Designated HitterMay 25, 2006
Instant Replay and the 1985 World Series
By Ross Roley

Imagine it's the seventh game of the World Series with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. There's a runner on first base with the home team trailing by one run. The game is being played at Minute Maid Park in Houston with all its outfield nuances.

The Houston batter drives the ball toward the wall in deep left-center field. If it hits to the left of the line drawn on the outfield wall, it's a two-run home run, walk-off victory and World Championship for the Astros. If not, it's a possible tie game. The ball rockets off the wall near the line. To the umpire, it appears to hit right of the line, so the ball is ruled in play - a ruling that might become the biggest umpiring mistake in baseball history. The outfielder fields the ball quickly off the wall and fires it to the cut-off man. The relay throw comes to the catcher as the base runner heads home with the potential tying run. It's a close play, but the runner is clearly out for the final out of the game! In an instant, the visiting American League team has just won the World Series! Or did they?

Winners from the visiting dugout empty onto the field in joyous celebration. Just as quickly, the home dugout erupts in objection that the ball hit to the left of the line for a walk off home run. The home fans react as one, beseeching the umpires to review the play and reverse the call. Meanwhile, Astros manager Phil Garner runs out onto the field trying to get the umps' attention, with arms alternately flailing and pointing to the line on the wall. With no instant replay in baseball, the umpires' only recourse is to gather in conference to discuss the call.

Was it to the left or the right of the line? During the lengthy conference, TV replays in slow motion show that the ball did indeed land inches left of the line for what should have been ruled a home run! The Astros should be celebrating their championship! Now the crowd is screaming at the umps to reverse the call. The TV coverage shows it again, and again, and again from every possible angle with the same result. The crowd gets more and more hostile. Finally, the head umpire emerges from the huddle with clenched fist in the air, indicating the runner is out at home plate and the call stands. All hell breaks loose...

One can only imagine the bedlam this scenario could create. The outcome of the World Series would be completely decided by a blown call. Increasingly, it seems officiating is coming into question in major American sporting events. The Super Bowl saw a series of non-reviewable calls go the way of the Steelers that helped them win the NFL title. Likewise, the MLB playoffs and World Series saw a number of controversial calls, most notably the A.J. Pierzynski dash to first. Less controversial was a home run in Game 3 of the World Series, similar to the one described above, in which a ball scorched by Jason Lane actually hit to the right of the line but was ruled a home run for the Astros. Luckily for the umpires, the White Sox eventually won that game, and their blown call didn't affect the outcome. These situations always take me back to the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and the Royals, and the "safe" call at first by umpire Don Denkinger. It is arguably the most crucial blown call in the history of baseball. More than twenty years later, Cardinals fans still claim their team would have won the Series if Denkinger made the correct call. Royals fans claim it was destiny regardless of the blown call. Clearly it didn't affect the outcome 100% like the scenario above, but it was certainly significant. I recently set out to try and quantify the impact of the blown call. You might be surprised at my conclusion.

Allow me to review the game situation that autumn evening in 1985. The Cardinals were leading the series 3 games to 2 and had a one-run lead heading into the ninth inning of Game 6. Their closer, Todd Worrell, was trying to finish off the game and seal the championship. Jorge Orta led off the inning for the Royals by hitting a slow roller to first baseman Jack Clark who tossed to Worrell covering first. Worrell and the ball beat Orta to the bag, but Denkinger called Orta safe. Through a calamity of subsequent errors by the Cardinals, the Royals scored 2 runs in the inning to win Game 6, and then rode that momentum to a Game 7 victory and World Series title. In order to assess the impact of the call, one has to compare the probability of a Royals comeback in Game 6 with 1 out and nobody on base, versus 0 out and a runner on first base. Using Retrosheet data from the 1985 season, the pertinent probabilities for the 2 alternatives are below:

Blown Call
X0 = P(of 0 runs scoring with a runner on 1st, 0 out) = P(Cards win Game 6 in 9th) = .5750
X1 = P(of 1 run scoring with runner on 1st, 0 out) = P(extra innings) = .1833
X2 = P(of 2 or more runs with runner on 1st, 0 out) = P(Royals win Game 6 in 9th) = .2417

The probability of the Cardinals winning Game 6 following Denkinger's blown call (assuming a 50% chance of winning an extra inning game) is then: X0 + 0.5*X1 = .5750 + 0.5*.1833 = .6667. And the probability of the Royals winning Game 6 is therefore 1 - .6667 = .3333.

