Reimer: Botched replay review on Jose Altuve's would-be home run an embarrassing low point for MLB

Alex Reimer
October 18, 2018 - 9:13 am

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

We all agree replay review in baseball is often an interminable exercise. Elderly and overweight umpires like Joe West must waddle over to the third base side, put on their martian-like headphones and wait for the mysterious arbiters of the rulebook to issue an edict on their disputed calls. The process grinds an already plodding product to a halt, destroying any momentum that may have been created with the rare ball that’s put into play. But hey, at least they’re getting the calls right, we tell ourselves. Accuracy makes the painful routine worth it. 

It is always inexcusable for officials to get calls wrong after replay review. But that’s especially the case in baseball, given the monotonous and clunky nature of the whole setup. What happened to the Astros Wednesday is an abomination, and a low point in recent postseason history.

In real time, it was uncertain whether Jose Altuve’s fly ball to right field in the first inning cleared the fence for a clean home run, or if Mookie Betts’ ability to catch the ball was hindered by fan interference. According to the rulebook, “no interference shall be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk.”

Upon replay review, it’s apparent Betts’ glove reached over the right field fence and into the stands. This was not a Jeffrey Maier situation. Altuve’s fly ball was a home run, and fans were trying to catch it. Betts interfered with them, and as the rulebook says, he’s responsible for the risk.

Of course, that’s not how the play was ruled. West called spectator interference on the field, meaning replay officials were tasked with more than simply determining whether he was right or wrong. In order to reverse an umpire’s decision, there must be clear and definitive evidence he was incorrect. After three minutes and 13 seconds, it was determined there was no incontrovertible proof in this case, and as a result, West’s incorrect call stood. The Astros were robbed two runs in an 8-6 loss. For those too tired to do the arithmetic –– watching baseball for four-and-a-half hours will rob anybody of their brainpower –– that was the difference in the game.

Afterwards, West was defiant with the pool reporters when asked about the wrong ruling he made roughly 100 feet away from the play. “Here’s the whole play, here’s the whole play. He hit the ball to right field,” West said, per Hardball Talk. “He jumped up to try to make a catch. The fan interfered with him over the playing field. That’s why I called spectator interference.”

Later, West said it was a clear call in his mind.

As the New York Post’s Joel Sherman points out, it’s laughable that West was tasked with manning the right field line, anyway. The corpulent 65-year-old is the oldest umpire in the game, and clearly doesn’t possess the agility to cover the ground necessary to do his job. By all accounts, West called a nearly perfect game behind the plate in Game 3. There’s no reason to move him around.

But baseball insists on rotating its umpires throughout a series, so that’s how we wound up with an out of position West wrongly ruling fan interference on one of the most crucial plays of the season –– or getting in the way of an errant Christian Vazquez throw to second base.

The Angel Hernandez debacle in Game 3 of the ALDS showed the value of replay. Three of his four disputed calls at first base were reversed, which was embarrassment for him and those who assigned him to a playoff series, but a win for the system. Yes, it is maddening to sit through the tedious ordeal. But if the calls are right, that’s a price worth paying. 

If the calls are still wrong, however, then the whole system is pointless. Umpires are not circuit court justices. They shouldn’t be granted deference during the replay process.

Baseball chooses to prioritize West’s pride over fairness and accuracy. It’s downright insulting to the fans who stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to sit through a dramatic affair that will forever have an asterisk next to its result. 

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