No glory for sports officials

Tuesday, December 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:17 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Being a sports official is a lot like being a journalist.

Officials and journalists say they’re objective, but the public is generally quite skeptical of those claims. Also, both often receive more blame than they deserve.

Columbia resident Robert Martin, 33, said his first experience as a basketball referee nearly scared him from officiating for life.

“The first game I had ever officiated, I was volunteering as a freshman in high school for a sixth-grade girls basketball game,” he said. “The parents were just totally nuts. They were screaming at me the whole game to call three seconds in the lane.

“If you’ve ever seen sixth-grade girls play, you know that if you called everything, you’d be there all night. That didn’t stop the parents from booing me and the other referee off the court. I thought that was the last game I would ever officiate for sure.”

Instead, Martin has regularly officiated junior high and high school basketball games in the area for the past eight years.

“It’s a good part-time job,” he said. “I work construction during the day, so it works into my schedule well. I’ve always loved sports, and since I was never good enough to play professionally, (officiating) is a good way to stay involved.”

In most professions, people gain notoriety by excelling in their field.

However, Don Denkinger is undoubtedly the most well-known referee or umpire in this area, and he is certainly not remembered for his greatness.

In Game 6 of the 1985 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, Denkinger made an erroneous call that Cardinals fans will never forget.

With no outs in the bottom of the ninth, Denkinger called the Royals’ Jorge Orta safe at first base. Replays clearly showed first baseman Jack Clark’s throw beat Orta to the bag.

Since the missed call, Denkinger has become public enemy No. 1 among Cardinals fans even though his peers regarded him as one of baseball’s best umpires. In fact, Denkinger was the home-plate umpire for Game 7 of the 1991 World Series despite his blown call in 1985.

Martin said officials like Denkinger often become scapegoats.

“Officials make mistakes just like everybody else,” he said. “One thing I’ve figured out from being a referee is that fans are irrational. They’re really passionate about their teams, and when things go bad for them, they’re looking for someone to blame. Part of the fun in sports is the high level of passion involved, so I guess it just comes with the territory.”

Fans seem to have selective memory. While they can easily recall poor decisions by an official, they aren’t nearly as good at remembering what their team could have done differently.

While many Cardinals’ fans think Denkinger’s call is the only reason they lost in 1985, the Cardinals hit a combined .188 in the series.

In the infamous ninth inning of Game 6, Clark and catcher Darrell Porter misplayed a fairly routine pop fly down the first-base line, and pitcher Todd Worrell threw a wild pitch that allowed the eventual tying and winning runs to advance a base.

The Cardinals lost 11-0 in Game 7, and even their manager, Whitey Herzog, said Denkinger was a fine umpire who simply got a call wrong.

Fair or unfair, Martin said officials have to accept that fans are rarely going to notice them unless fans think they’ve made a mistake.

“The best official is the one you don’t notice,” he said. “It’s good to blend in and be anonymous. When I’m leaving a gym and no one acknowledges me, I know I’ve done a pretty good job.”

Journalists don’t want to be the next Jayson Blair, a former New York Times reporter caught fabricating elements of his stories. Likewise, officials don’t want to be the next Denkinger.

Of course, Blair and Denkinger are also two of the most well-known people in their profession.

As much as we glorify celebrity status in this country, anonymity still has its benefits.

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