Correct Call
Y0 = P(of 0 runs scoring with 0 on base, 1 out) = P(Cards win in 9) = .8420
Y1 = P(of 1 run scoring with 0 on, 1 out) = P(extra innings) = .0915
Y2 = P(of 2 or more runs with 0 on, 1 out) = P(Royals win in 9) = .0665

The probability of the Cardinals winning Game 6 if Denkinger had made the correct call is: Y0 + 0.5*Y1 = .8420 + 0.5*.0915 = .8878. So the probability of the Royals winning Game 6 is 1 - .8878 = .1122.

Denkinger's call therefore effectively tripled the Royals chances of winning the game from .11 to .33.

Of course, this is assuming Todd Worrell and the Cards' defense gave up runs at the league average for the 1985 season, and that the Royals scored runs at the league average. This was actually not the case. The Royals' offense was less than ordinary, scoring 4.24 runs per game versus the major league average of 4.33 runs per game - roughly 2% below average. Meanwhile, the Cards' defense was best in the majors in 1985 thanks to Gold Glove winners like Ozzie Smith, Andy Van Slyke, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton and Joaquin Andujar. Combined with their exceptional pitching, the 1985 Cardinals allowed 3.53 runs per game, 2nd best in the majors and 18% better than the league average. Assuming a stingier Cardinals run prevention pattern against the Royals by 20%, the probability of a comeback in Game 6 following a correct call would be .0898 instead of .1122.

I would also contend that the blown call created doubt in the Cardinals minds and uplifted the Royals hopes, resulting in more advantageous odds for the Royals. This hopefulness combined with momentum and home field advantage for the Royals would result in greater than a 50% chance of winning an extra inning game, and a greater than 50% chance of winning Game 7. Let's say both odds are .60 instead of .50. And let's say that the blown call reduced the Cardinals to mere mortals, at the league average in preventing runs. These are reasonable assumptions considering the Cards unraveled in Game 6 after the blown call, and continued that trend in Game 7, losing by a score of 11-0. And since the objective is not merely to win Game 6, but to win the World Series, let's redo the analysis to see the total impact of the call. The chance of the Royals winning both Game 6 and Game 7 if the correct call were made is:

P(winning Game 6)*P(winning Game 7) = .0898*0.5 = .0449

In comparison, the probability of the Royals winning both Game 6 and Game 7 following the blown call is: (1 - (X0 + 0.6*X1))*0.6 = (1 - (.5750 + 0.6*.1833))*0.6 = .1890.

This revised analysis indicates that Don Denkinger's call made a significant difference in the outcome of the 1985 World Series, allowing the Royals to improve their chances more than 4-fold, from a mere 4% chance of winning it all to a more encouraging 19%. In reality, the call at first base opened the door from a crack to ajar, and to their credit, the Royals were able to take advantage of their good fortune. Regardless, the odds are 4 to 1 that the blown call changed the outcome of the World Series. If instant replay were used to make the correct call, the chances are greater than 80% that the Cardinals would have won the World Series instead of the Royals.

In November of 1998 I had the pleasure of golfing with TV play-by-play announcer Dave Barnett. We were discussing the great home run race that summer between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and he mentioned that McGwire was robbed of a home run during a game he called in Milwaukee in mid-September. The umpires decided that a fan in the bleachers reached over the wall a la Jeffrey Maier to catch a potential home run ball. The play was ruled fan interference and a ground rule double for McGwire when replays showed the ball definitely cleared the wall before being touched by the fan. McGwire should have actually been credited with 71 home runs that magical year instead of 70. Without instant replay, one of the most hallowed records in major league baseball history was incorrectly recorded. Similarly, I was recently watching a Cardinals telecast and the camera zoomed in on Whitey Herzog in the stands. One of them mentioned that Whitey, the manager of the Cards from 1980 to 1990, would be in the Hall of Fame if the Cards had won that 1985 World Series. Without instant replay, Whitey Herzog was potentially denied his rightful place in Cooperstown.

