turning, momentum-halting calls made by the umpiring crew in games one and four between the arch-rival Red Sox and Yankees? They sure weren't close calls.

Take game one, when New York second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, his foot on second base, drops what should have been a double-play ball. The ball hits his glove and bounces out, so not only does he not retire the runner coming toward second, but he also can't recover in time to throw to first to reture the batter. E-4, two on, nobody out, right?

Not in the fantasy world inhabitted by second base umpire Rick Reed. In Reed's view, Knoblauch has control of the ball to get the force out and then drops it trying to make the transfer before throwing to first. Trouble is, it is clear to everyone else that Knoblauch never had the ball. The commentators on Fox TV even reviewed tape of the play from every camera angle, looking for a view that might have shown what Reed said he saw. No such view existed.

The next batter hits into a double play. So instead of having a runner at third with two out in a close game, the Red Sox are out of the inning - with Nomar Garciaparra left on deck.

Umpire Reed acknowledged after the game that he blew the call. Which might have served as a lesson to the crew to be more careful next time, right? Wrong again.

Fast forward to game three, when late in another close game the same Chuck Knoblauch who made the non-play in game one fields a grounder with one out and Jose Offerman running from first to second. Again, Knoblauch has a chance at a double play, if he can tag Offerman on the way to second and then throw the batter out at first. But Offerman veers left as Knoblauch lunges toward him, so Knoblauch throws to first for the inning's second out. Enter Tim Tschida, another umpiring veteran who should know better, who decides he can make the call in spite of not being able to see the tag. He calls Offerman out and the inning is over - once again with Nomar ready to bat next.

As in game one, every camera angle showed Offerman clearly save with at least 18 inches between him and Knoblauch's hand. As in game one, the umpire with possibly the worst view of the play failed to ask for another umpire's opinion, and as in game one the Yankees were allowed to get out of an inning with only two putouts. As in game one, the offending official admitted his error only after it was too late to change it.

Sox manager Jimy Williams argues that officiating in baseball is weaker than in other sports because the umpires don't collaborate on calls, because one official will not interject himself into a play unless the one who was in position for the play asks him. Sports radio commentators have suggested that the umpires are simply unwilling to admit when they make a mistake. But this suggestion makes no sense considering the post-game admissions of both Reed and Tschida. Others have guessed that perhaps the umpires don't want to look bad on the field. But football officials gain credibility from conferring with each other. I think the explanation might be more basic, and more base.

Maybe the umpires were taken care of in advance. Paid off. Bought.

Maybe Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, knowing his team's dismal record against Boston this season, having witnessed their humiliating defeat in the season's final series, lacked confidence they could make it against the surging Sox. Maybe Knoblauch, by no one's standards a good defensive fielder, didn't want a postseason defeat on his shoulders. It's the only thing that makes sense. There is no other likely explanation.

Unless, of course, I am simply giving the umpires too much credit. They may just be inept.

Just my opinion.


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