Major League Baseball's umpiring executives spent Thursday sequestered in their New York offices trying to digest the most controversial postseason call in 20 years. By the end of the day they were united in their support of plate umpire Doug Eddings, who made the third strike call that gave the Chicago White Sox a second life and perhaps the victory in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
The storm of debate was sparked Wednesday night in Chicago when White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski swung and missed on a low pitch for a third strike, which appeared to be the third out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game. Los Angeles Angels catcher Josh Paul thought he caught the ball cleanly and he and his teammates headed to the dugout. Behind him, Eddings raised his right arm and made a fist, clearly signaling strike three.
After taking a couple of steps toward the dugout, Pierzynski, apparently unsure whether the ball had been caught or had bounced in the dirt, reversed his direction and started running to first base. The difference was significant: A bounce meant Pierzynski was not out until retired by a tag or a throw to first base. Pierzynski was ruled safe at first after five minutes of debate and the White Sox went on to win, 2-1, on Joe Crede's double, tying this series at a game apiece.
Much of the controversy centered on whether Eddings should have verbally called Pierzynski out or told Paul that the ball had not been caught cleanly. The Angels maintain that Eddings never clearly specified this difference and let them assume the inning was over.
Under current rules, MLB does not require its umpires to verbally call a batter out in such a situation or to tell the catcher that he has not cleanly caught the ball. Mike Port, MLB's vice president for umpiring, said Thursday he called Eddings to ask whether he gave a verbal cue. Eddings said he did not.
"Doug was within procedure as far as the way he went about it," Port said. "The indications [on strike three] that he gave on the play was the same one he gave all game long."
But even if he was within procedure, there were some who said Eddings botched the play and was duped by Pierzynski's sprint to first base.
"I don't think that the umpire knew what he was doing; the bottom line was he called him out and then changed his call," said a former umpire who asked not to be identified because he still maintains relationships with MLB and its umpires. "He reacted to the player reacting by taking off. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look and everything from there was to cover up his mistake."
The former umpire went on to say that Eddings should have given a verbal signal to both Paul and Pierzynski that the ball had not been caught. His failure to do so, the umpire continued, proved that "If he believed the ball was caught he would have verbalized that," the ex-umpire said.
Paul said after Wednesday's game that most umpires will say something like "no catch, no catch" in such situations to make sure the catcher understands the play is still live. Not hearing such a call from Eddings, he assumed the play was over and simply tossed the ball to the mound.
Paul was not available to comment Thursday because the Angels were given the day off.
Former big league umpire Jim Evans, who now runs an umpiring school, calls the technique "preventative umpiring." He said he teaches prospective umpires to always let the players know when a ball is in play -- for instance, on a fair or foul call -- and also on close safe and out plays. For instance, if a fielder appears to tag a base runner but actually misses him, the umpire should shout "no tag" so the fielders do not assume the play is over.
"You should do it if you don't want problems," he said.
Evans stressed that he did not want to appear to be commenting on Eddings directly because he didn't want to judge a fellow umpire. But when asked what he tells his students to do when a batter swings and misses at a ball in the dirt, he said he tells them to make a definitive verbal call.
"It becomes a little confusing there," he said. "There are only two people in the ballpark who had their backs to the umpire and that's the catcher and the batter. Your signaling is important -- both physical and verbal. You've got to make your signs clear on the field."
Port, who took charge of baseball's umpires this summer, said he would be in favor of discussing a uniform system for calling third strikes. But Port said Paul was also partially responsible for not assuring that the third out was made.
"Ultimately it goes back to the player and the catcher," Port said. "He has three different ways to seal the deal, so to speak. He could ask the umpire, tag the runner or throw down to first base."
The White Sox were still a little stunned Thursday at how they won the game but seemed delighted nonetheless. They laughed that it was the irksome Pierzynski who was in the middle of the play because it seems he is always in the center of controversy.
His backup, Chris Widger, expressed sympathy for Eddings in part because it was such an awkward play.
"I hope we don't see something like that again," he said.
It was sympathy the former umpire apparently did not share. Complaining that Eddings was on the postseason umpiring team because of "politics," he said the umpire was "not ready" for such a key assignment and panicked.
"If he had sold the call better and come up and said 'you're out, you're out,' we wouldn't be talking today," he said.
Umpires are selected for postseason duty by MLB umpiring officials based on merit. They are evaluated over the course of the season using a variety of methods, including QuesTec, an electronic grading system, and other methods.
Eddings will work the right field line during Game 3 here Friday night, where he'll be close to the normally good-natured Anaheim fans. What kind of reception he'll receive remains to be seen.
"I feel sorry for the ump. I feel sorry for Josh. I feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for Crede. I feel sorry for everybody," Pierzynski told the Associated Press Thursday.
"I feel sorry that it happened. And I feel sorry that it's turned into such a national story, because there are so many other good things that came out of the game last night that people should be talking about.
"Instead, they're talking about a weird play that never happens."