MLB Missed Calls: Is What you See – Real or an Illusion?


by Dr. Stephen Walker, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychologists

Major League Baseball was rocked the other day by the blown call of  Umpire Jim Joyce.  In the top half of the 9th inning, with a lead of 3-0 and two outs recorded – Armando Galarraga had a perfect game going (no hits, no walks, no runs.)  That perfect game was stolen from him as Joyce insisted the base runner was safe, causing a furor that had Detroit fans in a frenzy – and manager Jim Leyland in La-La land as replays showed indisputable evidence of Galarraga’s foot on the bag while Donald was clearly not there.

Many people have difficulty accepting that referee’s and umpires are unbiased and completely professional in their approach to their job.  Instant replay might have been used in this situation if MLB didn’t limit its use to home runs.  Might this impact Galarraga’s year moving forward?  Maybe, but given he promptly went back to the mound and finished off the game – he appears to have taken it in stride.  We’ll see as his season progresses.

Dr. Dan Simons, a Harvard trained psychologist now teaching at the University of Illinois probably has an explanation – certainly for fan reactions – but probably as much for blown calls such as this one.  Intention clearly has the ability to influence what we see and experience, and Simons doctoral research on this topic is illuminating to say the least.  Check out the following video to see what I mean:


Its likely that fans who have experienced this video, and failed to see the gorilla – curtain change – or missing player from the black team, probably have a more open mind with regard to the failure of officials making the right call.  Even though an inquiry is likely for Umpire Joyce, he is reputed to be fair and an honest man.  The next day when Galarraga handed the line-up sheet to Joyce in a gesture of good faith – Joyce was notably shaken wiping tears away as he accepted the gesture and again apologized to Galarraga.

But what of the Tim Donaghy’s of the world – the NBA referee who committed fraud, bet on games, and admittedly made questionable calls favoring the bets.  Well, Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison, while in China some have proposed the death penalty for soccer umpire Xi – who was also found guilty of such an offense.

In either case – instant replay gets my vote.

In a Post-script: Scott Simons of NPR did a feature on this and I think captured the true sentiment and best take on the incident after the fact.  For a treat, check this out: Scott Simon’s NPR Reaction.

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