Forget whether Joe West ruled correctly on Jose Altuve’s first-inning fly to right that was either going to be a game-tying two-run homer or fan interference that would turn a ball Mookie Betts never actually caught into a fly out.
Concentrate first on West being stationed down the right-field line to make this judgment in Wednesday night’s ALCS Game 4.
Let’s take for granted that West earned the right to work this series based on a formula that includes regular-season performance and previous playoff experience. Fine. But why for the biggest games is MLB still using an antiquated rotation system that put a heavyset, soon-to-be 66-year-old man in right field?
Can you imagine, for example, the Yankees rotating position players each game and Gary Sanchez in center? Luke Voit at short?
If West grades out well at home — and he did a nice job in Game 3 — then put him there and perhaps first base. While at second in Game 1, West lacked the agility to dodge a throw from Boston catcher Christian Vazquez. Yet, he was sent out to cover spacious right field at Minute Maid. Why? Because that is how it has always been done.
The Astros did not lose 8-6 solely because of West’s decision. The Red Sox are tough-minded, offensively relentless, now 4-0 on the road in these playoffs and one victory from the World Series, having taken a three-games-to-one lead.
But the call did matter.
Outfield umps in the postseason begin on the line, about 100 feet directly behind the base ump. The theory is that better positions outfield umps to rule on trap plays for outfielders running in. But that would seem as easily covered by the base umps — and replay.
This is where West began when Altuve lifted a fly to right. Boston had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, but George Springer singled with one down in the bottom half. Now, Altuve’s potential game-tying shot was aloft and West began toward the right-field wall. Think Babe Ruth waddling in grainy black-and-white, just not as quick or graceful. West took maybe five steps.
That left a guy born the same year as Floyd Mayweather — Senior — about 100 feet away from where Betts reached high above the 7-foot wall as three fans reached for the ball too.
As long as the a fan did not extend over the fence to contact Betts or the ball, the outfielder is fair game. Betts’ glove closed a fraction too soon — perhaps because of contact from a fan — and the ball fell on the homer side of the fence.
It was a close call and the person who had to make the split-second decision was 100 feet away. West told a pool reporter he saw a fan reach out of the stands and “hit [Betts] over the playing field.” But even 3 minutes and 13 seconds and myriad reviews did not have New York officials see anything that definitive, which is why the called stood, rather than being verified as correct.
West has a job that when done best means you don’t even know his name. But we know West’s name and face and style. He loves attention, gravitates to controversy. He lifted his thumb signalling an out that went against the home team, 43,277 turning him into the center of their anger.
“I normally don’t get mad about an umpire’s call,” Altuve said. “That one, I was a little upset.”
There was no definitive down the fence line replay. The general sense at the replay center in New York was this was a homer, but the mandate for the replay officials in New York is only to overturn with a 100 percent certainty in the opposite view. And there was a sliver of doubt. So the original call was going to stand. Any umpire of any age and experience could have called it one way or the other. But that a 65-year-old guy on the move 100 feet away ruled fan interference speaks to the need for changing who is at what umpiring slots.
“There’s no mechanism for me to change their mind, change their interpretation, change the fact that I thought the ball was a row or two into the stands,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not in New York, and I’m not an umpire.”
West has been an ump since 1978. His first postseason home-plate assignment was 1986 NLCS Game 5 — Dwight Gooden pitched 10 innings and Nolan Ryan nine — and this was his 127th postseason game. Only NLCS crew chief Gerry Davis (148) has more, and he for reasons of tradition, not logic, was in left field earlier in the day for Brewers-Dodgers Game 5.
If MLB wants the experience, fine, but be good managers and put umps in position to succeed. Rotate the current system into the garbage. Keep the oldest ump in the majors out of right field in a playoff game.