I suppose life isn't always fair, but my point is that with the proper use of instant replay in baseball it can be fairer. The technology is available, so why not use it? The NFL and NCAA use it extensively to review controversial calls in football. It's used in the NBA to check shot clock disputes. But major league baseball steadfastly refuses to keep up with progress. Baseball needs to incorporate instant replay now before a scenario like the one at the beginning of this article hurts the integrity of the game. Without instant replay, who knows how many future World Series outcomes, all-time records, and Herzog-like Hall of Fame snubs will be in error?

Ross Roley is a lifelong baseball fan, a baseball analysis hobbyist, and former Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy.


The best umpired games are the one's where you don't even know the umpires are there. To me the "human element" in umpiring has no value - it just interferes with the game. I'm all in support to any aid which will help produce correct calls and rules enforcement - that includes instant replay and computerized balls and strikes.

I oppose all technological interferences in the game. It is a game, and the umpires are part of it. If they get it wrong, so what! It is a game, and the effort to make it perfect with technology makes it all far too serious.
In any case, although the hypothetical case you present is very dramatic, even that overstates the importance of any one call. There are hundreds of calls in a game, and who knows how many are right or wrong or what the effect of each is.
An example: San Diego was leading the Yankees in game 1 of the 1998 Series 5-2 in the 7th inning. With the bases loaded, Langston clearly struck out Tino Martinez, except the umpire called it a ball. On the next pitch, Tino homered, the Yankees scored 7 runs in the inning and won 9-6, leading to a series sweep.
So did the call do in the Padres? It is easy to point to, but is it possible that another call went against the Yankees at some point in the game? Almost certainly, but we do not know because we see no immediate effect. But there just as well might have been, just as if had Tino struck out on the next pitch, nobody would have remembered the error.
I realize the example you give is far more difficult to ignore, but the same principal applies. It would have ended up a 1 run game. There is no way to know if earlier calls did not provide the Astros a chance to keep it that close. Had Houston scored 6 more runs earlier in the game, there would have been no issue.
But please, no instant replay!

I don't expect instant reply to come to MLB anytime soon, but I do expect that we'll see it in the next 20 years. My guess is that the next commissioner will be persuaded to try it out in the minors first, at least at AAA if not throughout. Then it will spread. Hopefully this becomes an instance where MLB acts instead of reacts, which is their usual way of doing business.

The resistance to instant reply and other potential technological assistance - like using cameras directly over home plate to 100% guarantee whether a ball caught the plate or not - confounds me. Its similar to ignoring advanced statistical analysis - you have the technology/information, using it would improve the game, so why not use it?

If they get it wrong, so what!

In which case, why have umpires?

Is it not sufficient that the Royals are the most inept organization in baseball; that their owner is frozen with fear that he will make the wrong move so he makes no move; that the GM has "a youth plan" that must include signing every washed up, old, no-account ballplayer (Mays, Redman, Mientkievicz, Sanders, Graffanino) that not enough? No, you've got to take away our last glimmer of respectibility and pride.
Look, bozo, the Cardinals self-destructed. Denkinger blew the call, but even so, Darrell Porter had a passed ball and misplayed a popup. The vaunted Cardinal defense gave the Royals at least 5 outs in the 9th. They lost the game...the Royals won it. Get over it.

Interest analysis. Would like to see what you come up with for the famous Jeffery Maier ALCS (1996)involving the yankees and orioles. The yankees did indeed win the series 4-1, but any Orioles fan will tell you that that play alone robbed them of the series.

It's not sufficient that the Royals are the most inept organization in baseball, they also have hypersensitive fans like Doug Wright paranoid that someone is trying to take away their only world championship. Mr. Roley didn't argue that the Royals didn't deserve their championship, and he pointed out that the Cards self-destructed (by committing "a calamity of subsequent errors") after the poor call. Calling him a bozo for that is just lame.

