Thursday, June 03, 2010

About Last Night

You've probably never heard me say this before, and I really don't like saying it at all, so I'm only going to say it once: Bud Selig was right.

You know what I'm talking about. It's the same thing everybody's talking about today.

Let's get a couple of things out front right away.

First, Joyce's call was wrong. No question about it. He said it, the runner said it, everybody knows it.

Second, it was a lot closer than anyone is letting on. Look at all the replays, from multiple angles, and it's clear that it was really pretty close, and the ball appears to be bouncing around in Galarraga's glove for a period, and he doesn't have control of the ball until he stops bobbling it. From Joyce's angle, in real time, I don't doubt that he looked safe.

Third, if you watch enough baseball, what you see is that the umpires are right almost all the time. It's small consolation on that one occasion when they blow a big one, but they almost always get the right answer at a very hard job under a lot of pressure.

So what should have happened? Is there some principled way that Selig could have done what almost the whole world wanted? I don't think so.

A philosophy professor I had once defined a game as an activity in which an arbitrarily selected goal is pursued by arbitrarily restricted means.

In other words, in a very real sense, the game is the rules.

From the Official Rules:

(a) The league president shall appoint one or more umpires to officiate at each league championship game. The umpires shall be responsible for the conduct of the game in accordance with these official rules and for maintaining discipline and order on the playing field during the game.

9.02 (a) Any umpire’s decision which involves judgment, such as, but not limited to, whether a batted ball is fair or foul, whether a pitch is a strike or a ball, or whether a runner is safe or out, is final.

Final. That's what the rule says, and that's what it means.

Even the most casual observer is familiar with the concept of playing a game under protest, but that doesn't offer an out here, because a somewhat less casual observer knows that a protest is not available for judgment calls:

4.19 PROTESTING GAMES. Each league shall adopt rules governing procedure for protesting a game, when a manager claims that an umpire’s decision is in violation of these rules. No protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire. In all protested games, the decision of the League President shall be final.

Even if it is held that the protested decision violated the rules, no replay of the game will be ordered unless in the opinion of the League President the violation adversely affected the protesting team’s chances of winning the game.

But wait, some will say, what about the Pine Tar Incident? That was actually not at all a counterexample. The Pine Tar Incident was a routine protest of a call, in which the decision of the umpire under protest was not a judgment call (e.g. how high up the barrel of George Brett's bat the pine tar went) but what the consequence of that determination should have been.

So it's clear that a protest would have been unavailable to change the result. Is there any other basis to reverse Joyce's decision? Many commentators have referred to the "best interests clause" of baseball's Constitution as a panacea, but I think that this is misguided.

First off, it's very hard to find out what the best interests clause actually says. People who know it exists understand that it gives the commissioner broad power, but they don't really know what it says. I went to some effort to find it, and here's what it says:

Art. II, Sec. 2. The functions of the Commissioner shall include:

(b) To investigate, either upon complaint or upon the Commisioner's own initiative, any act, transaction or practice charged, alleged, or suspected to be not in the best interests of the national game of Baseball, with authrotiy to summon person and to order the production of documents, and, in case of refusal to appear or produce, to impose such penalties as are hereinafter provded.

(c) To determine, after investigation, what preventive, remedical or punitive action is appropriate in the premises, and to take such action either against Major League Clubs or individuals, as the case may be.

I haven't been able to find any instances where the commissioner has interfered with the outcome of a game or play call by an umpire using this provision, and it doesn't appear to me that such a step is contemplated by the Clause. It's ordinarily used to stop owners from doing things, like when they didn't let Charlie O. Finley from his wholesale giveaway of the Athletics. It has arguably been getting broader under Bud Lite, but I still don't see how it applies to forcing umpires to change their decisions, even an umpire who desperately wishes he could.

Any other ideas? I saw a suggestion earlier today that "In 1991, a panel headed by then-commissioner Fay Vincent took a look at the record book and decided to throw out 50 no-hitters for various reasons."

