Saturday, October 6, 2012

Top 10 Worst Officials' Calls Ever

For those of you who may not have seen the apparently blown call that cost the Atlanta Braves the NL Wild Card play-in game against the St. Louis Cardinals...

That was NOT an "infield fly." True, there was a shortstop going after it, but it was nearly 200 feet from home plate.  That was not an infield anything.

There's no guarantee that the Braves would have won -- indeed, we can't even be sure that one run would have scored on the play.

Still, it looked bad.

Looking worse, though, were the Braves fans. They put on the worst display of fan behavior at an MLB game since Game 4 of the 1999 ALCS, when the Red Sox fans acted like animals.

Will this call go down in history as one of the worst ever? It has yet to stand the test of time, of course. Here are my picks for the...

Top 10 Worst Officials' Calls in Sports History

I'll restrict this to the major leagues. So if you're looking for the 5th down call that gave the University of Colorado a shot at a National Championship it was awarded but did not deserve, or Charles White's "phantom touchdown" in the 1979 Rose Bowl, or the Olympic boxing decision that denied Roy Jones Jr. a Gold Medal, or even the travesty of the 1972 Olympic basketball final, you won't find it here.

And if you're looking for the Jeffrey Maier play, forget it: I explained a few days ago why Oriole fans need to shut the hell up about it. Tony Tarasco was never going to catch thatjball.

And I'm not going to count that game-ending call in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. Those were replacement referees, not men who have trained for years and years to get these kinds of calls right in these kinds of games. Yes, it was a screwup. But the NFL is to blame, for hiring those men -- not the men themselves. And unless the Green Bay Packers end up missing the Playoffs by one game (they won't, they'll make it), this one won't hold up as one of the worst calls ever, because it will end up as a blip on the radar screen, however ugly the blip might be.

10. June 9, 2012, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada, WBO Welterweight Championship. Champion Manny Pacquiao was judged by the HBO announcers covering the fight to have won 11 rounds, his opponent Timothy Bradley just 1. When the fight was over, Bradley turned to the fight's promoter, Bob Arum, and said, "I tried hard, but I couldn't beat him." Bradley's manager, Cameron Dunkin, said he scored the fight 8 rounds to 4 for Pacquiao.

But 2 judges scored it 115-113 for Bradley, the other 115-113 for Pacquiao (and it shouldn't have even been that close). Afterward, the head of the WBO had a 5-judge panel review it. All 5 scored it in favor of Pacquiao, and only 1 even had it close.

This may have been the most egregious boxing judges' futzup ever, although it was hardly the most important: It was a welterweight bout, it was for the WBO title (not the undisputed, the WBA, the WBC, or even the rinky-dink IBF), and it just happened so we don't know what the historical consequences will be. That's why I'm putting it at the top (or bottom, as you may prefer to view it). But it was the first boxing decision that made social media (Twitter and Facebook) go haywire.

9. November 26, 1998, Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan. How do you futz up a coin toss? Well, however you do it, don't do it on Thanksgiving Day, when every football fan in the country is watching.

The Detroit Lions were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Lions' annual Turkey Day classic -- and this was '98, Barry Sanders' last season, so they weren't yet a joke club. The game went to overtime, and referee Phil Luckett told visiting Captain Jerome Bettis to call the coin in the air.  Bettis started to say, "Heads," but cut himself off in mid-syllable, and yelled, "Tails!" The coin landed tails, but Luckett went with the incomplete word that Bettis said, and awarded the toss to the Lions. The Lions kicked a field goal to win the game with the Steelers not even getting the ball once in the overtime.

This play inspired 2 rule changes. First, the player making the call now does so while the ref is still holding the coin, and the ref repeats the call before flipping, with his microphone being piped into both the stadium public-address system and the television microphones, so no one, inside the stadium or outside, has any doubt. That change took effect the next season. But it would be many more years before the NFL changed its rule so that the team winning the toss must score a touchdown to automatically win; if they only kick a field goal, the opposing team then gets the ball and a chance to win.

