The appeal of appeal plays

One of the stranger things about baseball, especially when compared to other sports, is that an umpire can witness a breach of the rules, but doesn’t necessarily have to rule on the infringement.  In football, imagine if somebody lined up in the neutral zone and then proceeded to sack the quarterback, but no penalty was called unless the offense specifically appealed to the line judge for a ruling that the defender was offsides.  Well, that’s basically the situation that exists for certain aspects of the rules of baseball.

This is a remnant of the game’s origins.  Back in the 1850s, an umpire would not make a ruling on any play unless asked to do so by a player on one of the teams.  There were few exceptions to this (one being calling balls foul so that runners would know to go back to their respective bases).  As the game got more competitive, so many challenges were made that by the 1871 formation of the National Association, the onus had gradually shifted to the umpire to rule on most plays.

There were and are still vestigial exceptions, however.  As Peter Morris noted in A Game of Inches (Volume 1), a book I highly recommend (it is basically a compendium of historical baseball firsts), appeals were made for rulings on the legality of pitching deliveries “for many years afterward”.  There are still several appeal situations in the game for which an umpire is not required to rule unless asked, including a batter batting out of turn (almost always a lineup card mishap), a runner missing a base, a runner leaving too early while tagging up on a fly out, and check swings (a more recent development in the appeal world).

I want to write mainly about appeals involving baserunning snafus, but there were two lineup botch jobs in May within five days of each other, and each deserves mention.  The latter of these resulted in Houston’s Michael Bourn batting twice to lead off a game.  After singling, Milwaukee appealed that he had batted out of order (which he had, the Astros having submitted the wrong lineup card), so as a result Kaz Matsui (who should have been the leadoff hitter) was called out and Bourn then batted again as the #2 hitter, this time drawing a walk.

Earlier that same week Tampa Bay had submitted a lineup card in a game against Cleveland that featured two third basemen and no DH.  That situation was notable because it was later determined the umpires had erred on allowing Evan Longoria to remain eligible to play.

Of course, that type of thing happens occasionally.  Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams once submitted a lineup that required Nolan Ryan to face one batter (Gary Ross was supposed to have started the game, but Williams had absent-mindedly written Ryan’s name in the pitcher’s spot in the lineup instead):

Ryan was on the bench and in uniform. But he was wearing tennis shoes and no protective cup. Williams explained the problem.

“Thank goodness he understood,” Williams wrote in his autobiography. “He went out there and stiffly faced one batter, who grounded out to shortstop, at which point I immediately yanked him from the game.”

Imagine if there had been a comebacker…

On May 18, Ryan Church of the Mets was called out on appeal for missing third base during a game against the Dodgers.  It was a key play in the contest, as Church would have otherwise scored the go-ahead run in the 11th inning.  Instead, the game remained tied, and Los Angeles would score in the bottom half of that same inning, winning the game 3-2.  Church’s baserunning gaffe generated considerable discussion in several quarters, including a SABR listserv to which I subscribe.  This is what happened:

In the top of the 11th, Church singled with two outs, his second hit since entering in the eighth as a defensive replacement in rightfield. [Angel] Pagan followed with a long drive into the right-center gap, a shot that apparently allowed Church to score easily. But Church stepped in front of third base and over it – an obvious miss.

Church later said he felt like he brushed the edge of the base with his foot. “I thought I touched it,” he said. “That’s why I kept going. If I had any doubt, I would have stopped.”

Third baseman [Mark] Loretta yelled for the baseball – Dodgers manager Joe Torre noticed Church’s mistake, too – and with Pagan standing on third, got the appeal in his favor. Inning over, score still tied at 2.

Church may have felt he had touched the bag, but according to one SABR member at the game, it was obvious even from a vantage point high in the stands that Church had missed third base.  It was so obvious, in fact, that there wasn’t an appeal play — Loretta called for the ball immediately, with the putout recorded as 8-6-2-5.

What if there had been an appeal situation, though?  What if time had been called after the ball was thrown to the catcher?  Then the pitcher would have had to have initiated an appeal by throwing to third base, with Pagan at the bag following his would-be triple.

Apparently Phil Mushnick thought there was an appeal play when he blasted Mike Francesa for “big-timing” a caller on Francesa’s radio show who wanted to discuss the play.  That wasn’t the case, although that doesn’t really let Francesa off the hook (he thought the ball was dead, too).  Since this isn’t WFAN, though, and hypotheticals can occasionally be fun, we can discuss what the caller (who identified himself as a high school baseball coach) tried to say:

…in such rare situations — when there’s a call for an appeal play at third with a runner already there, as there was Monday in L.A. — he would instruct the player on third (Pagan) to run toward home the moment the pitcher starts the “live ball” appeal by touching the rubber and beginning his throw to third….the team in the field (Dodgers) must make a split-second move: Follow through on the appeal at third — in Monday’s case risk Church being called safe, thus the Mets would have a two-run lead (Church scoring, followed by Pagan) — or throw home to tag the runner (Pagan), thus no appeal at third could be made and the Mets would be conceded that one, go-ahead run (Church).

…The only way the Mets could not enter the bottom of the 11th with a lead was if the Dodgers stayed focused enough to carry out the appeal and Church was ruled to have missed third.

That would have been rather clever.  One of the key things about an appeal play is that it technically isn’t a “play”.  If it were, you wouldn’t be able to make consecutive appeals, because once the ball is “live” you can’t make an appeal after initiating a play.  So in the example given above, if the Dodgers had thrown home to put out Pagan, that would have been a play, and they would have lost the right to appeal Church missing the bag.

