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View Full Version : Posnanski: Don Denkinger, living with "the call"


tk13
04-04-2005, 03:08 AM
This was from Sunday's paper, but I didn't see it posted anywhere. With the 20th anniversary season of the 85 team starting today, I figured I'd post it...

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/baseball/mlb/kansas_city_royals/11273773.htm

Living with the call
Time hasn't healed this wound. Boy, can those Cards hold a grudge

By JOE POSNANSKI
The Kansas City Star


CHANDLER, Ariz. — There are no children in Sun Lakes. This is the community where Don Denkinger lives during the winter. Gates at every entrance keep out the hot-rodders and salesmen and all other varieties of trespasser, including kids. A golf course winds past the villas and two-car garages and streets named for trees and precious gems.

No one younger than 55 can buy here. Days pass quietly.

Sometimes, Denkinger appreciates the quiet. He is 68. He has heard a lot of screaming.

Sometimes, Denkinger wishes he could hear the screaming again.

“I'm right here,” he says suddenly, his face reddening, his voice a growl. “I was in baseball for more than 40 years. I gave all I had to give to baseball. And then, one day, they let me go. They never gave me a reason. They just said there was no job for me. Nothing left. That's what you get after 40 years? That's not right.”

Then, just as suddenly, the anger drains from his face.

“But, you know, it's been a good life,” he says, his tone easy and calm. “I wouldn't trade it. I saw some amazing things. I met some incredible people …”

And then, the face blushes again: “I was at the Hyatt Hotel in Texas,” he barks. “I went to the door and got the USA Today, and there was a story about how Major League Baseball was reorganizing and five people were losing their jobs. And I'm looking — one of the names is ‘Don Denkinger.' That's how I found out. After 40 years of giving my life for baseball.”

Calm again: “My whole life I've tried to do the right thing. I've tried to make the right call. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of what I've done.”

This goes back and forth, anger and calm, and then, after a long while, Denkinger looks up and smiles unevenly.

“But,” he says without anger or calm, “you want to talk about the call.”

***

St. Louis' Todd Worrell was pitching. Kansas City's Jorge Orta was hitting. It was 1985. There were no outs, bottom of the ninth, and the St. Louis Cardinals led 1-0. The Cardinals were three outs away from winning the World Series. The Kansas City crowd was loud. Orta chopped a ball between first and second. Don Denkinger, the first-base umpire, began running toward the base.

***

He doesn't deserve this. This is the first of two things that Don Denkinger knows with all his heart. He does not deserve to have his umpiring career — 31 major-league seasons bursting with honors and knee-high fastballs and a million close plays he got right — all of it reduced to one Saturday night call in Kansas City with the whole country watching.

No, he does not deserve this. That's the first thing he knows.

The second thing? You don't always get what you deserve.

“This is my cocoon,” he says. “I knew what I was getting myself into.”

He does not say this with conviction, though. Truth is, Don Denkinger did not know anything. He was drawn to umpiring because there seemed a certain power in it. No, it wasn't the power of being able to throw managers out of games, although Denkinger did plenty of that in his younger days when he was called “The Gun.”

No, it was the power of being right. That's what draws most umpires. Don Denkinger was lost when he went into this crazy racket. He dropped out of college in Iowa, spent time in the Army, traveled by car across the country to be with his best girl in Florida. She, meanwhile, took to the air and flew off with a pilot.

He was kicking around Florida. He heard about the Al Somers Umpire School and showed up. This was 1960. Denkinger read the baseball rulebook four times before the first day. He loved the rules. He finished first in his class. He was given a job umpiring in the Alabama-Florida League. He was paid $185 per month.

“I don't know if Don will remember it this way,” says John Chezik, a Kansas City car dealer and longtime Denkinger friend. “But for all of us who knew him, there was never any doubt what he was going to do. I think he was programmed to be an umpire.”

***

Denkinger ran toward first base because that's what his instinct told him to do. He had called thousands of slow rollers toward first. He knew this almost always ends as a race between pitcher and runner. You want to get close to the bag so you can see which foot hits the bag first. But something odd happened. The ball bounced funny. St. Louis' first baseman Jack Clark had trouble getting it out of his glove. By the time he threw the ball, Worrell was already on the bag. There was no race. “Oh no,” Denkinger would remember thinking, “I'm too close.”

