By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE — A day later, the bizarre phantom double play that shouldn’t have been was still the talk of Safeco Field.
With runners on first and second and no outs in the second inning of the Seattle Mariners’ 9-5 loss to Texas on Friday, Jesus Sucre hit a ground ball to first base. Texas first baseman Mitch Moreland fielded the ball and fired to second base where shortstop Elvis Andrus stepped on second and fired back to first.
At game speed it looked as though Moreland retreated to the base and caught the relay throw from Andrus in time for the double play, complete with an emphatic out call from first base umpire Jeff Nelson.
But upon closer inspection, Moreland didn’t have the ball in his glove. Pitcher Justin Grimm, who was also covering first base but nowhere near the bag, caught the throw from Andrus.
Nelson didn’t know. Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge didn’t know. He actually came out to argue whether or not Moreland had pulled his foot on the play. The rest of the Mariners bench didn’t know.
It wasn’t until the television broadcast began showing replays that the players on the Mariners bench found out what happended on the play.
Before Saturday’s game, Nelson discussed the call with a pool reporter representing the local media.
“When you umpire that play, your focus goes to the bag, and you watch the foot touch the bag and listen for the ball hitting the mitt,” he said. “In this case, I ruled the ball was caught by the first baseman, and the ball was actually caught by the pitcher. The pitcher kind of came out of nowhere on that play. I didn’t pick that up. Obviously, looking at the replays, I wish I had.”
Wedge wasn’t going to say anything to Nelson about it pregame. He understood how the mistake was made.
“Hey, no one in here saw it, including myself,” Wedge said. “I was doing the same thing he was doing, watching the bag, listening for the pop of the ball. The only way anyone saw it was when they had access to the replay. By then, it was too late. And even then, it’s not like you look at the replay once and say, ‘Oh, there it is.’ You’re like, ‘Did I just see what I thought I saw on replay?’ Then you have to play it again. They don’t have that luxury.”
Nelson found out from Moreland what happended on the play.
“The first baseman for Texas told me a couple of innings later that the pitcher had caught the ball and not him,” he said. “That’s when I had an indication maybe the pitcher had actually caught the ball.”
What was his reaction when Moreland told him?
“I’ll kind of leave that up to everyone else to figure out,” Nelson said. “But we’re competitive and we like to get things right, and when we don’t, we’re just like anybody else. We want to get things right.”
Nelson didn’t take much solace in the fact that Wedge and the Mariners didn’t immediately see what happened.
“I haven’t seen a play like this in 25 years,” Nelson said. ” Eric was very professional in how he came out. But there’s never any consolation in a thing like this, because it’s your job to get it right. We’re competitive, too, and we want to get things right. So I’d love to say it makes you feel better, but you’re angry just like everybody else that you ruled otherwise.”
While Nelson made the call, he could have and would have taken help from the rest of the crew. They also didn’t see what happened.
“If they have something for me, they won’t hesitate, because I’ve worked with these guys a lot,” he said. “They won’t hesitate to give me assistance if they have something that can help me with that. At the same time, they also have other assignments during that play because of the nature of the play with multiple runners.”
Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan was on the bench and had no idea there was a mistake made on the play.
“Personally, I thought Moreland caught it,” Ryan said. “I didn’t even know. I heard a couple innings later about what happened. It fooled me too.”
The play was one of several questionable plays this season where umpires have seemed to make egregious errors.
Wedge doesn’t think the umpires are making more mistakes; they are just being seen and magnified. The improved technology of the television broadcasts is one reason why mistakes are being pointed out more than they have in the past.
“I think a certain part of this has always been in the game, but you can’t hide anything any more,” he said. “You have so many cameras at the ballpark, so many different angles, so much more media. And it’s all instant right now. I think to a degree that is true.”
Because of the controversial nature of some of the calls, expanded instant replay is being discussed. But to what extent?
“I don’t know,” Ryan said. “Whatever help they need that we can give them … maybe it’s something we need to explore a little more. Nobody wants to look stupid out there. That’s maybe one of those things that maybe someone is upstairs and they pick up the phone and appeal it really quick. I’m definitely not in favor of making these games 51/2 hours long.”
Wedge isn’t sure either.
“I think we are pushing towards it,” he said. “Some of that’s going to be inevitable. It just has to be tempered. I think that’s where everybody struggles, where do you draw the line? I’ve always been a big believer in the human element of it, but I think there’s a place for the replay. I think for the guys making the decisions, that’s the tough part — where do you draw the line?”
What would he do if he were Bud Selig?
“I don’t know,” Wedge said. “I’m glad I’m not commissioner. When you started it, you opened up the box, so now you have to decide how far you’re going to take it.”