Last night, in the bottom of the third inning, with the Royals leading the Yankees 3–2, Kansas City designated hitter Billy Butler hit a fly ball to left center field that appeared to bounce on top of the front portion of the fence, ricochet off a portion of chain-link fence above that, and bounce back into the field of play. It was called a home run initially, but Joe Girardi requested a review, since this is exactly the kind of thing instant replay is in place to check.
And so the umps reviewed it, but didn’t overturn their original call, giving Kansas City a 4–2 lead. (Mariano Rivera, in the dugout, seemed to be especially bothered by the decision.) The ground rule in question is whether a ball has to clear both parts of the fence to be called a home run, or just the front part. Which is where things got confusing. From the Times:
Girardi said that during a meeting at home plate before the first game of the series, the umpires went over the ground rules with the Yankees' first-base coach, Mick Kelleher. Girardi said Kelleher told him he remembered the crew chief, Dana DeMuth, saying home runs had to clear the top railing. But after the umpires reviewed the play, they told Girardi it only had to reach the horizontal portion of the wall under the chain-link fence and the railing.
Girardi would have been able to file a protest, since he wasn't challenging a judgement call, but the umpires' interpretation (or, perhaps more accurately, understanding) of a rule. From the section of the MLB rule book concerning protests:
Each league shall adopt rules governing procedure for protesting a game, when a manager claims that an umpire's decision is in violation of these rules. No protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire. In all protested games, the decision of the League President shall be final.
Even if it is held that the protested decision violated the rules, no replay of the game will be ordered unless in the opinion of the League President the violation adversely affected the protesting team's chances of winning the game.
Rule 4.19 Comment: Whenever a manager protests a game because of alleged misapplication of the rules the protest will not be recognized unless the umpires are notified at the time the play under protest occurs and before the next pitch, play or attempted play. A protest arising on a game-ending play may be filed until 12 noon the following day with the league office.
And the Yankees could make a good case that the call adversely affected their chances of winning the game: They'd go on to lose by one run, 5–4. (Lost in all of this: Bartolo Colon, who gave up the "home run" to Butler, didn't have a particularly good outing.)
So why didn't Girardi protest immediately? He said he figured that Dana DeMuth, the second base umpire and crew chief, knew the rules. Said Girardi: "The reason I didn't protest is I believed the umpire."
An hour after the game ended, the four umps and Steve Palermo, the league's supervisor of umpires, walked out to the warning track in left center and spent fifteen minutes examining the wall and having an animated discussion. It's not known what was said — the umpires declined comment on the situation — but as the Times put it, "it was clear from the body language that none of them was particularly pleased."
Of course, even if the Yankees won the protest and the game was replayed from the point of the call, there's no guarantee that the Yankees would have won the game. Just like there's no guarantee they would have won if Butler's fly ball was ruled a double last night. The only thing that's guaranteed now is that without a protest, the Yankees won't get their second chance.