"See how long my glove is?"
Vern Ruhle speaking.
Vern Ruhle of it-wasn't-a-triple-play fame.
With Phillies on first and second and nobody out in the fourth inning of today's playoff game, Garry Maddox hit a Ruhle fast ball directly back to the Astro pitcher.
Only he didn't hit it solidly. It came off the bat handle dying toward Ruhle's left.
Ruhle scooped up the ball. But did he scoop it up on a bounce? Or did he grab it on the fly?
The Phillies' runners reacted as if it were a ground ball, both men racing for the next base.
So Ruhle and the Astros had an easy triple play when, after a few seconds of indecision, the umpires decided the pitcher had caught the ball on the fly.
"I felt I made the play," Ruhle said later. "My glove is long and it might have looked like the ball bounced off the ground when it really was just bouncing from the front of my glove to the back. I didn't really feel it, but that's because my fingers are so far away from the front of the glove."
Whatever happened, the umpires had a problem.
They solved it the right way.
They solved it by using common sense to make right a decision that had been obviously wrong.
Instead of being hidebound by the tradition that demands infallibility from umpires, the National League umpires today did themselves and baseball proud by admitting they had botched a play and doing what they could to straighten out the mess.
The whole episode turned around a facet of sport unique to baseball.
That is, there are times when a player can do nothing until he knows what the umpire's decision is.
This was one of those times, for with a dying line drive that is caught newar the ground, a base runner is at the umpire's mercy, not knowing whether to run or stand still until he sees the umpire's signal of safe or out.
And the home plate umpire today, Doug Harvey, one of the best in the business, made the wrong signal.
He confessed to it.
"We had a right-handed batter up who usually bends way over at bat," Harvey said, setting the stage with McBride up. "When he made contact, I saw the ball well. I said, 'watch it, it looks like it's going to fall, it's not a ripped ball.'
"And as I tried to follow the flight of the ball toward the pitcher, the batter stepped in front of me, blocking my vision of the play."
But it was Harvey's play to call, no matter what. That first and third base umpires have other jobs. They gave Harvey no help immediately.
"I glanced quickly at them and saw nothing, and then gentlemen, I have base runners out there, waiting for my call. So I signaled 'no catch.'"
Here came the Astros charging from the dugout, saying it was too a catch. Harvey, in what may be the first press conference given by an umpire in controversy, told 100 reporters that seeing the Astros charge onto the field in disagreement brought him up short.
"I said, 'Damn it, I'm not sure now,'" Harvey said.
So he called first base umpire Ed Vargo and third base umpire Bob Engel off to the side.
"I asked Ed, 'Can you tell, did the man catch the ball?' Ed said as far as he was concerned, it was a catch. 'Catch or trap?' I asked. They concurred it was a catch."
The next problem, in which Harvey distinguished himself, was dealing with the idea of a triple play. At one point, before Harvey conferred with his colleagues, he seemed to have given an "out" signal meaning the inning was over -- a triple play. Indeed, the Astros had touched the right bases to do that.
But it wouldn't be right. With the home plate umpire giving a no-catch signal, the runners were forced to move. And they did.
Harvey left the field to talk to Chub Feeney, the National League president who was in a box seat next to the Astro's dugout.
The result was that Maddox was called out on Ruhle's catch and the runner at first base was ruled out on Ruhle's throw there. But the man on second was allowed to return to his base, although the Astros also had tagged that base before he got back.
"I felt that my no-catch call sent the runner on second base to third, " Harvey said. "I saw that man hesitate until he saw my call. But the runner on first was going all the way and would have been doubled off regardless.
"I felt it was unfair to baseball and unfair to Philadelphia to have my no-catch call not remedied."
Baseball has a provision for an umpire's mistake such as this, Harvey said. It's called a "jeopardy rule" and was put in the umpires' guidebook after an incident with Bobby Bonds. After hitting a long fly ball, Bonds was sprinting to second when he saw an umpire signal home run. So Bonds slowed down. But the ball hit an iron bar above the fence and bounded back into play. Bonds was called out at third.
"After that play, the league put out the 'jeopardy' bulletin," Harvey said. "It gives the umpire the right to correct a mistake if he feels his call has put a runner in a bad position. That's exactly what happened today." c
Philadelphia Manager Dallas Green insisted the ball never was caught, that he should have had men on second and third with one out.
No way, Ruhle said. He pointed out a simple fact of baseball life.
"It's my catcher's job to tell me where to throw that ball," he said. "With men at first and second, he'll tell me to throw to third if that's a ground ball. But Luis (Pujols, the catcher) hollered nothing but 'First base.' He knew I caught it. "
So Harvey was right. All his baseball instincts told him that all the players involved reacted the way they do on a line drive to the pitcher. He trusted his instincts and used the common sense the situation called for. The next time someone talks to you about instant replay, ask them if a machine ever made right its mistake.