Luckett was also the referee 10 days later at the Meadowlands, when Vinny Testaverde of the Jets appeared to score a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks, but the replay showed that the ball did not cross the plane of the goal line. Head linesman Earnie Frantz ruled it a touchdown, and Luckett, the man in charge, let it stand. The following season, the NFL instituted instant replay.

That didn't stop Luckett from being involved in a controversial play again the next season -- and this time, it was in the Playoffs. Luckett ruled that Frank Wychek's pass to Kevin Dyson, leading to Dyson's touchdown run that won the game for the Tennessee Titans against the Buffalo Bills was a lateral, and thus legal, and the play stood. This was the right call to make: It was a lateral. The Bills haven't made the Playoffs since, 12 years later, the longest drought in the League.

Oh yeah: Luckett is no longer an NFL referee. Instead, he's an officials' supervisor. Guess where he was when that awful call was made in Seattle. You guessed it: In the NFL's suite, overseeing the replacement officials. If he tried to convince the replacement refs to overturn the winning Seahawk touchdown, he failed to do so.

8. October 12, 1997, Pro Player Stadium (now Sun Life Stadium), Miami Gardens, Florida, National League Championship Series Game 5.  Almost continuously, from 1991 to 2005, the Atlanta Braves' pitchers -- particularly their "Big 3" starters, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- got gift calls from home plate umpires with impossibly wide strike zones.

I distinctly remember the 1998 All-Star Game in Denver: Maddux struck out Alex Rodriguez (then still with the Seattle Mariners) to end the top of the 1st inning.  When NBC came back from commercial, Joe Morgan told Bob Costas, "Now, this is a perfect pitch, Bob... " And the replay showed... the pitch was 8 inches outside.  Morgan is the greatest 2nd baseman I've ever seen, but one of the worst broadcasters.

But the preceding October, the Braves got hosed by a plate umpire with a wide strike zone. The ump was Eric Gregg, who was known for his wide gut. Livan Hernandez struck out 15 batters, to set an NLCS record that still stands. Many of these were on pitches that were well outside, including the last, on Fred McGriff.

The Marlins would win Game 6 in Atlanta, and become the first Wild Card team to win a Pennant -- the first Pennant winner who did not finish first in either its League (1876-1968) or its Division (1969-1997).

7. March 8, 2011, Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain, UEFA Champions League Round of 16, 2nd Leg.  I'm taking this one personally, because it was my club that got screwed.  Barcelona were hosting Arsenal, and Arsenal were leading from the 1st Leg, 2-1.

Arsenal, as is usually the case at this point in the season, were staggered with injuries: Centreback Thomas Vermaelen was replaced by Johan Djourou, midfielder Aaron Ramsey was replaced by the useless Abou Diaby, and after only 19 minutes goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny got hurt and had to be replaced by Manuel Almunia, known to Arsenal fans as "The Clown."

Barca, meanwhile, were missing defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, but had the usual offensive suspects all available: Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Sergio Busquets.

In spite of this, the Gunners held off Barca until injury time of the first half, when Captain Cesc Fabregas sent a what-the-hell backheel pass toward Jack Wilshere, but it ended up at Iniesta, who passed to Messi, who put the ball in the net.

Fabregas, a Barcelona native who'd been purchased by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger from their youth system, had been "tapped up" by various Barca players and officials, and it seemed only a matter of time before he "went home." Lots of Arsenal fans -- myself included -- considered The Backheel to be his "Manchurian Candidate" moment.

But that wasn't the biggest problem -- far from it.  Not one, not two, but three times, a Barca player grabbed an Arsenal player by the throat: Eric Abidal on Robin van Persie, Dani Alves on Samir Nasri, and Victor Valdes on Nasri.  And there is photographic evidence that referee Massimo Busacca saw at least two of these despicable Catalan actions.

Did he issue straight red cards to the offending players? Did he issue yellow cards as a caution? Did he so much as say, "You can't do that, do it again and you're out of here?" As they say in English soccer circles, Did he fuck! (Yeah, this time, I said the F-word, instead of "screw" or "futz.")

