They gathered in a ballroom at a casino hotel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of what is still the Royals’ only world championship. A few people wondered if it was the most complete reunion yet.
So many of the stars came back, the guys who together created the Royals’ greatest moment: Frank, Willie, Hal, Sabes — and Don Denkinger.
In case that sounds made up, we are including photographic proof with this column. That’s him in the checkered shirt, same short cropped hair he wore in the military and then throughout a 31-year career as a big league umpire that most people remember for the missed call that may or may not — more on that later — have tilted the 1985 World Series away from the Cardinals and toward the Royals.
“He’s going to get a great hand,” says Art Stewart, the Royals’ scouting director then and now a member of the team’s Hall of Fame. “Of course, if they had instant replay like they do now, we wouldn’t be wearing championship rings.”
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Stewart is joking, mostly, which is entirely appropriate for the umpire showing up for a celebration of a championship he is unwittingly connected to. As my friend and new St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Benjamin Hochman put it: “Does this mean the Mizzou down-marker guy will be at Colorado this fall for the 25th anniversary of their championship season?”
There were a few hundred baseball fans here, most of them in blue or Royals gear, and Denkinger is like the straight man for everyone’s one-liner.
“That’s a fair umpire,” laughs Jerry Boresow, a Royals fan from Shawnee.
“Safe all the way,” says Kevin Kemmerer, a Royals fan from Kansas City.
“Best call I’ve ever seen,” says Janet Bowman. “I’ve had your back on that for 30 years.”
Denkinger looks up for a second. He may have smiled. Then he looks back down, sees an eight-by-ten showing Jorge Orta’s foot not quite on the bag, and autographs it.
Denkinger is something like a cult hero in this room, but everyone knows what’s going on. He’s the guy who blew the call. He’s the reason some of these people are here. But why is he here?
“I still think he was safe,” a man says.
“I did, too,” Denkinger says.
At some point, Don Denkinger became less a man’s name and more a shorthand for a mistake. That’s a shame. It’s not at all fair. Denkinger is a military vet. He’s a father. A husband.
Believe it or not, he was one of the best umpires in baseball. In that circle, he was a star. Graduated first in his class at umpire school. Made it to the big leagues at 33. Became a crew chief after four years. Worked his first World Series three years later.
“So there must be a reason,” he says now. “I know what I’ve accomplished.”
He could’ve been in better position. He should’ve been in better position. From the beginning, the play was awkward. Orta’s chopper took a funny bounce, and Jack Clark, the Cardinals first baseman, struggled to get it out of his glove.
Usually, these plays end up as a race to the bag between the pitcher and base runner. Umpires need to get close. But Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell beat Orta to the bag, and Clark’s toss was high and wide, the stadium was far too loud to make the call based on sound, all of this conspiring against Denkinger. He called Orta safe with an authority he did not feel inside.
The call should not have mattered this much. If you watch the old broadcast, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog argues for, maybe, 45 seconds. The announcers don’t bring it up again. The umpire missed a call. So what. The Royals had a runner on first base with nobody out. The Cardinals still led. Worrell had been dominant. The Cardinals didn’t need to crumble.
But they did. On the very next pitch, Clark misplayed what should’ve been an easy pop-up. Steve Balboni singled on an 0-2 pitch. The winning run went to scoring position on a passed ball, and scored on a single by a .223 hitting utility player.
That’s when the call became The Call. Denkinger didn’t know he had it wrong until he saw commissioner Peter Ueberroth outside the umpires’ dressing room.
“Pete, did I get the call right?”
Denkinger has told this story a thousand times by now, at least, and every time he motions a knife to his heart to explain what that felt like. A radio station in St. Louis gave out Denkinger’s phone number, and right away people called threatening his wife and daughter.
The World Series did not end that night. The next day was game seven, and Denkinger worked home plate. That had already been planned. He really was a good umpire. Herzog came out to argue a call, and told Denkinger they wouldn’t be there if he’d been right the night before. Denkinger told Herzog they wouldn’t be there if the Cardinals hadn’t been hitting .120 in the Series.
“That’s when he called me a name, and I ran him,” Denkinger says.
The abuse didn’t stop, but Denkinger never changed his phone number, and angry fans kept calling. When he was home, and in the mood, he answered the phone and talked to fans. Denkinger wouldn’t back down.
That’s the umpire in him, and the people who’ve heard this part of the story usually start to see him as so much more than the guy who missed a call 30 years ago.
Don Denkinger is here at a banquet honoring the team that benefited from his mistake, but did you know he’s done the same thing in St. Louis? A few times, actually.
Herzog invited him to a 20th reunion of that 1985 Cardinals team with a promise there would be no insults. Denkinger’s great nephew is on a baseball scholarship at St. Louis University, and Denkinger spoke at the team’s kickoff dinner. Herzog was there, too, and the two men talked. They’ve made peace.
This is the first time Denkinger has attended a function honoring the Royals, sure, but he’s told his story so many times in so many places. His is a message of moving on, of accepting mistakes, taking responsibility for them, and holding your head high.
Maybe you think this is a bad look, that an umpire shouldn’t be smiling and laughing at the wink-wink jokes about a blown call in the World Series. But what if there’s something else going on here, something more important? What if there is a better takeaway from this?
We can’t always control when our worst moment will happen. But we can control how we react.
At some point, a woman slid a 1985 World Series pennant in front of Denkinger. Willie Wilson had signed it. Frank White. Hal McRae. Now, it was Denkinger’s turn.
“What do you think of that call 30 years later?” the woman asked.
“Well,” Denkinger said. “It’s just something you live with.”