An Indelible Image
Don Denkinger did have a framed photo of the call at his home, but I always got the feeling that it was there for reasons he’d rather not explain. That is to say: I don’t think he had the photograph on the wall because he was over it. Based on the time I spent with him, I’m not entirely sure he ever quite got over it.
That is not to say that Don Denkinger was embittered. He most definitely was not. He spent 30 seasons as a big-league umpire, another nine or so in the minor leagues, and if there was one thing he learned from all those games, all those calls, it is that an umpire, no matter how good, ain’t gonna get them all right. You stay in the moment, get yourself in position to see the play, make the call with authority and live with the rest.
Don Denkinger was a good umpire. And he lived with the rest.
You know the story. Oct. 26, 1985. Game 6 of the World Series between St. Louis and Kansas City. Bottom of the ninth. St. Louis led 1-0. The Royals’ first batter of the inning, Jorge Orta, hit a chopper between first and second base. Denkinger ran over toward first, anticipating a race to the bag between Orta and Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell. But the ball bounced funny and St. Louis first baseman Jack Clark had trouble getting it out of his glove, so there was no race — Worrell was already standing on the bag by the time the ball got there.
“I’m too close,” Denkinger instinctively thought. He couldn’t watch the ball and the base at the same time from his angle.
And the crowd was so loud that Denkinger couldn’t hear the ball hit Worrell’s glove. So he followed the ball rather than looking at the feet. He saw it caught and then looked down. He thought he saw Orta’s foot already on the bag. Denkinger signaled safe.
Orta, as replays painfully showed, should have been called out … the play wasn’t even that close.
It didn’t have to be a decisive call — in fact, it seemed unlikely that the call would matter at all. OK, there was a man on first. So what? Worrell was dominant — in Game 5, he pitched two innings and struck out all six batters he faced. The Royals were sending the bottom of their lineup to the plate. There was no reason at all to think the call would matter one bit.
But then the nightmare scenario for the Cardinals — and Denkinger — unfolded.