Did The Eyes Have It?

”We’ve got to bear down.”

Those were the words that got Steve Garvey ejected from a baseball game, the only time in his career. It happened on a Thursday night, June 5, 1986, in San Diego. Garvey, a 16-year veteran, was not involved in the play—a triple play that ended with a controversial call at home plate.

The Atlanta Braves were playing the Padres. Garvey was on deck. In the third inning Bip Roberts of the Padres was on third base, Tony Gwynn on first. Kevin McReynolds hit a comebacker to the pitcher, who forced Gwynn at second; the relay got McReynolds at first for the second out. Meanwhile, Roberts broke for the plate, where he found it blocked by Ozzie Virgil Jr. He slid around Virgil and swiped the plate with his left hand—apparently.

The umpire, Charlie Williams, made no call, so Virgil ran over and tagged Roberts, who was immediately called out by Williams. Then all hell broke loose. Roberts, unseen by Williams, slammed his helmet down as the fans gave vent to a chorus of boos.

Garvey left the on-deck circle and converged on Williams. As he voiced his dissent, Garvey bent over the plate and pointed to what he claimed were brush marks in front and behind the plate where Roberts swiped his hand.

In a post-game interview, Garvey said, “I didn’t say anything. I just showed him where the hand had crossed the plate. I was very polite. I said, ‘We’ve got to bear down.’ It’s unbelievable. I’ve played baseball for thirty years and never came close to getting tossed.”

While Garvey may have seen himself as the paragon of courtesy and benevolence, Williams may have seen him as smug and condescending: “He comes out and starts arguing about the play. I told him to get out of there. He just showed me up at home plate—drawing pictures and stuff like that on the ground. He has no business doing that. He was taking over argument that belonged to the manager. Then he says, ‘We’ve got to bear down.’ That’s when I tossed him.”

The booing continued without letup throughout the next inning, and periodically until game’s end, a 4-2 Braves win. When a reporter asked Williams if the boos bothered him, Harry Wendelstedt, the crew chief, interjected, “(Bleep) the fans! When you’re in this business, it’s cops versus robbers. You’ve got to enforce the rules of baseball.”

But the booing and the incident did bother Williams. Not long after the game he called my wife, Bobbie, who was a good friend of Williams from their time as classmates at Long Beach Polytechnic High School in California. “Charles was almost in tears,” she told me. “He kept saying over and over that no one saw what he saw because he was bent low to the ground. He saw the hand of Bip Roberts fly over the plate. That’s why he made no call until Virgil tagged Bip.” Bobbie recalls being on the phone with Charles for over an hour as he vented his emotions.

I’ve looked at the video replay several times. There’s one thing certain: Bip Roberts did slide around Ozzie Virgil and swipe his arm–and presumably his hand—past, over, or on home plate. But his hand, his wrist, and home plate are out of the frame. There’s no evidence from the video that he touched the plate; one sees only his arm movement. Williams is also out of view.

If there’s a replay from a better angle, I couldn’t find one. However, there is at least one source that supports Williams. The Evening Independent, a St. Petersburg paper, reported the following day (June 6, 1986) that “Roberts slid under the tag but missed the plate”. So we’re left with the word of Williams regarding what he saw.

And this is the crux of the matter. By all accounts, the integrity of Charles Williams is not in question here. An umpire’s paramount responsibility is to call the play as he sees it. There are times when the safe thing to do is to call it as it appears to everyone else, and avoid the pain and controversy. His eyes may have deceived him; he might have blown the call. But to his eternal credit, Williams called it as he saw it.

None of this would have happened had Garvey and Williams been born a generation later. This is one of the benefits of challenging a call to get it right. Had the technology and rule been in effect in 1986, Bip Roberts would not have slammed his helmet down; Steve Garvey would have remained in the on-deck circle; Charlie Williams would have joined the little circle of his fellow umpires to wait for the word from New York. When the word came—safe or out—players and umpires would then return to their positions and play ball.

Charlie Williams was not among the highest ranked umpires, but he was good enough to have umpired two All Star games, two National League Championship Series, and one Division Series. In 1993 he became the first black umpire to call balls and strikes in the World Series. He had a long career—from 1978 to 2000—when he retired for health reasons. On September 10, 2005, he died from diabetes and kidney failure. He was 61.

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