There was a player sent off by Busacca. It was van Persie. Early in the game, he commirted a stupid foul on Alves, and rightly got a yellow card. In the 56th minute, just after a messed-up attempt to clear a corner resulted in an own goal by Busquets, making the aggregate score 3-2 in Arsenal's favor, Busacca blew his whistle because he judged the ball to be out of play.

RVP did not hear the whistle, and kicked the ball right afterward. Busacca gave him a second yellow card for this, and that's equal to a red card. Arsenal would have to play the last 34 minutes (plus stoppage time) of their biggest game of the season thus far not just 10 vs. 11 (or 10 vs. 12, considering Busacca), but without their best offensive player.

"How can I hear a whistle with 90,000 people jumping up? How to God can I hear that? The referee has been a joke all evening, I don’t know why he is even here. These people are unbelievable," van Persie told Sky Sports in his post-match interview.

In the 69th, Xavi scored to make it 3-3 overall, and in the 71st, Barca were (rightly, I'm afraid) awarded a penalty, and Messi hammered it past the hapless Almunia to make it 4-3. But in the 87th, Wilshere sent a pass to substitute forward Nicklas Bendtner that Bendtner could well have put in the net, tying the two-legged tie 4-4 and giving it to Arsenal, 2-1 on away goals. But the Danish Donkey muffed his chance, and Barca went through -- and went on to win the tournament.

That bogus sendoff changed history, at least in the short term. Had Arsenal been allowed to keep 11 men on the pitch, even if Barca scored the 3rd and 4th goal, it might have been RVP who got the late chance, and buried it, and Arsenal would have gone through, and, with the Final in London at Wembley Stadium, might have won the whole damn thing -- even if it was Manchester Untied they would have had to face in the Final. And then van Persie likely would have stayed more than just the one more season, and Samir Nasri wouldn't have left, either. Granted, Fabregas would have gone, but at least he would have stayed long enough to lift the European Cup as Captain of Arsenal. And Arsenal, not Chelsea a year later, would have been the first London team to win the European Cup.

But UEFA wanted Barca to win, and so Arsenal got screwed.

6. Dual Entry: New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders -- one going each way.

* December 18, 1976, Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, California. The Patriots had won their first AFC East Championship, their first Division Title since being AFL East Champion in 1963 (as the Boston Patriots, but they got hammered by the San Diego Chargers in the AFL Championship Game -- the only go-all-the-way season any San Diego major league team has ever had).

The Raiders were AFC West Champions, but had a reputation as a team that can't win the big one: They'd been contenders continuously since 1967, but had only gotten to one Super Bowl, and were beaten soundly by the Packers in Vince Lombardi's last game as their coach.  Both teams really needed to win this one.

The Pats had the Raiders on 3rd-and-18 and down 17-14 late in the game, when Patriot defensive tackle Ray Hamilton clobbered Raider quarterback Ken Stabler as he threw an incomplete pass. But referee Ben Dreith flagged Hamilton for roughing the passer.  The replay showed that this was a bogus call.

This personal foul brought the ball to the Pats' 1-yard-line, and Stabler snuck over the goal line for the winning touchdown, 21-17.  The Raiders went on to win their first Super Bowl; the Patriots would not get to one for another 9 years (beating the Raiders along the way), and would not win one for another 25 years.  It would be 11 years before Dreith was allowed to referee at another game involving the Patriots.

* January 19, 2002, Foxboro Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts, AFC Divisional Playoff. In the last game ever played at the Pats' former home, they got an equally strange call in their favor. With snow coming down and blanketing the field, the Raiders led 13-10 in the dying seconds, and Patriot quarterback Tom Brady -- then having a great season but by no means yet a legend -- was sacked by Charles Woodson, and fumbled.

But the officials took a look at the replay, and established that Brady had his arm going forward, which is all that mattered, even if he was apparently trying to tuck it back into his chest.

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

The Patriots got to keep the ball, and Adam Vinatieri kicked field goals to tie the game in the last minute, and to win it in overtime, 16-13.