***

Don Denkinger called his first major-league game in Kansas City in 1969. He had worked a long time to reach the big leagues. He had umpired in the minors for nine years, many of those in the hard-boiled Texas League, where once, in Tulsa, after a controversial call at first base, naturally, Denkinger saw Chezik in the stands.

“John,” he said. “I'm going to need the police to get out of here.”

“So,” Chezik said. “I got the cops. We escorted Don out.”

He never wavered, though. He knew he was right.

“That's something all the great umpires have,” fellow umpire Steve Palermo says. “They have conviction.”

Denkinger's first big-league game happened to be the first game the Kansas City Royals ever played. Strange connections between Kansas City and Denkinger would follow the rest of his career. He was on third base, and he saw a kid named Lou Piniella get four hits. The Royals beat the Twins at old Municipal Stadium.

After that, Denkinger spent most of his rookie season throwing out managers. “Man, I got a lot of them those first couple of years,” he says.

The thing was, Denkinger was not going to be disrespected. He was no kid — he was 33 already — and he had a wife, Gayle, and they had three kids, and he was trying to make a living. “I had no problem with a manager arguing,” Denkinger would say. “And they could swear as long as they weren't swearing at me. But they could not cross that line … they were going to respect me or they were going to leave.”

Denkinger very quickly became known as one of the better umpires in the game. He umpired his first World Series in 1974. He became a crew chief in 1977. He was called in to umpire behind the plate for the 1978 Red Sox-Yankees one-game playoff. He was an umpire in the 1980 World Series and, later, the 1991 World Series. He umpired six American League Championship Series.

“He was the go-to guy, no question about it,” Palermo says.

***

Clark's throw was high and wide, which made Denkinger's job tough. He could not see everything he needed to see. He made an instantaneous decision to follow the ball, make sure Worrell caught it. And then, the instant he caught it, Denkinger looked down to see whose foot reached the bag first. He thought it was Orta's. He was not sure that Worrell's foot was even on the bag. He made his call with authority like he had been taught at the Al Somers School. “SAFE!”

***

Replays showed Jorge Orta was out, of course.

It should not have meant so much. So the Royals had a runner on first base with nobody out. That's all. Kansas City had base runners all night but had not scored. The Cardinals still led. They still had the untouchable Worrell. They were still three outs away.

The call seemed so inconsequential, that after an initial flurry of talk by the announcers, the call was never again brought up on the ABC broadcast. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog argued for less than a minute. It was a missed call, sure. But the game went on.

Only later, after the Cardinals self-destructed, after Clark misplayed a pop-up, after a passed ball, after a couple of clutch Royals singles, only then did the call become something bigger than life. Only then, did bitter fans suggest that the Cardinals' complete unraveling and the Royals' gutsy comeback had been due to a call that put a man on first base with nobody out.

And that has been the common thought ever since. But Denkinger would never accept that. Never. “The Royals won that series and the Cardinals lost it because the Royals were tougher,” he says. The next day, Denkinger was behind the plate as the Royals won 11-0, and the Cardinals fell apart in every way possible. At one point, Herzog came out to argue a call.

As he walked away, Herzog said, “If you hadn't blown that call last night, we wouldn't even be here.”

Denkinger would call it the most unfair thing any manager ever said to him. He barked back: “If you guys were hitting more than .120 in the series, we wouldn't be here.”

That's when Herzog called Denkinger the one name that guarantees ejection.

Denkinger ejected him.

And it was right about then that a substitute disc jockey in St. Louis gave out Denkinger's home number on the air, leading a few crazed Cardinal fans to call and tell Denkinger's young daughters and mother-in-law to get ready. They would be coming by soon to burn down their house.

***

After the game, Denkinger was not sure. He had not seen the replay. But he knew there was a chance he had missed it. The play had fooled him. Cardinals second baseman Tommy Herr, who had a better angle, seemed awfully sure that Orta was out. Denkinger saw baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

“Peter,” he said, “did I get it right?” “No, Don,” Peter said.

