June 04, 2010

Perfect pitch

Outta there!Referees, umpires and judges can make mistakes. Every competition that requires an element of human officiating is subject to human error.

The technically “perfect” game (for non-baseball fans this is a game in which one side never reaches first-base; it’s happened only 20 times in the 130-year history of Major League Baseball) pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers the other night was nullified by a mistake in judgment by highly-respected veteran umpire, Jim Joyce. On what should have been the final, 27th-straight batter grounding out, Joyce ruled the batter safe at first, thus spoiling the rare perfect game and the no-hitter.

Baseball fans immediately wondered whether the umpire’s decision would be overturned by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, by overwhelming video evidence that the umpire erred, but Bud Selig decided against that. He contended that “the human element” is an integral part of the game, so the decision would stand, even though he, the umpire, Galarraga and everyone even remotely interested knows that it was in fact the twenty-first perfect game. What a shame.

The age of instant recording has also affected piping and drumming competitions. It probably started in 1974 when Bill Livingstone famously had his second-prize revoked in the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting when a listener in the audience cannily produced a tape recording showing that he had made some note mistakes. After the results were announced, upon hearing the recorded evidence the judges convened and decided to alter their list. Much hue and cry ensued, but it probably helped to put a spotlight on Bill, who went on, as we all know, to greater things.

Today instant replay is more than ever a factor. Video from pipe band competitions is available within hours of even the least significant of contests. More than once, there have been some visual things – blown attacks, hitched bags, dropped sticks – that seemed to have not been noticed by the judges.

There’s a school of thought with many judges that it’s only what’s heard that ultimately matters. Who cares about false fingering if you can’t hear it? A piper might not “get up,” but if it didn’t affect the sound, then what difference does it make? Didn’t that bass drummer play just fine with one mallet? The bagpipe sounded great without a middle-tenor going, so why get all worked up?

There are other judges who feel that these technical “errors” should be punishable. If you can see the mistake, then it should be duly assessed. The assumption is that if you detect it with your eyes, there must be some negative impact on the sound.

The Sunday morning quarterbacking that now goes on on YouTube is bigger than ever. This is the pipe band world’s version of instant replay, and perhaps it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that results can be altered by the officials, if the oversight is grievous enough. But that’s unrealistic.

What is realistic is a post-event conversation between judges before each submits his/her final result. In effect, this is as close as we should come to reviewing the recording to share notes to increase the likelihood of a fair result being rendered. The consultative judging process acknowledges that our competitions are subject to the human element, that mistakes might be made and that no one is perfect.


  1. NO! No post event conversation! No “consensus building!” Call it as you saw it, put it on the clipboard and keep your mouth closed. Anything else is approaching collusion. Should all adjudicators go the way of the head cheese? We all know some have more influence than others. We also know that style preferences differ. It is an artform first and foremost. I always revert back to the figure skating example. Technical and artistic. What would happen within the skating world if the French judge was seen consulting with or influencing the Russian judge prior to entering their marks? Let’s be real, the Int’l Figure Skating Assoc has had a lot more money and time to throw at the matter. Let’s emulate towards models that have a more proven track-record…. In sport, for matters of boundaries and clocks, replay works. But we’re never going to review subjective calls. That would ruin the human element. Close calls at first base are unfortunately subjective. Whether a ball was a home run or not is a different matter and worthy of the videotape.

  2. I don’t think there are any absolutes here. One may “assume” collusion produces a decision dominated by the “big cheese” but that has not happened with any judges groups I have been associated with. On the other hand, I remember one contest where a piper actually stopped playing in the middle of the band set. He even put his hand down to his right side…did not even try to fake it. One of the judges caught it, the other did not and gave the band first place in a very close contest. I was not judging that contest but understand no one said anything…
    In another contest, a band went out with the minimum number of players. One player absolutely was faking through the entire contest. This was a disqualification issue for minimum number reasons, I was judging and I did point it out. We still scored the band but it was DQ’d.
    Let’s use some common sense and do everything we can to ultimately get it right. As for the perfect game, I predict despite what the commissioner is currently saying, eventually it will be ruled a perfect game.

  3. Interestingly — Galarraga will likely end up being MUCH better known, respected, and remembered as a result of this “imperfect” game — partly because of the circumstances, but also because of the amazing class and dignity he showed in a situation that could easily have gotten very ugly. It should also be noted that the umpire looked at the replay after the game subsequently gave a very public and emotional apology to the pitcher.

    All around, a great example of the right way to handle a bad situation.

  4. This was a mistake and everyone agrees it was a mistake and have been very, very classy about it. Jon, you are right on target. This will make Adreas Gallaraga famous! People only remember one perfect game and that was the one Don Larson pitched in the World Series. Now they will forever remember two and the second won’t be in the record books, but I’m sure the ball and a memory will will end up at Cooperstown.

    As a Saint Lous Cardinals fan, this is nothing like the appalling disservice to the game perpetrated by Don Dekinger…..who called Orta safe at first, and cost the Cardinals Game 5, but then went on to umpire behind the plate for games 6 and 7 of the World Series that the Cardinals “lost” to the Royals.

    To bring this closer to home…..remember the old wive’s tale….to win the Worlds for the very first time, you have to win twice in a row, the year you win and the year before when you really deserved to win!


  5. We need more judges. 50/50 is power by veto, so you need at least three in each subjective discipline and they should not consult each other. As your story illustrates, one decision-maker is asking for trouble, even in a sport with a measurable element; they should replace humans with machines if the call can be made objectively.



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