Other notable (or amusing) appeal situations:

From the amusing department, we have Melvin Mora, baserunning savant.  Retrosheet describes the bottom of the 5th of an April 2001 game between the Orioles and Red Sox as follows:

ORIOLES 5TH: Ripken grounded out (second to first); Mora was hit
by a pitch; Fordyce lined to third [Mora out at second (pitcher
to second)]; 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB.  Red Sox 1, Orioles 0.

Well, I guess that mention of Mora out at second base by the pitcher to the second baseman should tell you something.  Baseball Digest has the story:

Mora [was] on first base with one out when Brook Fordyce hit a line drive to Boston third baseman Shea Hillenbrand. The Red Sox rookie threw errantly to first to double up Mora and the ball went into dead territory.

Umpire Brian Gorman instructed Mora to go to third base, reminding him that a runner gets two bases on an overthrow that goes into dead territory. Apparently, Mora took Gorman literally and went directly to third without touching second base…

…The moment Mora touched third, he could not return to touch second base since the ball was dead. Orioles’ third base coach Tom Trebelhorn asked the third base umpire about the possibility of Mora returning to second before the Red Sox appealed the missed base. The ump nixed the idea immediately.

Before the next pitch, Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez threw to second to appeal Mora’s missed base. The appeal was upheld and the putout was recorded 1-4.

Oof.  That reminds me a little of the 1976 Little League World Series title game, when a Japanese runner on second base was so excited about scoring a run following a base hit that he ran straight home from second, without bothering to run to third base.  The opposing team (from California) appealed to third base for the putout.  Japan won anyway, 10-3.  I guess you can’t compare a major leaguer’s mistake to that of a Little Leaguer, although I suppose they may have been about the same age…

Also in the funny (and more well-known) department would be Marv Throneberry’s baserunning gaffe in this game, where he was ruled out for failing to touch second base on a triple.  According to legend, after the successful appeal manager Casey Stengel went out to argue, but was intercepted by his own first base coach, Cookie Lavagetto.  The coach told him not to bother, because Throneberry had also missed first base.  I don’t know if that story is really true (I’ve also read a version in which Stengel is met by the first base umpire instead of Lavagetto), but it’s part of the lore of the 1962 Mets, and whether or not it’s factual probably doesn’t matter much.  At least Throneberry got a Miller Lite commercial out of his reputation.

In terms of playoff appeals, one of the more famous, if not the most famous, happened in Game 5 of the 1991 NLCS, when Atlanta’s David Justice was ruled to have missed third base while scoring what would have been the go-ahead run in that game, a contest eventually won by the Pittsburgh 1-0.

Justice claimed that he had actually touched the bag, and I think he probably did, but he stumbled over it, and it was such an awkward move that it’s not surprising Jay Bell asked for an appeal.  Frank Pulli then called Justice out.  It would have been a much bigger deal, of course, if the Braves had not rallied to win the series.

In the linked article, Dave Anderson compares Justice’s blunder to the famous “Merkle’s Boner” play, which is understandable, although the play involving Merkle wasn’t actually an appeal.  Johnny Evers retrieved the ball (or some ball; whether it was the actual ball used in the play is debatable) and stepped on second base, and got the out call from umpire Hank O’Day.  That play was still considered “live”, even with all the fans overrunning the field.

Of course, that Cubs-Giants game from 1908 was an end-game situation, and making a standard appeal in that scenario may not be possible.  It’s not unlike what happened in a memorable 22-inning affair at Montreal in 1989 between the Dodgers and Expos.

Los Angeles would eventually win the game 1-0 on a home run by Rick Dempsey (off El Presidente, Dennis Martinez), but Montreal thought it had won the game in the bottom of the 16th inning, when Larry Walker appeared to have scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly.  The Dodgers appealed that Walker had left third base early, though, and he was ruled out by third base umpire “Balking” Bob Davidson.

According to one observer who was at the game, Davidson did not immediately leave his position after the play (and presumably the game) had ended, which may have suggested to the Dodgers that an appeal play might prove successful.  I think that illustrates an inherent problem with the “see evil, don’t say evil unless asked” aspect of appeal plays, to be honest.

Tangent:  that game was also notable because Expos mascot Youppi! was ejected from the game in the 11th inning, which is believed to have been the first time a mascot was ejected from a major league game by an umpire.  Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had complained after being disturbed by some Youppi! antics on L.A.’s dugout roof.  Youppi! did reappear later in the game, however, although he (it?) was restricted to Montreal’s dugout roof.

One more appeal story, a side note to one of baseball’s more famous (or infamous) regular season games, the George Brett “pine tar” game.  After AL president Lee McPhail had overruled the umpires’ decision, and that Brett’s home run stood, the Yankees and Royals resumed the game — 25 days later.  Billy Martin had one more argument to make, and it would have been a good one, but somebody in the league office had been thinking along with the Yankee skipper:

Before the first pitch to Hal McRae (who followed Brett in the lineup), Martin challenged Brett’s home run on the grounds that Brett had not touched all the bases, and maintained that there was no way for the umpires (a different crew than the one who worked July 24) to dispute this. But umpire Davey Phillips was ready for Martin, producing an affidavit signed by the July 24 umpires stating that Brett had indeed touched all the bases. An irate Martin continued to argue with the umpires and was ejected from the game.

I think that’s a good way to end this post — with an appeal that was rejected.

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