“That Was a Fair Ball, by the Way”: A Tale of Twins Tragedy

Ah, another Yankees-Twins playoff series. A retelling of a familiar tale. A classic first-round matchup simmering with revenge narratives. A chance for the Twins to change the course of — oh.

It’s over already.

While both NLDS series proceeded to white-knuckle Game 5’s, and the Rays forced the Astros to contemplate elimination, over in Minnesota, the Twins were quietly dispatched by the Yankees in exactly the way pretty much everyone feared that they would be.

This was a brutal tradition of the 2000s, in which the little-guy Twins would arrive, fresh from contention, and the Yankees, cementing their legacy as the underdog-kicking playoff behemoths, would squash them with elite talent and the favor of some twisted gods. Yet another Twins postseason defeat is behind us, and we’re left with more questions than answers. These games have historically been comprised of bummers, boners, and brims pulled low. Today is the anniversary of one of them, and we’re going to examine it.

For Twins fans, this story needs no retelling, but unfortunately, we must relate the tragic set dressing: The Twins dropped Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS 7-2, but had singled together a 3-1 lead late in Game 2. Alex Rodriguez shattered the delicate balance with a two-run shot off All-Star Twins closer Joe Nathan to tie it up. The game went into extras, and in the top of the 11th, Joe Mauer led off, and this happened:

On the one hand, this is baseball: It is nothing without its X-factors. Its chaos. Its precious human element. On the other, you can tell this is a conspiracy because of how grainy the footage is, or at least reasonably speculate.

So who, may we ask, is responsible for this? I set out to find who we could blame for one moment from the 2009 ALDS that seems to encapsulate the spirit of this joyless rivalry, unless, of course, you’re a Yankees fan. In an attempt at long overdue catharsis, I have compiled a list of possible answers. Let us take them in turn.

Joe Mauer

Well, this was the opposite of helpful. How could Mauer, beloved Twins hero, the victim in all this, be at fault for an incorrect call? Ask yourself: Could Mauer have done any more in 2009 to make an umpire believe that a line drive off his bat, headed to the corner was going to result in an extra-base hit? The answer is probably not.

Basically, you can scoop up any of the numbers Mauer, the 2009 AL MVP, produced from any segment of the season and come up with statistics bordering on the obscene. In the month of September, he had 1.4 WAR and a 156 wRC+. He had his highest monthly OBP of the season, .471, except for April, of course, when it was .500. He did all this as a catcher, by the way, saving the Twins 14.9 runs above the average defensively for the season.

Maybe Mauer wasn’t the league’s most prolific doubler in 2009. Brian Roberts led the league with 56, but Mauer managed a nice, round 30 of them, including three in one game against the Indians. He spent a good deal of his career grounding out to the right side of the infield, but when he ganked line drives, they predominantly went to left, and that’s where he’d sent this pitch.

It’s not like he was a pitcher up there, blooping a Texas Leaguer down the line and failing to receive the benefit of the doubt. Mauer was hitting .330 when he led off an inning in 2009, with 13 extra base hits in 100 at-bats. Dispassionate observers would absolve him of any blame, and Yankees fans would likely join them for good measure. So it should have been perfectly believable that Mauer would hit a double in that spot.

Unless, of course, you were…

Phil Cuzzi

For some reason, left field umpire Phil Cuzzi didn’t believe it when he saw it. Sometimes, especially on a national broadcast without an affiliation with either team, you’ll find the announcers a little hesitant to come down on an umpire’s miss. But this one was so blatant, they had to say something immediately: “That was a fair ball, by the way.”

Not only did the ball glance off Melky Cabrera’s glove in fair territory, but even after doing so, it landed in fair territory. These two instances of the ball being fair do not, in fact, cancel each other out, and result in the ball being foul. But we’re not here to use slow motion footage of a fast-moving baseball from 10 years ago to throw meaningless sarcasm into the past. We’re just here to wonder… what the man who was supposed to know whether it was a fair or foul ball saw.

Because he called it foul. And it was, according to that slow motion footage, quite fair.

Cuzzi didn’t sound like he’d been fully in control of his own actions during the incident, leading us to believe that he’d been puppeted by whatever sinister forces were nesting in Yankee Stadium at the time.

“Unless you umpire, you can’t possibly understand,” Cuzzi told The Star-Ledger in a phone interview [that] night. “It happens. It happens at the worst possible time. And it happened to me.”

Cuzzi and his crew chief made it clear how gutted the ump felt for blowing it, which was a much more emotional reaction than the one Cuzzi would have for another clearly blown call the following season.

To reporters, Cuzzi blamed the miscue on “looking too closely at” the play, saying he “never had a feel for where the left fielder was…” These are words that technically mean things, but what those things are is still highly debatable. How could he have been looking too closely? How could he, the left field umpire, not know where the left fielder was?

