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How Baseball Has Changed!

(Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t really complain much about the past two weekends without new baseball because I’ve had the best of old baseball: my two favorite Game 3’s ever. Last Sunday was from the 1969 World Series (“the Tommy Agee Game” for Met fans); this Sunday was the 1986 National League playoff. (No point calling it the “NLCS.” There was only one playoff series in each league — no wildcard.) The series pitted my guys against the Houston Astros, who made that best Met team ever (world champs with 108 wins regular season wins) fight for every inch.

It was an early October, mostly cloudy Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium. The game is famous for Lenny Dykstra’s two-run homer in the ninth, to give the Mets a 6–5 win and a 2–1 lead in the series. That was big because Mike Scott, who had New York’s number all season long and had bested Dwight Gooden in Game 1, was ready to pitch on three days’ rest the next day (a Sunday-night game that I attended, and that the Mets, again unable to touch Scott, lost).

There were so many memorable plays in Game 3, and in the series, which the Mets finally won by outlasting Houston in Game 6, a 16-inning classic (with Scott waiting in the wings if there were a Game 7). Yet, I want to focus on one fairly routine play that no one remembers. In a nutshell, it speaks volumes about how much baseball has changed for the worse. (They can’t ruin it, but they’re trying.)

Top of the seventh, score tied 4–4. Maddeningly, Mets reliever Rick Aguilera walked the Astros’ Bill Doran on four pitches, leading off the inning after the Mets had rallied to tie. Doran is now on third because the next hitter, Billy Hatcher, has reached first on a bunt and a bad throw by Met’s third-baseman Ray Knight dribbled down the right-field line. With nobody out, the Mets’ infield retreats to double-play depth, meaning they are conceding the run but hoping to get two outs on one play.

Sure enough, the next hitter, Danny Walling, does exactly what the Mets were hoping for: He grounds Aguilera’s pitch sharply but right at second-baseman Tim Teufel — easy double-play ball. Except Teufel has brain-lock. For the barest moment, he looks at home and considers trying to throw out Doran. He thinks better of it, but the hesitation is all that’s needed to make a sure double-play into a close call.

Teufel flips to the shortstop Rafael Santana, who steps on second and makes a decent throw to first. The Mets’ great first-baseman Keith Hernandez stretches, catches the ball, and deftly pulls his foot off the bag to create the illusion that the throw easily beat the runner. But it is actually a very close play, and first-base ump Dutch Rennert calls Walling safe.

The play sounds like no big deal, but two things happen that involve skill and baseball smarts that have been taken out of today’s game; while one thing that seriously detracts from the game today does not happen:

  1. Santana’s throw is just okay rather than strong because Hatcher makes a great slide into second — or, I should say, into the vicinity of second, about three feet to the right-field side of the bag. The slide swings Santana’s momentum to his left — he can’t step into the throw. Today, Hatcher’s excellent slide, though it did not endanger Santana in any way, would be called interference; both Hatcher and the Walling would be called out.
  2. The replays, though they are not as multi-angle and slo-mo precise as today, clearly show that Walling should have been called out. But Dutch Rennert blew the call. Or did he? In the ABC booth, the game is being called by Keith Jackson and Tim McCarver, the stellar former catcher who became the best TV analyst ever — baseball’s answer to the NFL’s John Madden. McCarver concedes that the throw, ever so slightly, beat Walling; but he goes back to Tim Teufel’s moment of hesitation. Teufel, McCarver observes, made a mental mistake, and when a player does that, an umpire is apt to penalize the gaffe by giving the opponent the benefit of a close call.
  3. Relatedly, such a thing would not happen today because teams are now permitted to challenge the call based on replays. In 1986, tied Game 3, there is no replay. Today, there are endless replays, which, in a tight playoff game, often stop play for five to ten minutes. Not only does this sap the drama from the action; the dumb play does not get penalized. We’ve now made a judgment that it is better to delay the game interminably in order to get the play precisely right, than to risk the occasional bad call but keep things moving along. As a result, the umps are less tuned in (because they know a bad call will e-v-e-n-t-u-a-l-l-y be overturned); mental errors do not factor into the ump’s call (so they are encouraged); and the games take often four hours . . . or more.

On the bright side, when the Astros were finally retired in the seventh, the sun came out for a few minutes, allowing ABC to show a gorgeous panoramic view of the World Trade Center.

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