Imagine that the seventh game of a World Series turns on a close play at second base -- and films indicate that the umpire may have blown the call.
Imagine further that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn convenes a hearing on the controversial play, to study the films and interview the principals. After weighing all the evidence, he says, he will announce the official winner of the World Series. Both club owners indicate they may appeal his decision to the courts.
Such a scenario sounds preposterous. If it occurred, it would surely outrage millions of fans who do not want to see sports events decided by lawyers in courtrooms.
That scenario is essentially the one being played today, as the Maryland Racing Commission decides whether to take away Codex's victory in the Preakness and make Genuine Risk the winner by fiat.
Yet the purpose of the commission's hearing, scheduled for 10 a.m. at Pimlico Race Course, has hardly evoked any public outrage. Quite the contrary. Most people who watched the race on television have reacted to the appeal by Genuine Risk's owners, Bert and Diana Firestone, just as Commissioner Robert W. Furtick did.
He said: "Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! The Firestones want justice and frankly that's all I'm interested in." Furtick has since disqualified himself from the case.
When Codex and jockey Angel Cordero Jr. bumped Genuine Risk in the Preakness, and the stewards dismissed the foul claim against him, most viewers were outraged. And they have remained so outraged they haven't bothered to examine the ramifications of today's hearing.
If the commissioners rule in favor of Genuine Risk, they will be doing more violence to the concepts of justice and fair play than Cordero did in the Preakness.
The commissioners will interivew steward and examine films of the Preakness, but they won't learn anything new today. There will be no smoking gun. Henry Bush, the Firestones' lawyer, is not going to produce a blood-stained whip as evidence that Cordero struck the filly. The commissioners will see the bumping incident just as the stewards did on May 17: as a tough judgment call.
Sports fans know that judgment calls -- even judgement calls that are clearly wrong -- never are reversed after the fact. While, the Preakness controversy was boiling, the New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup because an official blew an offsides call (and later admitted he blew it). But the Philadelphia Flyers did not hire a lawyer and appeal. They accepted their fate as one of the breaks of the game.
There are at least two reasons why such controversial judgment calls are seldom challenged and never reversed. One is practical. The sports world would be reduced to chaos if every ruling by every referee, umpire and steward were subject to appeal.
The other reason has to do with the special ethos of the sports world. Unlike most other activites, sports embraces the belief that even an unjust defeat should be accepted with grace. You're supposed to say, "We'll get them next time," not, "We'll appeal!"
But even by the standards of the nonsports world, there is scant justification for the commission to reverse the Pimlico stewards. There are many situations in which rulings by an administrative body are appealed, and there is a nearly universal standard that governs them.
The appellate board cannot merely substitute its judgment for that of the people who made the original decision; otherwise nothing would ever be settled; appeals would never end. The original decision was arbitrary or capricious, or that it represented an abuse of authority.
If the stewards thought the evidence in the Preakness was weighted 60-40 in favor of Codex, and the commissioners think it was 60-40 in favor of Genuine Risk, that is not a proper justification for a reversal.
The commissioners do have the power and the willingness to reverse the stewards -- they overturned a disqualification at Timonium last year -- but it is questionable whether they can do this job intelligently and objectively.
The stewards at Pimlico have often displayed horrendous judgment, but at least they are lifelong race trackers and professional race-watchers. Their opinion on the Preakness is being scrutinized not by a blue-ribbion panel, but by a board of political appointees chaired by a car salesman. The commissioners know as much about the fine points of adjudicating fouls as Bowie Kuhn does about the nuances of calling balls and strikes.
But they do know about politics and public opinion. When the Maryland Racing Commission legalized the use of drugs at the state's tracks, it was responding to the pressure of horsemen. When it banned the same drugs this month, it was responding to public opinion.
The commissioners should have examined the record and the qualifications of Chief Steward J. Fred Colwill long ago. But there was no pressure on them to do so.
If they now choose to reverse the stewards on this particular decision, it will be a response to the public outcry over the Preakness. And that would not be justice.