Raider fans are sure they would have won the Super Bowl if not for that call -- just as Patriot fans are sure they would have won the Super Bowl in the 1976-77 season if not for the bogus roughing-the-passer call.

Well, I'm not so sure: The Pats would have had to play the Steelers in the '76 AFC Championship Game, and while the Raiders beat them, I don't know that the Pats would have; and the Raiders might not have beaten the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, because they did make it to Super Bowl XXXVII, and achieved the dubious distinction of losing a Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Which surely wouldn't have happened if Al Davis were still in possession of his full faculties.

5. December 28, 1975, Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, Minnesota. The Minnesota Vikings were hosting the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC Divisional Playoff. The Vikes led 14-10 with 32 seconds left, when Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach threw a pass toward Drew Pearson. Pearson pushed cornerback Nate Wright and made the catch, and scored to make it 17-14.

The referees blew it: The video clearly shows offensive pass interference -- unless you're a Cowboy fan or you're from South River, New Jersey, Pearson's hometown -- but they did not call it, and the touchdown was allowed to stand.
After the game, the Catholic Staubach said the pass was a "Hail Mary," and that expression entered the sports lexicon for a desperation pass.

The Cowboys went on to beat the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC Championship, but lost Super Bowl X to the Steelers. The Steelers had beaten the Vikings in the previous year's Super Bowl, and there's no guarantee the Vikings would even have beaten the Rams to get into the Super Bowl, had the offensive pass interference been correctly called.

But Viking fans, to this day, think the call was made to give the Cowboys the win, because of the Cowboys' undue influence over the NFL (which seems to have ebbed considerably since their last glory days ended in the 1990s).

Cowboy fans feel mistreated by history as well: They're convinced that this one play is the reason Pearson has not yet been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Dallas appears on this list again, and is again the beneficiary of a bogus call:
4. June 20, 1999, Marine Midland Arena (now HSBC Arena), Buffalo, New York, Stanley Cup Finals Game 6.  The game started on the 19th, but it was after midnight when this call happened, so I'm calling it the 20th.

The Dallas Stars led the Buffalo Sabres 3 games to 2.  One more win and Dallas would have won a World Championship in hockey -- to go with its 5 in football -- before it won one in basketball (it now has) and baseball (it still hasn't, and won't this year). The Sabres had only been to the Finals once before, and the city had never won a World Championship.

(The Bills' 1964 and '65 AFL Championships are the only time a Buffalo team has gone as far as the rules of the time allowed them to go, but they were the last 2 AFL Champions who didn't get to face the NFL Champion in the Super Bowl.)
The game was 1-1 in the 3rd overtime, when Brett Hull scored the Cup-winner. But his left foot was in the crease, and, according to the applicable rule at the time, that was a no-no. It should have been waved off, and play restarted.
As bad as this was, I can't rank this one any higher on the list, because even if play had correctly continued, there's no guarantee Buffalo would have won the game anyway; and, even if they had, they would still have had to beat the Stars in Game 7 in Dallas.

Could the Sabres have done it? Sure, they could have. Would they have? I doubt it: The Stars were a very solid, very deep team, and got to the Finals the next season as well, against the Devils, winning Game 5 in triple OT on the road and taking Game 6 to double OT before Jason Arnott won the Cup for New Jersey.

So to say the Sabres got screwed is correct, but to say it decided the title is a minor stretch: I think the Stars would have won the Cup anyway, if not later in Game 6, then definitely in Game 7. Buffalo is still waiting for its 1st World Championship in any sport, unless you want to have a combine "Western New York" region and lump the NBA Championships won by the Rochester Royals in 1951 and the Syracuse Nationals in 1955 in with Buffalo.

3. March 13, 1999, Madison Square Garden, New York, Undisputed Heavyweight Championship. Yeah, 1999 was a bad year for this sort of thing. The Stanley Cup Finals and the umpiring goofs that made Red Sox fans throw garbage on the field in the ALCS extended it, but this decision started it.