“And that,” Denkinger would say many times, “was like a stab to the heart.”

***

The vicious calls and letters and occasional death threats came furiously at first. Denkinger read everything. He would talk to some of the fans on the phone. And he refused to change his phone number. He knew it would all pass soon enough.

“I wasn't going to give in,” he would say. Denkinger was all umpire.

Denkinger umpired for 13 more years. He was behind the plate for Nolan Ryan's sixth no-hitter and for the classic game seven of the 1991 World Series. He was on the field for two perfect games. And, whenever his name came up, someone would always bring up the call.

His last game was in Kansas City, of course. Denkinger's knees were shot after a lifetime of crouching and standing. It was a June game at Kauffman Stadium, Royals vs. Angels, it should have been easy. Instead, that was the game with two bench-clearing brawls, five beanballs and 12 ejections.

“Well,” Denkinger said, “at least my last game was memorable.”

When he announced his retirement, a radio station in St. Louis played the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

***

Denkinger signed a five-year contract with Major League Baseball after he finished umpiring to be an umpire observer. One year in, he was let go. He still does not know why. The toughest part is that baseball paid his contract. They just would not let him work.

That hurts him more than the call.

“I just don't understand,” he says. “I think I could help young umpires.”

These days, Don Denkinger splits his time between Sun Lakes in Arizona and his old house in Waterloo, Iowa. He lives on golf courses in both places. He does not go to baseball games. He's pretty angry with the game he spent his life officiating. But he says he long ago made his peace with the call. In fact, a few weeks ago, Herzog personally asked him to come to St. Louis for the 20th reunion of that doomed Cardinals team. Denkinger told Herzog he had no interest in coming down to be insulted.

“That won't happen,” Herzog said. “I give you my word.”

So, Denkinger will go. He will not take the blame for the Cardinals losing, but he does know that his call is a part of baseball history. He refuses to run. There's something that you learn the very first day of umpiring school.

An umpire, if he's very good, will get most of the calls right. He won't get them all.

Don Denkinger was a very good umpire.

big nasty kcnut
04-04-2005, 03:18 AM
Sorry about losing his job like that. His mistake brought me much joy in 1985

Coach
04-04-2005, 04:09 AM
Man, them Cardinal fans just need to let it go. It's been 20 years already for Christ sakes. Nobody's perfect. Get the f**k over it.

ltlchfinD
04-04-2005, 06:56 AM
I met Denkinger two years ago at the Royals Fantasy camp in Surprise. He was standing in front of the entire camp while George Brett talked about this story. I looked over at his table and his wife was in tears. After all that time you could still see the pain on both of there faces. He talked about the death threats na dabuse they had to endure during that time. Those wounds must be deep.

siberian khatru
04-04-2005, 07:05 AM
“If you guys were hitting more than .120 in the series, we wouldn't be here.”

ROFL ROFL ROFL

Cardinal fans can kiss my ever-lovin ASS. They CHOKED. They FOLDED. And if that wasn't gutless enough, for 20 years they've used an umpire's call as a crutch to ignore their pitiful response to a common baseball occurrence.

As a Chiefs fan, I can honestly admit my team has folded like a cheap table in the postseason. We suck at that. It's a fact. Cardinal fans need to face reality, too, and get over it.

BigRedChief
04-04-2005, 08:14 AM
Nothing to see here. Just rehashing 20 year old events. Move along.:shake:

homey
04-04-2005, 08:22 AM
ROFL ROFL ROFL

Cardinal fans can kiss my ever-lovin ASS. They CHOKED. They FOLDED. And if that wasn't gutless enough, for 20 years they've used an umpire's call as a crutch to ignore their pitiful response to a common baseball occurrence.


That's funny because it's pretty obvious it's the Star that can't let it go. Denkinger's been involved in ceremony's at Bush and all that's water under the bridge. There's no doubt that was the worst blown call in any postseason, but it's in the past. The Star should let it go.

kc rush
04-04-2005, 08:36 AM
Nothing to see here. Just rehashing 20 year old events. Move along.:shake:


Hell, he is rehashing the same story he writes every year when the Royals play the Cards.