This is true. The records have been amended for various reasons at various times. For instance, I think (it may have been part of Vincent's review) they went through all the box scores and awarded Hack Wilson two additional RBI, bringing his season record to 192.

Still, this isn't the same thing. In 1991 the Committee on Statistical Accuracy decertified a number of no-hitters based on a rule change that the pitcher must pitch at least nine complete innings to be credited with a no-hitter. That change was based on the application of a new rule to the play on the field and the decisions made by the umpires on the field.

Like it or not, the game is governed by what happens on the field. From the perspective of a lifelong fan, I think it's very important that the games be conducted according to the rules. That's why Selig was way off base when he called the All-Star game a tie a few years back, and why he was right today. Joyce could have changed the call or asked one of the other umpires to tell him what he saw, but the call was his and I think that should be the end of it.

One other thing: people have been suggesting that in a situation like this every umpire would, and should, give the pitcher the "benefit of the doubt", by which I assume they mean they should have called the runner out even if they had some doubt, or just because it was a close play and it meant giving him a perfect game. I think this is completely wrong. Obviously he would, and should, have had a perfect game. On the other hand, the umpire's job, and obligation, is to call the game, and every play in the game, honestly. Once you say they should start shading their judgment because of how they want things to turn out you're on very shaky ground. It's exactly what the Supreme Court did in Bush v. Gore, and we saw how ugly that turned out.

The decision today, and the stoic acceptance of the decision both last night and this morning by Armando Galarraga, is a statement in favor of the Rule of Law, and I praise everyone involved in today's decision.

Even Bud Lite.

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Blogger Rich said...


As you understand, even good rules and highly skilled persons applying them can't be perfect.
In order for things to work, it is sometimes more important that a dispute be resolved than that it be resolved correctly.
That doesn’t mean that we should not try to design decision-making processes to get things right. It only means that humans and the processes we set up are fallible and that we will not always succeed.
If the game must go on, we must understand that this is so.
As you mention, acceptance of the decision is a credit to Armando Galarraga and to the others involved.
And as you suggest, here baseball has something to teach us about the Rule of Law. You can see my thinking about those implications at my post. The Imperfect “Perfect Game” and the Rule of Law.


June 06, 2010 4:01 AM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

Thanks, Rich. We have struck upon a fascinating debate.

I have plenty of sympathy with people who say that the outcome was just wrong and it has to be fixed, rules be damned. When I was in law school I took a class on Communist Legal Systems, and one striking aspect of the Soviet legal system was that they had no limit on appeals: in their view, an incorrect decision could not be allowed to stand, no matter how many appeals and how much time were necessary to correct the error.

As I've thought about my professor's formulation I've often found reason to quibble somewhat, because I don't agree that the means of achieving the goals are selected purely arbitrarily. The rules of almost any games are a combination of arbitrariness and logic, and they are periodically adjusted to make sure that the rules and the game still "work". Unfortunately, they are also sometimes adjusted for extrinsic reasons, like attracting more TV viewership (see the tie-breaker rule in tennis or "rally scoring" in televised racquetball tournaments).

Some of the arguments for what should have been done in the Galarraga game attempt to adhere to the form of the rule of law by doing what we sometimes see in the real practice of law: creating more and more complicated exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions to create the impression that we are doing something other than just aiming for a result and fashioning a rule to achieve it.

The reason I mention Bush v. Gore is that it was exactly that kind of exercise. There is absolutely no question that the winning side voted the way they did simply because they wanted to install Bush as president. We can know this not only because of the conservative politics of the majority, but also by the fact that none of them would ever support an equal protection argument in other circumstances, and by the fact that they specifically stated that they were applying a standard that would never be applicable to any other case again. In short, their decision had the infallible hallmarks of results-driven jurisprudence.

I wish it were less common that, in my experience, it is.

June 06, 2010 12:14 PM  

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