Amid the furor over the World Cup referee whose inexplicable whistle blowing denied Team USA a game-winning goal Friday in South Africa, it was easy to miss a baseball umpiring crew’s decision to overrule a wrong call 12 hours earlier in Kansas City.
During the bottom of the fifth inning in a game between the Astros and Royals, with one out and a runner on second base, Yuniesky Betancourt lined a pitch that Houston shortstop Geoff Blum fielded on a bounce. Blum was ready to make a routine throw to first when he heard umpire Mike Everitt rule the batter out. Because the baserunner, Mike Aviles, was halfway to third, Blum changed course and tossed the ball to second for the inning-ending double play.
As the players jogged off the field, the umpires gathered in a huddle and achieved consensus: Everitt’s angle prevented him from calling the play correctly. Their solution? Betancourt was out at first (even though no play was made on him), while Aviles was allowed to advance to third (even though he never got there).
“We thought the fair thing to do was change the call and make Betancourt out at first,” crew chief Tim McClelland said later. “Our other alternatives weren’t very good.”
So how is an otherwise unremarkable midseason baseball game between two teams going nowhere pertinent to a controversy undermining the credibility of the most-watched sporting event on the planet?
It’s pertinent because the umpires adhered to the cardinal rule of officiating – get the call right – while the soccer referee Koman Coulibaly had no such flexibility. The two linesmen assisting Coulibaly weren’t permitted to overrule the no-goal verdict.
It’s pertinent, too, because McClelland was able to discuss the umpires’ compromise with the managers during the game, and then with the media afterward.
Coulibaly was under orders imposed by FIFA, soccer’s international ruling body, to refrain from talking about The Goal That Wasn’t.
I’m a lifelong fan, but it would be silly to tout Major League Baseball as an internationally renowned exemplar of progressive thinking. The steroids scandal revealed just how clueless baseball executives can be.
Still, MLB looks like a cutting-edge operation, efficient and streamlined, compared to the dinosaurs overseeing FIFA.
Take officiating: In baseball, four umpires work regular-season games. For special occasions – the All-Star Game, the playoffs and the World Series – two umpires are added to the crew. In soccer, one referee is vested with complete authority. And during the World Cup, an occasion so special it’s contested once every four years? Uh, one referee is vested with complete authority.
Take video technology: Besieged by the public’s negative reaction to some long foul balls erroneously declared homers (and vice versa), MLB commissioner Bud Selig last year approved limited use of replay review. The replay system was installed virtually overnight, in time to aid umpires during the 2009 postseason.
Although MLB’s replay-review system isn’t anything close to perfect, it’s an indication baseball is governed by some open minds. Soccer? Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, disdains replays because, among other concerns, video technology “can be very costly, and therefore not appropriate on a global level.”
Hello, Sepp? Anybody home? We’re talking about hiring one person to sit in front of a TV monitor for every World Cup game.
Blatter is a piece of work. This the same nattering nabob of Neanderthal who suggested, six years ago, that women’s soccer might become more popular if the athletes “wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts … to create a more female aesthetic.”
Blatter’s answer to those wondering why a referee’s seemingly artibrary whistle turned a potentially transcendent moment in U.S. soccer history into a fiasco? He donated a Twitter link to remarks he made … in March.
“Fans,” Blatter said then, “love to debate any given incident in a game.”
In other words, fans are happy that Maurice Edu’s goal off Landon Donovan’s free kick – the goal that culminated the Yanks’ stunning second-half comeback from a 2-0 deficit – was rendered moot by a whistle blown for no particular reason. Fans are happy, Blatter insists, because they love to debate.
And yet, there are reports Koman Coulibaly’s career as a World Cup referee is quietly approaching a halt. (The emphasis is on quietly. The first FIFA press conference addressing the controversy is scheduled for Monday – three days after the fact.) If fans love this debate so much, why is the referee likely heading home to Mali?
Please don’t take this as another “I hate soccer because most of the games end up as 1-1 draws” rant. The allure of the World Cup, I get. The passionate rivalries, I get. The flow of the game, with its many-textured nuances, I get. Heck, I even get Sepp Blatter’s contention that the prevailing obnoxiousness of vuvuzelas represent the sound of Africa, even as I suspect it’s the sound of 60,000 tourists in a stadium tooting plastic horns made in China.
What I don’t get is the backwards soccer culture that prohibits a referee from acknowledging his mistake.
By the way, that Kansas City Royals fifth inning extended by umpires’ conference? Scott Podsednik, following Betancourt to the plate, ended the threat with a fly ball. The trapped catch leading to a double play – changed to ground ball out that put a runner on third – means nothing.
Except the umpires talked, and allowed common sense to prevail during an uncommon circumstance. They got the call right. For the players on the field and the fans in the stands, for all the rest of us, that means everything.