WBC Champion Lennox Lewis shredded WBA & IBF Champion Evander Holyfield. It was not close. Somehow, the judges' ruling was a draw.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
Eight months later, they fought again in Vegas, and it was a better fight for Holyfield, but Lewis was correctly awarded a unanimous decision and the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World.

He is still the last man to be the undisputed heavyweight champ, and, as long as the Klitschko Brothers hold all the belts between them, and won't compete against each other the way the Williams Sisters do in tennis, Lewis may remain the last one for a very long time.

2. October 26, 1985, Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium), Kansas City, Missouri, World Series Game 6. Mere hours after Marty McFly went back to 1955 in Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine (at least, within the world of the Back to the Future movies), umpire Don Denkinger made a call that St. Louis Cardinal fans wish they could go back in time and change.

The Cardinals led the cross-State Kansas City Royals 1-0 going into the bottom of the 9th, and 3-2 in Series games. Three more outs and the Cards are World Champions.

Jorge Orta led off for the Royals, and grounded to 1rst baseman Jack Clark tossed the ball to pitcher Todd Worrell, covering first, and Orta was clearly out. But Denkinger called him safe. That's the tying run on 1st and nobody out, when there should be bases empty and one out. This started a chain of events that led to the Royals winning, 2-1.

Cards manager Whitey Herzog lost his cool, and the Cards followed his lead. Game 7 was perhaps the biggest one-day meltdown in sports history. In 1934, the Cards won a World Series Game 7 11-0 under controversial conditions; in 1985, they lost one. Denkinger was generally considered to be a good ump, but he blew this one, he's admitted it, and he is the most hated man in Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois.

It took the Cards until 2006 to win another World Series -- but the Royals haven't even made the Playoffs since finally winning their 1st World Series after several close calls.  The Curse of Don Denkinger, anyone?

1. June 22, 1986, Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarterfinal. Considering the way England have performed in international tournaments since 1966 -- they've never gotten to a final in either the World Cup or the European Championships in the ensuing 46 years -- there's no guarantee that they would have beaten Argentina even if this hadn't happened, and there's no guarantee that they would have gone on to win the World Cup, as Argentina did.

With the game scoreless in the 51st minute, Argentina's Diego Maradona punched the ball into the net.  That is, he used his hand (his left, if you care about which one it was). Referee Ali Bin Nasser did not see that it was a handball, and allowed the goal.

The England players went bananas, and were still shellshocked 3 minutes later when Maradona scored another goal, this one totally legit and so spectacular in his run-up to sending it home that it's called The Goal of the Century. Gary Lineker would pull one back to make it 2-1, but the damage had been done: England were out, and Argentina went on to beat Belgium in the Semifinal and West Germany in the Final.

At the postgame press conference, Maradona said of the goal that should never have been allowed, "It was a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God." Thus it became known as the Hand of God Goal, although, considering his wicked ways, both on and off the pitch, and the fact that Maradona got away with it, and the fact that he remains unrepentant after 26 years, if he's looking to God for inspiration for that goal, then he's looking in the wrong direction.

A crowd of 114,580 saw this in person at the Azteca. Over a billion people saw it live on television. And it may -- may -- have decided who would go on to win the World Championship in the one sport that the entire world cares about. That's why it is Number 1, and, until something happens in a World Cup Final that shouldn't happen, it will remain so.

Sure, Howard Webb's allowing of several nasty fouls in the Spain-Netherlands Final in 2010 was awful (even by Webb's corrupt standards), but the fouls were almost evenly distributed, and I can't say the result would have been reversed had Webb applied the rules correctly in every case.

But had Bin Nasser seen the punch-goal, England might have been in the right frame of mind to prevent the Goal of the Century, and Lineker's goal would have sent England into the Semifinal. I think they would have beaten Belgium, although, given England's luck against Ze Germans since 1966, they probably would have lost the Final.

But, because of the not-so-divine goal of Maradona, and the unwillingness of Bin Nasser to wave it off, we'll never know.

3 comments:

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Scott Robarge

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