Was it a homer? No argument here

KEN ROSENTHAL

August 16, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- Let's get one thing straight: The phantom homer by Don Mattingly isn't the reason the Orioles lost, 1-0, to the New York Yankees yesterday -- not on a day when their most solid contact came on a two-strike bunt single.

Let's get another thing straight: All the arguing in the world probably wouldn't have persuaded the umpires to disallow the homer -- not with 47,428 screaming New Yorkers in the stands, ready to riot.

Still, who put the Orioles on tranquilizers? They've lost six straight games. They're 4 1/2 back in the AL East. And yesterday, with their season crumbling, they couldn't muster the energy to challenge first-base umpire Jim Joyce.

In case you missed one of the 4,000 replays, Mattingly led off the eighth inning by lofting an 0-2 forkball from Ben McDonald down the right-field line. "Off the end of his bat," McDonald thought. "Fly ball to right field."

Alas, the right-field corner is only 314 feet away in Yankee Stadium, and that's where the ball was headed. Mark McLemore raced back toward the wall and leaped with his left arm fully extended. But he wasn't the one who made the catch.

Nope, the ball was caught by a fan, a fan who reached over the wall, a fan named Tim McKenzie from Durham, Conn. -- 16 years old and now the biggest thing to hit New York since King Kong.

Later, Joyce said the ball was "well above the fence" -- like, millimeters. Joyce could have called Mattingly out. He could have awarded him a double, assuming McLemore wouldn't have made the play.

Instead, he signaled home run.

Middle of a pennant race, middle of a losing streak, middle of a scoreless game. And not a peep from the Orioles. Oh, McLemore banged his elbows against the fence, but what did that mean? Everyone figured he was upset over missing the ball.

"He made no gesture toward the infielders, toward the umpires, toward the dugout to indicate he was interfered with," first-base coach Davey Lopes said. "It's a little difficult for us to see from the bench. We can't tell."

From the mound, McDonald was stunned that no one protested -- not McLemore, nor the next closest outfielder, Mike Devereaux.

"I thought the guy reached over to catch it," McDonald said. "I don't know why there wasn't anyone arguing."

Why didn't McDonald take up the fight?

"I didn't feel it was my place," he said. "I didn't want to get in a knockdown, drag-out argument with the umpires and lose my composure."

Manager Johnny Oates was willing to do just that, but he was waiting for a signal from McLemore.

"If he thinks he's been interfered with, I'll come out to back him up," Oates said. "If he thinks he's right to start arguing, if he thinks a particular call is wrong, he should let people know.

"He should not argue for the sake of arguing. The easiest thing is to say the umpire blew the call and cost us a ballgame. I don't believe in that. But I believe if a call is missed, to let him know."

VTC McLemore said the call was missed. Without the interference, he said: "I think I have a real good chance of getting it -- better than a real good chance." But he just couldn't see the point in arguing.

Logically, he was right. "Have you ever seen a home-run call changed?" McLemore asked. When a reporter said yes, he replied: "After the home team hits a home run, in the eighth inning, in front of 50,000 people?"

Fair enough, but this is a team that claims to have drawn inspiration from a brawl with Seattle. Maybe, just maybe, an argument would have sparked the Orioles, who managed only three hits all day and three runs all weekend.

Instead, they disagreed only with each other. McLemore's biggest complaint seemed to be that Joyce was "200 feet away." Pressed to elaborate, he added: "I'm not going to say where he should have been. He knows what his job is."

Lopes agreed that Joyce was out of position -- "the ball was down the line, and he hadn't even moved yet" -- but Oates said: "Jim Joyce was right there. When I saw his hand go up, he was down the right-field line."

If only the Orioles' reaction to Mattingly's homer was as lively as their post-game debate. Instead, it was if the ball had sailed into the upper deck. There was no reaction, only a silent acceptance of defeat.

Yes, the call probably would have stood. Yes, the Orioles had other chances to win the game. But there Mattingly stood afterward, describing the homer as he watched a television replay. "Kid made a good play right there," he said.

The big hit was his.

So was the last laugh.

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