Don Denkinger, RIP: Survival

Don Denkinger

Don Denkinger, dusting home plate clean during a game. He owned his grave 1985 World Series mistake—you know, the one that really didn’t cost the Cardinals a Series championship.

Now-retired umpire Ted Barrett blew a call the first time he worked on a crew with Don Denkinger, in July 1995. Brewers pitcher Scott Karl threw to first looking to bag Mariners outfielder Rich Amaral. Amaral eluded the tag as he scrambled back to first and made it safely, except that Barrett called him out.

Reviewing video after the game, Barrett saw clearly enough he’d blown the call and felt as low as a man could feel. As he walked out of the Kingdome to his car, Denkinger caught up to him and asked what was wrong. Barrett said he felt terrible for having blown the call.

“[H]e looks at me with a grin,” said Barrett to ESPN about Denkinger, who died at 86 Friday, “and says, ‘Try (messing) one up in the World Series.’ I was like, whoa, respect this guy.”

Exactly. Denkinger’s moment of infamy in Game Six of the 1985 World Series made him public enemy number one in St. Louis and elsewhere. (In Kansas City, of course, Denkinger might have been seen as a blessing from the gods.) But once he got past the tumult, the screaming, the humiliation, and the worst of the foulness that followed him, he proved a man who not only learned from his worst mistake but knew how to get behind the proper answer for future such mistakes.

With the Cardinals up 1-0 going to the top of the ninth, calling Royals leadoff pinch hitter Jorge Orta safe on a slow bouncer off first base was a horror known at once to everyone in Kauffmann Stadium and viewing on ABC television. “Nobody wants to have the call that I did in the World Series,” Denkinger told a reporter nine years ago. “But I did. And now it’s part of history.”

Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark fielded the ball cleanly and tossed to covering relief pitcher Todd Worrell, who caught the toss with his foot on the pad well ahead of Orta. The Cardinals and their Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog fumed. The call stood, alas. Then a base hit, a bunt, a passed ball, an intentional walk, and a bloop two-run single later, the Royals stood having tied the Series.

Thanks to the normal Series umpire rotating, Denkinger was due to call balls and strikes for Game Seven. The Cardinals seemed more concerned with having been robbed the night before than playing the here and now, and their wheels came off early enough and often enough.

The fury got filthy enough that a regional radio host gave out Denkinger’s home address on the air. More than a few nasty death threats against the ump and his family prompted the FBI itself to investigate. Some way, some how, Denkinger managed to pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again to finish a career that shook out as far more distinguished than extinguished.

When Herzog himself started banging the drum none too slowly on behalf of bringing replay review at least to the postseason, Denkinger became an easy ally. Until the day baseball finally decided getting it right was imperative, especially when championship advance or finality was on the line, Denkinger was one of replay’s staunchest supporters.

“I’m not tired of talking about it,” he said in the aforementioned interview. “I mean, it happened. I just know that if the same thing happened now, they’d get it right on replay and it’d be over with.”

This wasn’t a C.B. Bucknor or a Laz Diaz or an Angel Hernandez or a Joe West type who was liable to harrumph “Tough you-know-whatties” whenever someone called him on a horrifically bad call. This was an earnest fellow who’d made the biggest mistake of his career and refused to let it define him or soil him. He blew it. He knew it. He owned it. He went back to finish an almost entirely honourable career.

He probably knew, too, that the Cardinals didn’t exactly have the Royals down to their final out; that they could still have found a way to get three outs before any Royal got anywhere near scoring; or, having failed to do that, come to Game Seven ready to play.

Instead, they saw Denkinger behind the plate and imploded while Royals righthander Bret Saberhagen manhandled them and the Royals manhandled Cardinal pitching for eleven unanswered runs. Anyone on earth, no matter how Game Six ended, would have been justified telling the Cardinals nobody trained artillery upon them and told them to fall flat on their own faces.

Even Denkinger. The closest he came was in the fifth inning, when Joaquin Andujar—normally a starter but now pressed into desperation relief—erupted over a close pitch and Herzog had to hustle out to keep Andujar from being run, while Cardinals third baseman Terry Pendleton and Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith kept Andujar from trying to tear Denkinger (who’d been a wrestler in high school) into strips.

“If you’d done your damn job last night, we wouldn’t be here!” thundered the White Rat.

“If your team were hitting better than .120 [in the Series],” Denkinger shot back, “we wouldn’t be here, either.” (The Cardinals finished that Series batting .185 as a team.)

Then he ran Herzog over an obscenity and Andujar a pitch or two later over another fury. The Cardinal implosion continued apace, and the upstart Royals finished what they started, an 11-0 Game Seven spanking to win their first of only two World Series championships.

Denkinger had good humour enough to accept Herzog’s own demonstration of good humour a couple of decades after the Hour of Infamy—mutual laughter when, at a dinner honouring the 1985 Cardinals, members of the team were presented spanking new Seiko wristwatches and Denkinger was presented a spanking new watch . . . in Braille.

How well did Denkinger survive otherwise?

When he ran into Dane Iorg the following spring, Iorg having been the Royal who blooped the Game Six-winning runs home, Denkinger joked, “You know, I just had the worst offseason of my life thanks to you.”

He survived well enough to work behind the plate for Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter, Hall of Famer Jack Morris’s ten-inning 1991 World Series shutout, and Kenny Rogers’s perfect game in 1994—making him one of seven arbiters to work the plate for two perfect games. (Denkinger also called the balls and strikes for Len Barker in 1981.)

Well enough to retire after the 1998 season because a balky knee was no longer tolerable for standing nine innings a day for six months a year. (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch headlined a story about his retirement thus: “Don Denkinger won’t miss any more calls at first base.” Put that headline writer into the Hall of Shame.)

“I’ll put on there whatever you want,” Denkinger told Sports Illustrated in 2015, when noting some autograph seekers asked him to sign “Oops” next to his name. “It doesn’t make any difference. Life’s too short to do that to yourself, let this dictate your life. I just took the other avenue. Life goes on. Enjoy it.”

“If anything,” his daughter, Denise, told the magazine, “it’s made me even more proud that he’s my dad. He didn’t hide from it. He didn’t say it was someone else’s fault. He took ownership of it.” Said his wife, Gayle, “He made one mistake, but that didn’t define him. Aren’t we all entitled to a second chance?”

The jerk contingencies among sports fans that proclaim human error to be moral degeneracy worthy of the death of ten thousand cuts (and threats) won’t like it, but the answer is yes. Especially if you own your mistake at once and continue by showing you learned everything you needed to learn from it and perform accordingly.

Come to think of it, the jerk contingency among umpires who think fans pay their hard-earned money to come to the ballpark to see them wield power could do to learn a lesson or three from Denkinger. Surely the Lord is reminding him of that, too, over a couple of tall ones in the Elysian Fields. May he get to call a perfect game or three there during his hard-earned eternal peace.