Cochise
04-04-2005, 08:50 AM
I saw a good outside the lines on ESPN about him. Sad that one call marred a great career.

Chief Henry
04-04-2005, 08:55 AM
That's funny because it's pretty obvious it's the Star that can't let it go. Denkinger's been involved in ceremony's at Bush and all that's water under the bridge. There's no doubt that was the worst blown call in any postseason, but it's in the past. The Star should let it go.


Amen Brother.......Posananski and the Star seem to revel in that futile
mistake. It was a horrible call.

Glad I've got my Pujols Rookie card.

ChiefsCountry
04-04-2005, 10:09 AM
I guess the Cardinal fans forget about Game 7.

ltlchfinD
04-04-2005, 10:49 AM
Posnanski was actually at the Fantasy camp as well. He watched George talk about this and the affect it had on Dnkinger and his wife. I'm curious why he'd keep bringing it back up

Brock
04-04-2005, 11:01 AM
I wonder who Cardinal fan blames for being steamrolled last year.

ct
04-04-2005, 11:13 AM
This is the same type of story we're gonna hear from Oakland about the Tuck Rule for year's to come.

And from Cubs fans with Steve Bartman.

whoman69
04-04-2005, 11:30 AM
I had to work that night and when they show the highlights, they only show that play. I have no idea what happened after. But that was the best Cardinals club that I can remember. The Royals didn't even have 90 wins that year. The Cardinals should not have allowed it to get that far. They blew a 3-1 series lead. They couldn't hit the Royals pitchers and did not have the knockout blow with Vince Coleman out of the lineup.

kc rush
04-04-2005, 11:42 AM
Posnanski was actually at the Fantasy camp as well. He watched George talk about this and the affect it had on Dnkinger and his wife. I'm curious why he'd keep bringing it back up

Because it is the start of the 2005 season, 20 years after we won it all.

Calcountry
04-04-2005, 11:45 AM
It is truely pathetic, in Baseball, a game of second chances, to blame the loss of the series on that one call.

Just like it is pathetic for the Cubs fans to blame Bartmen for their complete an utter ineptitude at closing out the Marlins.

buddha
04-04-2005, 12:30 PM
I guess the Cardinal fans forget about Game 7.

Game 7 and the rest of Game 6 for that matter. Of course it was a bad call, there was never any question about that. However, that call didn't cost the Cardinals the series...it just didn't. I was on the field for all seven games of that World Series and it is my opinion that St. Louis completely lost their composure in Game 6, and didn't bother to show up at all in Game 7. Who can forget "Walking Underwear" going ballistic in the last game and having to be restrained?

It was KC's year in 1985. Bad calls are a part of sports, and you have to let it go when it goes against your team.

wazu
04-04-2005, 12:40 PM
It's funny how many Cardinal fans have selective memories. I've heard more than one point out that there were already two outs and this out would have ended the series.

ENDelt260
04-04-2005, 12:40 PM
ROFL "The Star needs to let it go" Haha... yep, it's only the KC Star bringing it up. Cards fans have been over it for years. ROFL

RaiderH8r
04-04-2005, 12:47 PM
It is truely pathetic, in Baseball, a game of second chances, to blame the loss of the series on that one call.

Just like it is pathetic for the Cubs fans to blame Bartmen for their complete an utter ineptitude at closing out the Marlins.
Yup on the Bartman deal. The Cubs REALLY tanked that one.

Isn't 85 the last time the Royals went to the playoffs? Don't get me wrong, good way to make an exit, but....

ENDelt260
04-04-2005, 12:48 PM
Isn't 85 the last time the Royals went to the playoffs?

Yep. And the Cards have won a ton of WS's since then, too. Oh, wait...

Andoverer
04-04-2005, 01:48 PM
I make it a policy to never apologize for my team winning with a little luck. NEVER! I've had to endure many times my teams LOSING because of greasy luck going the other team's way. Criminy, KC has ONE Superbowl victory and ONE World Series victory in its history fer cryin' out loud. Any St. Louis fans whining still about 1985 can go suck eggs.