A couple of years ago I ran a Cards website, and in one of my posts I argued that Denkinger did not cost the Cardinals the 1985 World Series -- rather, a series of failures by Clark, Porter, Worrell, et al, and a series of clutch plays by the Royals made the difference. Do you know how many Cards fans disputed my point? Zero. Of course, I'd like to think my readers were more enlightened than the average fan, but I can assure you that over the last several years the mood has changed in St. Louis, and that very few people blame Denkinger entirely for the Cards' loss.

What Mr. Roley was trying to do here, of course, was use the Denkinger moment as a prism through which to explore the topic of instant replay. I know tennis had great success when it introduced electronic line calling technology in some matches last year, and I don't see any reason why baseball couldn't or shouldn't do something similar.

I think instant replay should be used, but on a severely limited basis. Never on balls & strikes. Within reason on homers, foulballs, etc. Maybe there should be an ump in the broadcast booth--sort of like an official scorer--who has the authority to stop play for review when something questionable happens.

A specific example that's fresh: Josh Paul's so-called dropped 3rd-strike. That missed-call hurt MLB, in my opinion. But even with instant replay in force, would the play have been overturned?

Questec may be a harbinger ...

Are you also going to go to tape review of the grounds keeper that painted the line on the wall?

Is it not possible that he painted the line just a smidge too far to the right?

As has been said before, luck is a HUGE part of baseball, which at the same time is a HUGE part of the *charm* of the game. A ball that lands on the chalk is no better hit than one that lands just outside of it, it's just how it falls.


The problem here is common to all game officials. They have overblown egos and cannot stand to be found wrong. Secondly the nature of pro-level officiating is that all of them illustrate the Peter Principle--i.e.-- they have reacched the level of their incompetence. I see no reason why major league umpires, paid solid 6-figure salaries, cannot have a uniform strike zone. Just learn how to do it. I don't know why they can't move off their often-oversized butts to get in the best position to make calls that can reasonably be foreseen--notably tag plays at the bases and home plate. Should baseball have and use instant replay? Absolutely--for calls at the bases and for foul lines and home-run lines. Not for balls and strikes. It will take some years, but baseball should insist that the umps all use the same basis for calling balls & strikes. Put an end to "high strike" and "low strike" umpires. If they can't learn to do it right, i.e.--follow the rule book, get them out of the game.

Have you ever been behind the plate, Bill?

I believe it was Hal McRae not Dane Iorg who was called safe at first. It was Dane Iorg who then had the key hit which drove in the winning run. No one is disputing that the call was wrong and perhaps instant reply would correct various wrongs. But aren't games long enough. What about IR for balls/strikes. The umps get those right about 80%. How about the change of momentum when a pitcher doesn't get the outside strike, is forced to throw one over the plate. There are so many variables that all one can realize is that th Cardinals still had a 1 run lead with 2 outs in the 9th inning and could have still won that game. They had no one to blame except themselves. They also had a game 7 to get their act together. Who do you blame that one on?

", so why not use it?"

Because Baseball is a game.

Calling for no instant play review because baseball is a "game" is one of the lamest excuses I've heard. It is a game and a business and millions of people care how it is played. As one earlier poster said, if it's just a game, why have umpires at all?

But since it is a game, shouldn't the players be the one's who determine the outcome? Anything that is unobstrusive and improves the quality of the game should be welcomed - instant replay, with another "umpire" in the booth to determine it's usage, would work quite well. It's not as if there's not enough money in baseball to get it right!

As far as the time issue is concerned, right now we have a break in the action everytime a close critical call is made anyway as the managers are allowed to argue any but balls & strikes. I don't think using replay would lengthen the game - it may even shorten some of them.

The better the game is called, the more fans will enjoy it. Who wants to win on a blown call anyway?

I think the time will come. In fact, I think it's long overdue. Replay can be eased into the game and can be regulated so it's only a tool and not the whole machine, if you know what I mean. It doesn't have to upsurp the human authority, it can enhance it. Let's give it a chance.