Conversely, how much did this call matter? Cuzzi cost the Twins a base runner who, a few pitches later, wound up on base anyway; not in scoring position, but you know, on a base. But Mauer wasn’t at his speediest, having just caught 10 innings while suffering with a hip flexor issue, and admitted after the game, “I’m not feeling too well right now.” Even if he’d been on second during the brief singles barrage, who knows how he would have fared.

At the end of the day, the argument was over when Cuzzi’s arms went to the left. In the moment, things can always look differently, and Cuzzi had a split second to observe and make that call. We’ve seen umpires make egregiously wrong calls before; the sport has made attempts to correct this. But for fans of that generation who may not have been Yankees supporters, who had grown up watching them seemingly play with cheat codes on through the late 90s, who watched blatant fan interference be called a heroic Derek Jeter home run, it was tough not to wonder when the pendulum was going to swing back the other way. Because once more, fate had sided with the Yankees. And it was okay to be mad about that.

“I wasn’t the only one who blew one tonight,” Joe Nathan said after.

Mauer, on the other hand, stuffed it down real deep, already putting the moment in the past: “You can’t change it now.”

Melky Cabrera

Maybe if the Yankees left fielder had just caught the ball, none of this would be up for debate.

Before the season started, GM Brian Cashman had theorized that Cabrera could be competition for Brett Gardner in center field. Both players were said to play solid defense, with their offense being the deciding factor in who would get the most time. Cabrera was coming off a disappointing 2008 and initially lost the job to the speedier Gardner, but wound up playing 98 games in center after Gardner got hurt at the end of July. By the end of the year, his defense was still being labeled as “solid.”

He’d only played 28 games in left, but — despite getting the start in center for this game — that was where Melky found himself during this fateful inning. Gardner had entered the game as a pinch runner and then slipped into center field for some late game defense. And so, Melky ran as fast as Melky could after Mauer’s hit, his glove outstretched at a ball twirling away from him.

Maybe the faster Gardner would have been able to track it down. Melky got juuuuust close enough to touch it, but not close enough to catch it. Had he been able to do so, the Twins would have been an out closer to a crucial loss, but at least we wouldn’t be haunted by what happened next.

The Twins Offense

Perhaps we ought to expand the circle of blame outside the play itself. The Twins offense was a huge tease in this series. In the first two games combined, they left 26 runners on base and were 6-for-22 with RISP. A chunk of that stat came from the bases loaded, no out situation they put together after Cuzzi called the fair ball foul.

Joe Girardi, blasted by columnist Bill Madden the next day in the Daily News (after a walk-off postseason win, mind you), was questioned for his bullpen moves and his usage of Joba Chamberlain as a situational reliever versus right-handed hitters when he had been originally penned in as the Yankees’ No. 4 starter. That, Girardi’s seeming trust in the beleaguered Alfredo Aceves, and the moves leading up to the Twins’ wasted opportunity, put the Yankees’ fate in the hands of rookie David Robertson.

With the Twins, a team that had scored the fifth-most runs in the majors that year, a team with a collective wRC+ of 104 and a BA of .355 with the bases loaded, a team being gifted an opportunity to beat up on a rookie with no outs and the bases loaded in a tie game, you’d think they’d have done a little better than “no runs.”

Putting any of those runners across would have at least delayed the inevitable. They didn’t, though. They really, really didn’t.

A cruel, malevolent god

The Yankees won, of course. Mauer singled despite the missed call, and so did the next two batters to load the bases, but Robertson was able to wriggle free of the mess without a run coming in to score. We all know how this story ends. Mark Teixeira led off the bottom of the inning with a walk-off home run, which the umpires determined was a fair ball with absolutely no trouble somehow, and Twins fans were left consoling themselves with the barely-silver lining that at least it hadn’t been A-Rod.

This past Monday night, the Twins lost their 16th straight playoff game, 13 of which have been to the Yankees. I feel like now we can close our laptops, abandon our attempts at logic, and return to my original point of “What kind of god would allow this?”

That ball was fair. We all know it. Yet, like so many other things in life, line drives headed for the corner sometimes just aren’t fair. At least in baseball, we have replay and a little white line to prove it. But there is no satisfaction to be gained here. “Blame” is just the fruitless task of searching for reason in a sport gone mad. Now, all that blurry, late-2000s footage proves is how we are only ever one judgment call away from not just a win or a loss, but a legacy of abject failure in a sport’s biggest moments.

No one could have known the tragic legend Phil Cuzzi’s missed call would begin, which is, I suppose, the ultimate lesson here: That this is a sport played and officiated by humans. When we say “human element,” what we’re really addressing is that perfection is a myth; that you can look closely, and still not see; and that our biggest failures can feel like they were simply inevitable; time, and time, and time, and time, and time again.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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I remember this game quite well. I’m not a Twins fan but that Teixiera homerun made my heart hurt.