ST. PETERSBURG — The shot never really took off, but the narrative sure did.
When two Connecticut defenders made clear contact but were not called for fouls while Baylor’s DiJonai Carrington was attempting a game-winning shot in the final seconds of an NCAA region final on Monday night, the Twitter-verse erupted.
“Just how bad was the missed call?’' Sports Illustrated’s official Twitter account asked. Former St. John’s coach Fran Fraschilla suggested officials often protect the higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. “I just witnessed a conspiracy,” a school district superintendent wrote. Even LeBron James weighed in to complain with his first Tweet of the night about the game.
The point is not whether a foul should have been called, but how sports fans react when they believe an official made a mistake.
It’s as if nothing else that happened matters. The loss is the referee’s or umpire’s to carry alone for eternity.
And that’s a point of view I’ve always had trouble embracing.
Look, I think UConn should have been called for a foul. It wasn’t a particularly hard call to make, and it’s a darn shame it was Baylor’s final gasp.
But I also recall Baylor had two missed jumpers and a turnover in the final two minutes. The inference is that it’s okay for athletes to make a mistake, but officials are supposed to be infallible. And if they’re not? Conspiracy!
I called longtime Clearwater resident Richie Garcia this week to talk about this. Garcia was a Major League umpire for 25 years, worked the World Series four times and is still famously remembered for not calling fan interference on then-12-year-old Jeffrey Maier in a 1996 playoff game.
Derek Jeter launched a fly ball in the eighth inning of Game 1 with the Orioles leading 4-3 at Yankees Stadium. Rightfielder Tony Tarasco leapt up at the wall, but Maier leaned over the fence and caught the ball himself. It was a classic case of fan interference, but Garcia never saw Maier.
He ruled it a home run and, because MLB was not reviewing calls on instant replay at the time, the call stood. The Yankees went on to win in extra innings and won the series in five games. For his part, Garcia immediately acknowledged his mistake upon seeing the replay. And then spent a winter torturing himself.
“I couldn’t wait for spring training to work a game with the Orioles just to get it over with,” Garcia recall. “That first game I was in Sarasota and (centerfielder) Brady Anderson ran by and said, ‘Hey Richie, how ya doing? How was your winter?’ And I said, ‘My winter was horses--t.’
“He stopped running and came back and said, ‘What happened?’ I mentioned the play, and he put his arm around me and said, “Richie, that play had nothing to do with us losing. They had a better team and kicked our asses. You’re a good umpire, you hustle, don’t you ever worry about that.’ Tarasco came out and told me basically the same thing. That was very healing for me.”
Anderson’s generosity was heartening, but it wasn’t always the norm.
Umpire Don Denkinger received death threats after radio disc jockeys revealed his phone number on the air after he blew a call that helped the Royals beat the Cardinals in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. And yet no one seems to recall the Cardinals rolled over and died in an 11-0 loss in Game 7.
A Saints fan filed a lawsuit when a pass interference penalty wasn’t called against the Rams in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. But does anyone remember that New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees was 0-for-3 with an interception in overtime?
Yes, officials’ calls can have a dramatic impact on a game. But those calls are not made in a vacuum and are almost always simple mistakes rather than sinister plots or gross incompetence.
That’s why one of my favorite sports memories is a moment I never saw. Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from a rare perfect game in 2010 when first base umpire Jim Joyce mistakenly called Jason Donald safe at first base.
There’s no doubt the call was wrong, but it’s what happened afterward that was so important. Indians players tried to protect Joyce by making sure Donald did not tell reporters the call was wrong. He would only say it was bang-bang and he hadn’t seen a replay yet.
Joyce was so distraught that he asked to see Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland. The GM and manager came in the room followed by Galarraga. The pitcher didn’t say a word, he just hugged the sobbing Joyce.
I suppose that’s my point. There’s not a referee or umpire in the world who wants to be known for missing a call. And there’s not a referee or umpire in the world who hasn’t made a mistake at one point or another.
A few days ago, Garcia was playing golf with a friend who introduced him to another man.
“He said, ‘You know, Richie is the guy who had the play with the kid who reached over the fence, and he called it a home run when it shouldn’t have been a home run,’” Garcia laughed. “I’m thinking, ‘My God, it was 25 years ago. Let it go.’”
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