Denkinger cool with reminders of mistaken call in '85 Series
Umpire, players reflect on infamous play as expanded replay makes its Fall Classic debut
By Doug Miller
Twenty-nine years later, as the Royals prepare to finally play in a World Series again and Kauffman Stadium gets ready for a rocking Game 1, the unavoidable name of Don Denkinger is being brought back down from the shelves of the sport's lore.
The old umpire says that's OK. He's used to it.
"It's life and it goes on," Denkinger says from his Arizona home, where he is retired, playing a lot of golf and enjoying the October sunshine.
"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."
And one that wouldn't have even registered if the game in question had been played in 2014.
"If it happened now," Denkinger says, "they'd review it and overturn it. Just like that."
* * * * *
It's difficult to forget the images if you were even the most casual baseball observer on Oct. 26, 1985. It was Game 6 of the World Series, with the Cardinals leading the Series, 3-2, and the game, 1-0, as the Royals came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
It starts with the ball on its impossible AstroTurf infield path, hopping along between first and second base as Royals pinch-hitter Jorge Orta steams up the line in home whites.
There's the split-second moment at which Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark moves to his right in front of second baseman Tom Herr to field the ball because reliever Todd Worrell is on the move to make the play at first. Clark fields the ball, pitches it sidearm to Worrell, and it's a close play. Denkinger rules the runner safe as Orta falls to the turf after hitting the bag. Worrell, Clark and Herr argue with Denkinger as St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog comes jogging from his dugout to do the same.
On television, broadcaster Al Michaels announces it in real time: "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."
The TV replay comes a moment later, with Michaels' booth partner, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, viewing the play from up above and somewhere near the third-base line and saying, "Looks like he's out." Then another replay is shown from another angle, this one from closer in, on the right side of the bag along the first-base line, and there it is: clear evidence of Worrell's red cleat touching the base as Orta's blue one still lunges in the air.
Michaels says, "Oh, yes." And moments later, "I don't think there's any doubt about it."
Herr saw it better than anybody even before the replay sealed it for eternity, looking over from his position and unencumbered by the action of the play. And now, with the Fall Classic coming back to that ballpark and the technology of instant-replay review having fully emerged, he, like every other baseball observer who remembers the call, can't help but think of what would have transpired if it all happened in 2014.
"They'd review it, and he'd be out," Herr says. "There'd be one out, nobody on."
* * * * *
What happened after Orta was called safe is what hasn't been discussed much in the past 29 years. There's an urban myth that Denkinger kicked the call in the ninth inning of Game 7 with two outs. That the game ended on that play. That Denkinger's career ended on that play. All are untrue.
So, again, nobody out, Orta on first. The next batter is burly first baseman Steve Balboni. On the first pitch, Balboni pops a ball foul, right in front of the Royals dugout, and Clark, a converted outfielder still somewhat new to first base, looks like he has an easy play on the ball but takes a look at oncoming catcher Darrell Porter, hesitates for a moment and loses track of the ball just long enough for it to fall to the carpet behind him -- a strike instead of an out. Two pitches later, Balboni reaches out and slaps an outside fastball to left field for a single, moving Orta to second.
The crowd is percolating. The Royals in the dugout are up and alive. Onix Concepcion is brought in to pinch-run for Balboni as Herzog heads for the mound to talk things over with Worrell.
Catcher Jim Sundberg strides to the plate and shows bunt on the first pitches, both balls, and then bunts the next two pitches foul. At 2-2, Sundberg takes a chance and bunts, but right at Worrell. The pitcher fields it and throws to third baseman Terry Pendleton, nailing Orta for the first out.
The rest of the game is a blur: A breaking pitch to pinch-hitter Hal McRae gets by Porter for a passed ball and the runners advance to second and third.
"It's almost like he crossed up Porter," Palmer says on the broadcast. "It's the first slider he's thrown today."
Worrell puts McRae on first base intentionally to load the bases, setting up a force at home, and pinch-hitter Dane Iorg ends it with a two-run bloop single off the fists to right field.
The telecast plays for another five minutes, mostly with ambient sound from the frenzied ballpark. The call is not mentioned, and Michaels signs off with, "All we can say is that the baseball season will end tomorrow. Guaranteed."
The World Series ended the following night with 21-year-old Bret Saberhagen shutting out the Cardinals on two hits in an 11-0 Royals victory while Don Denkinger worked behind home plate.
* * * * *
"A team has three outs to go to become world champions," Herr says today. "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."
Herr said he never considered the possibility of replays being used to correct umpire's mistakes in 1985, but since he's forever linked to that particular error, he's been asked about it. A lot.
"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," Herr says. "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."
* * * * *
On the other side of the diamond from Herr, rooted to the dugout, not destined to play an inning that night, was Royals veteran Jamie Quirk. Even though he got a ring as a member of that championship team, he's tired of hearing about the call, too.
Quirk, now a Class A manager in the Padres organization, still lives in the Kansas City area and has raised three children -- ages 25, 28 and 29 -- who haven't seen a Royals pennant in their lifetimes … until now. He said he was recently chatting with Hall of Famer George Brett, his teammate on the 1985 squad and now the Royals' vice president of baseball operations, and they both said they would have liked to have seen the Cardinals beat the Giants in the National League Championship Series just to get a rematch of the 1985 Fall Classic.
"Then we could beat 'em again," Quirk says, "and they can finally shut up about Denkinger."
"Look," Quirk adds. "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?"
* * * * *
So the phone calls are coming again, and Denkinger doesn't shy away from them. He never has.
He says that back in 1985, post-mistake, when he was asked about the possibility of replay being introduced to baseball, he never conjured the thought.
"I didn't think we were ready," Denkinger says. "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?"
Denkinger would like people to know, if they don't already, that he was very good at his job. You had to be to be selected for the World Series in the first place, and he had already been in big games, the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox 1978 tie-breaker, the one with the famous Bucky Dent home run. He worked the plate in that game. And he spent 13 years in the big leagues after the blown World Series call.
"There are plays that happen that you can't correct," Denkinger says. "You live with them. You just don't want to do it in the World Series, of course."
Twenty-nine years later, Denkinger will watch the Royals in the World Series again. And when there's a close call and there's a replay, he says he'll be happy about it, regardless of all the turmoil he had to go through after his 1985 mistake.
"The object is to get the call right," he says. "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."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.