As reported by Doug Miller of MLB.com, Don Denkinger, forever immortalized for his blown call in the ninth inning of Game 6 in the 1985 World Series, is at peace with his mistake that gave the Kansas City Royals new life and a chance to steal the World Series. The call is being revisited frequently now as the Royals are back in the Series for the first time in 29 years.
To set the scene from 1985: the Cardinals led 1-0 in the ninth inning of Game 6, a few outs away from winning the Series. Todd Worrell stood on the mound for the Cardinals, with Jorge Orta at bat for the Royals. Orta, pinch-hitting and speedy on the base paths, slapped a bouncer between first and second base. Jack Clark, a converted outfielder playing first base, crossed in front of second baseman Tommy Herr to field the ball, then sidearmed it to Worrell covering first. It was a close play; Orta, who was flying, fell after hitting the bag. Denkinger ruled Orta safe.
Meanwhile, on TV, broadcaster Al Michaels blurted out, “Little squibber to the right side. Worrell races over to cover the throw…doesn’t get him! Worrell back to the bag and an argument here, and here comes Herzog amongst the other quartet.”
Moments later, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, checking a replay from the viewpoint of the third-base line, said, “Looks like he’s out.” When a subsequent replay from the right side of the bag along the first-base line was shown, it was clear that Denkinger’s call was incorrect. Michales simply said, “Oh, yes…. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
Of course, now that Orta was on first base, the Cardinals could still have shut the Royals down, but what followed proved that, in part, they beat themselves. The next batter, first baseman Steve Balboni, popped up the first pitch in front of the Royals dugout, but Clark, prepared to make the catch, hesitated because he saw catcher Darrell Porter, running toward the ball, which dropped untouched. That was mistake #1. Balboni, reprieved, singled to left field, moving Orta to second. Onix Concepcion replaced Balboni on first as Royals catcher Jim Sundberg bunted right back to Worrell, who forced Orta at third.
Next came mistake #2, with pinch-hitter Hal McRae at the plate: a breaking pitch that got by Porter, allowed the runners to advance. Palmer commented, “It’s almost like he crossed up Porter. It’s the first slider he’s thrown today.” The Cardinals walked McRae to load the bases, setting the stage for Dane Iorg’s fisted bloop single to right field scoring the tying and winning runs.
The next day, the Royals blew out the Cardinals 11-0, as John Tudor, who had a spectacular regular season in which he started 1-7 and then finished by winning 20 of his last 21 starts, was hammered, giving up five earned runs. Bret Saberhagen, who had just become a father the night before, hurled a five-hitter. With the lead 9-0 in the fifth inning, Joaquin Andujar, another 21-game winner, relieved, but when Denkinger, now working home plate, ruled the first pitch a ball, Andújar charged the plate to argue. Herzog, who had been baiting Denkinger throughout the game, left the dugout to join Andujar and reportedly snapped at Denkinger, “We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t missed the f—ing call last night!”
Denkinger has said he responded “Well, if you guys weren’t hitting .120 in this World Series, we wouldn’t be here.” After the next pitch was called a ball, Andujar charged Denkinger again, was ejected, and promptly shattered a toilet with a bat in the clubhouse.
The Royals were the first team in Series history to lose the first two games at home and then win the Series,
Denkinger, retired and living in Arizona, said:
It’s life and it goes on. I’m obviously reminded constantly that I made a mistake. You know what? I was an umpire for more than 30 years in the Major Leagues. I know I made a lot of mistakes. That one was just blown out of proportion. If it happened now, they’d review it and overturn it. Just like that.
Herr ruefully pointed out what the results would be if the play had happened in the era of instant replay:
They’d review it, and he’d be out. There’d be one out, nobody on … I’m not a big fan of it, but if it was in place in my career, I’d have two World Series rings instead of one. I’m still not a big fan of replay because everyone’s calling to speed the game up, and checking replays slows the game down. That’s a negative. Certainly I’m for getting the calls right, especially in something like a World Series game. I really think replay takes something away from the emotion of the game, though. There are no real arguments from the managers anymore. There’s just quiet waiting for the replay. Don’t you miss Lou Piniella ripping first base out of the ground and throwing into foul territory, or Earl Weaver offering to give his glasses to the umpire? But I guess that was one play, especially because it happened in the World Series, I think it kind of got the discussion going.
A team has three outs to go to become world champions. This happens on the leadoff batter of the inning. You’re already under enough stress and tension. Now you have this happen. It kind of blows the lid off your emotional stability. The whole inning unraveled after that, to the point where we gave up two runs and lost the game, and then had to try to regroup for a Game 7, which we were obviously unable to do. We were kind of a wounded team physically going into that series, and were not real healthy. We didn’t have [outfielder] Vince Coleman for the whole series. It was important for us to end it that night [of Game 6]. It was brutal. Something we just couldn’t recover from.
Jamie Quirk. now a Class A manager in the Padres organization, who was on that Royals team, said he had recently chatted with Hall of Famer George Brett, his teammate, now the Royals’ vice president of baseball operations, and they agreed that they wanted the Cardinals to win the NLCS this year and face the Royals. Quirk said, “Then we could beat ’em again, and they can finally shut up about Denkinger.”
Look, he was out. That was clear from the replay. But when the play happened, watching it with the naked eye, you kind of thought Todd Worrell was off the bag. We’re sitting there in the dugout, yelling, ‘Safe!’ It wasn’t as obvious as everyone thinks. And other things happened, too. How about Jack Clark missing that popup? Couldn’t the Cardinals have gotten out of that inning with a runner on and nobody out? Does a bad call mean you have to lose 11-0 in the next game?
Denkinger says of instant replay, “I didn’t think we were ready. Now, we are. It’s quick. They know right away. They can get the play right and speed the game up, so why wouldn’t you have replay? The object is to get the call right. That’s a good thing. So I’m all for review. And if they had it back then, probably nobody would ever know my name.”
Denkinger pointed out that he was a very good umpire just to be selected for the Series; he was the home plate umpire for the famous 1978 Yankees-Red Sox 1978 tie-breaker in which Bucky Dent hit his home run. He said, “There are plays that happen that you can’t correct. You live with them. You just don’t want to do it in the World Series, of course.”