The so-called "human element" that Major League Baseball would have you believe is so essential to the spirt of the game was all over the place in Queens on Friday night when Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in the 51-year history of the New York Mets.
It was present in the euphoric reaction of the fans at Citi Field to a moment that many of them thought might never come. It was reflected in the glassy eyes of Mets skipper Terry Collins as he watched his "hero" pitch the ninth. You could see it in the steely nonchalance of Santana as he worked those final frames as if they were any other. You could certainly see it in the actions of that exuberant fan who charged onto the field to join in the celebration after Santana struck out David Freese to indelibly etch his name into Mets annals.
And, perhaps most conspicuously, the "human element" was on display during the top of the sixth inning when third base umpire Adrian Johnson incorrectly ruled a hit by Carlos Beltran to be a foul ball. Batting from the right side, Beltran turned on the ball and rifled it up the line. The ball bounced on the white line hemming in the infield, sending chalk flying. The ball was fair. It was a hit, likely a double. But it was called foul, enabling Santana to keep the no-hit bid alive.
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This error by Johnson brought out the human element in Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo, who began barking about the play immediately. Beltran then knocked an ensuing pitch a few feet in from the line where it could be fielded by David Wright, who threw to first to record the first out of the inning. Santana would record 11 more outs before his historic task was accomplished. Afterwards, everyone was asked about the play.
"It was in front of his face, and he called it foul. I thought it was a fair ball," Beltran told reporters. "At the end of the day, one hit wasn't going to make a difference in the ballgame. We needed to score more runs and we didn't do that."
Given how well Santana was pitching, Beltran is very likely correct when he notes that one hit wasn't going to make a difference in the outcome of the game. Could the Cardinals really have built a rally? But for Santana, the Mets, and the franchise's fans, that hit would have made all the difference.
"The umpire made his call and that was the end of it," Santana said when asked about the play.
On Saturday morning, the St. Louis Dispatch didn't seem to quite agree with Santana that the call "was the end of it." The front page of the Sports section featured a headline questioning the integrity of the Santana's accomplishment.
The last time that a blown call factored into a classic pitching performance was when Jim Joyce botched a call that should have ended what should have been a perfect game in June 2010. To his credit, Joyce immediately admitted to his blunder, seemingly genuinely distraught that he had factored into the outcome of the game in such dramatic fashion. After that epic first base fail, the calls for expanded instant replay were loud and clear.
"As Jim Joyce said in his postgame comments, there is no dispute that last night's game should have ended differently," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "While the human element has always been an integral part of baseball, it is vital that mistakes on the field be addressed. Given last night's call and other recent events, I will examine our umpiring system, the expanded use of instant replay and all other related features."
After a missed call at home plate decided the outcome of an extra-inning game between the Pirates and the Braves in July 2011, Joe Torre, in his capacity as Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations, again referenced the "human element" of the game.
"I have heard many discussions on umpiring and technology over the past two years, including both the pros and the cons of expanding replay," Torre said in statement, via Hardball Talk. "However, most in the game recognize that the human element always will be part of baseball and instant replay can never replace all judgment calls by umpires."
In the case of the Armando Galarraga near-perfect game (which has it's own Wikipedia page), the human element cost a player what would likely have been the crowning achievement of his career. In the case of the Braves-Pirates game, the human element seemed to cost a team a win. But in Santana's case, the ramifications of the mistake were entirely different. The gaffe enabled something "amazing," as Johan put it, to happen. Does that make a difference? MLB didn't alter the outcomes of those other two games involving incorrect calls by an umpire and it would be shocking if they did anything here.
But Should Johan's no-hitter count? Is the St. Louis Dispatch right about its asterisk? Or should fans focus on the human element displayed when Mets outfielder Mike Baxter sacrificed his body, running into the wall, to make a key catch in the game?
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