Don Denkinger was my mortal enemy. Wednesday, we made peace.
Denkinger, whose botched call at first base late in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series cost the Cardinals a championship (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) was in Wichita to speak to a group of umpires and National Baseball Congress World Series supporters during a luncheon at the Wichita Boathouse.
He told stories about his 30 years in Major League Baseball and the nine years that preceded them in the minor leagues. He fielded questions about how much money umpires make, how he decided to go to umpiring school and how he mixed in with the umpire fraternity at the time.
But he wasn’t asked about Game 6, when he called the Kansas City Royals’ Jorge Orta safe (he was clearly out) after Orta’s soft grounder to the right side of the infield.
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Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark fielded the ball in front of second baseman Tommy Herr and tossed to reliever Todd Worrell, who was standing on first base.
The inning got away from St. Louis and Dane Iorg’s one-out single to right field scored Onix Concepcion with the tying run and Jim Sundberg with the game-winner. For us Cardinals fans, it’s almost as painful to recall now as it was to live through then.
So, Denkinger, what gives?
“You get yourself sometimes in a position where you’re not prepared for the alternative,” he said. “I thought (Clark) was going to pick up the ball and flip it to Worrell and that there would be a foot race to the bag. Well, it didn’t happen that way. I came in close to see whose foot got there first and when I got there Worrell was on the bag and he didn’t have the ball. The ball came and I didn’t hear a sound so I called (Orta) safe.”
Denkinger has told the same story hundreds of times in the past 30 years. Not once has a Cardinals fan been appeased.
But St. Louis didn’t do itself any favors by laying an egg in Game 7 and losing 11-0. Denkinger, working home plate that Sunday night, tossed Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who had come on in relief in a blowout game.
“You don’t really want to miss a play, especially in a World Series,” said Denkinger, who worked four Fall Classics (1974, 1980, 1985, 1991).
Denkinger said he was convinced he got the call right until he approached the umpire’s dressing room in the bowels of then Royals Stadium after the game. He saw baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth standing near the entrance and asked Ueberroth if he had made correct decision.
“He shook his head ‘no,’” Denkinger said. “It was the sickest feeling you can possibly have, really bad.”
Ueberroth instructed Denkinger to talk to two pool reporters about the missed call. He needed time to gather himself.
“You can only handle it the way you’re taught,” he said. “I told them I thought I was right about the call but that television said I was wrong.”
Denkinger had planned on attending a party after Game 6 but decided to stay in his hotel room with his wife instead. The next day, before Game 7, he sat inside a private suite at the Kansas City Chiefs’ game against Denver, hoping to avoid conversation.
Game 7 quickly turned badly for the Cardinals. Starting pitcher John Tudor was bad and the Royals’ Bret Saberhagen was masterful.
As the score got worse, so did the St. Louis mood. Cardinals players and Herzog expressed their anger to Denkinger.
“Whitey took a trip to the mound and told me that if I had gotten the play right in Game 6, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Denkinger said. “And I said, you know what? If you were hitting more than .120 we wouldn’t be here tonight, either.”
Denkinger was Public Enemy No. 1 in St. Louis for a long while. He continued to umpire for 13 more years before retiring in 1998. Cardinals fans are more forgiving now – Denkinger has been to St. Louis for two banquets commemorating anniversaries of the 1985 World Series.
He and Herzog, if not best buddies, get along well now. Denkinger, who will be 79 in three weeks, said he harbors no animosity for the Cardinals or their fans, but said he still occasionally hears from people who probably wouldn’t vote for him if he ran for mayor.
Time heals wounds. Denkinger is OK in my books. But he did cost the Cardinals a title.