Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Notorious Blown Call

I will always remember the night of Saturday, Oct. 26, 1985.

I was working on the sports copy desk of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. Football season was two months old, and I had been working there long enough to know that Fridays and Saturdays in the fall meant everyone on the sports staff had to be in the office to handle the workload.

Football season was — and is — serious business in Arkansas. High school. College. The pros. All of it.

The University of Arkansas' Razorbacks, of course, were — as they are today — at the center of attention, but every high school in the state had its rabid followers for whom every Friday night in the fall was a life–and–death situation. And the pros — mostly the Cowboys when I was growing up — had plenty of devotees.

The Gazette's longtime sports editor, Orville Henry, was widely credited with saving the paper in the late 1950s when readers were leaving it over its series of Pulitzer Prize–winning editorials supporting the integration of Little Rock Central High School.

How did he do that? By promising that, during football season, the Gazette would have, in the Saturday morning papers, the scores from every football game involving every high school in the state that fielded a football team.

The Gazette, you see, served the entire state, and most of its sports readers, whether they lived in Little Rock or its neighboring counties or any of the 75 counties within Arkansas' borders, cared about high school football. But the paper had multiple deadlines each night, and the edition that went out to the far corners of the state went to press long before any night games had ended. Those readers — in places like Fayetteville and Blytheville and Texarkana and points in between — didn't expect to get the football scores in their Saturday morning papers.

But the edition that went out to the neighboring counties in central Arkansas went to press around 11 at night, and the city edition went to press around 12:30, so there were plenty of readers who did expect to see those scores in the paper that was delivered to their doorsteps on Saturday mornings.

And everyone on the sports staff had to stay in the office until we had scores for every game. As the hours went by, staffers were calling anyone they could think of from areas where we hadn't heard a score — a principal, a teacher, the county sheriff.

Many times, we published scores based on something as iffy as "Well, I think the score was ..." I'm sure we got it wrong sometimes. But, in all the years I worked there, we always had a score, whether it was right or wrong, for every game when the city edition went to bed on Friday nights.

There were — and, I presume, still are, although there was considerable consternation over the possibility of school consolidation at the time I left — many tiny, rural high schools all across the state. And it could be quite challenging at times to get their scores.

I was there for four football seasons, and I remember nights when we were in the office until nearly 3 in the morning trying to track down the score from a single football game.

I guess it goes without saying that, on many Saturdays, the sports staff was dragging.

I don't remember if Friday, Oct. 25, 1985, was such a night. It may well have been one of those (comparably rare) football Friday nights when everything went smoothly and we managed to put the paper to bed at what was a normal time for us. But, for those of us in the sports department, it was a time of year when things were complicated by the World Series.

And the sixth game of the World Series was to be played that Saturday night. The teams that were playing were the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals in what was known as the "I–70 Series" — in honor of the highway that directly connects the two cities.

With both of the teams coming from cities in the state the bordered Arkansas to the north, it should be obvious that there was a distinctly regional flavor to that year's World Series.

When I was growing up, central Arkansas was Cardinal country, and that tradition was alive and well in the Gazette newsroom in 1985. Lots of people, whether they worked on the sports side or not, were openly pulling for the Cardinals.

But there was no TV in the newsroom in those days — so many folks who had to work at night (usually that was almost exclusively the copy desk, but there were some reporters who wrote at night) had to listen to the radio at their desks if they wanted to know the score in that pre–internet world.

The Cardinals led the Royals, three games to two, when the Series returned to Kansas City, and St. Louis was on the brink of winning its second world title in four years. One of the guys on the sports copy desk brought a TV to the newsroom that night so we could watch the game while we worked.

And it was about the most dramatic World Series game I have ever seen.

It started as a pitchers' duel. Neither team scored until the Cardinals managed to score a run in the top of the eighth, and it looked like they were on their way. But, in the bottom of the ninth, trailing by a run, the Royals scored two runs, thanks to a blown call at first base by umpire Don Denkinger.

I guess it is possible that the Royals might have scored two runs in their half of the ninth even if Denkinger had made the right call. But it would have been a lot more difficult to achieve.

Replays from every angle clearly confirmed that Denkinger had made the wrong call, but he stubbornly refused to reverse himself and there was no mechanism in place for overturning an umpire's call through the use of instant replay. The call stood; the Royals rallied for an improbable victory and forced the decisive Game 7 the next night.

Except for football, major team sports championships are decided in a best–of–seven playoff series. When they happen, Game 7s are often dramatic events, reflecting the even split of the previous six games.

But there was nothing terribly dramatic about Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.

Maybe the Cardinals were shell–shocked, having come so tantalizingly close to winning the World Series only to have it snatched away from them by something that was beyond their control.

Whatever it was, the Cardinals, who had looked unbeatable on the eve of their series with their meek sister from western Missouri, couldn't scratch out a single run in the finale. Their manager, Whitey Herzog, and their pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, were ejected from the game, and Kansas City won a blowout, 11–0.

Compared to the previous night, it was anticlimactic.

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