There are two valid ways to view the end of the Mets’ home opener Thursday against the Marlins.
One is that it was a bad call that unfairly changed the outcome of the game. In a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, with one out and the bases loaded, New York outfielder Michael Conforto came to the plate. On a 2-2 count, Miami’s Anthony Bass threw a slider in the zone; Conforto didn’t swing; the catcher caught it cleanly. It looked, for a moment, like strike three. But Conforto leaned into it. As the pitch crossed the plate, he seemed to angle his elbow toward it, allowing it to graze him. The ump called it a hit-by-pitch—a run-scoring, game-winning, argument-starting, walk-off hit-by-pitch. Ballgame, Mets win, 3–2.
The rulebook is unambiguous on this subject. Any time a batter is hit by a pitch that does not swing at is a hit-by-pitch except when one of two caveats apply: “(A) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (B) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.”
The latter qualification is a bit fuzzy; figuring out what someone is attempting to do always is. But even if you write that one off—if you give the benefit of the doubt here to Conforto—you still have the former qualification to contend with. That one pretty definitively applies here: The pitch was in the strike zone when it touched the batter. That’s a strike!
Unsurprisingly, Marlins manager Don Mattingly came out to argue the decision, and there was a call for a replay review. But there was nothing that could be done about the outcome—review can be used for a hit-by-pitch, but only to determine if the batter was, in fact, hit. MLB does not sanction replay to review any other aspect of a HBP. Like, say, whether it had been in the strike zone, or whether the batter had made a good-faith attempt to avoid it. Which meant there was no avenue here to correct the part of the call that had actually been wrong.
It was the wrong call. Mattingly knew it, and the umpire, Ron Kulpa, knew it. “The guy was hit by the pitch in the strike zone,” he told the pool reporter after the game. “I should have called him out.”
It makes sense to want umpires to make the right calls, and for replay review to accommodate that, and for teams not to lose games on obvious examples of poor judgment. In other words, it makes sense to be mad about this, or at least a bit frustrated. It makes sense to look at this play and see a wrong to be righted. Maybe that’s by the umpire’s acknowledgement of his mistake. Maybe that’s by changing the replay system—by expanding it to be used more broadly at the end of a close game, or to be able to evaluate any aspect of a HBP, or to be used more broadly, period. Maybe it’s something else! But it’s fair for this to be the foundation of your reaction—this is wrong and should have been right.
That is one valid way to view the ending of this game. As for the other one? The other one is that it was hilarious.
This was a classic kid-on-a-sandlot daydream of an at-bat. It was the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, a tie game, at the home opener with fans finally back in the stands after a grueling year of global pandemic life (for the kid with a particularly active imagination). That’s the picture-perfect scenario for... a home run! a double down the line! anything! Instead, here was a guy leaning in juuuuuust enough to get grazed by a pitch on the elbow, a beautifully absurd way to redefine baseball heroism. It’s not supposed to work like that. It’s kind of bush league. And it’s so, so, so funny.
It gave us the Mets’ broadcast booth—one of the best in the business—sounding a bit dumbstruck as they admitted that, actually, this triumphant win should not have been allowed to go down like this. There was the delightful awkwardness of players unsure if they should celebrate just yet. It was a combination of events that we haven’t quite seen before and probably will not see again, at least not exactly like this, in all its confusing glory.
It was a stupid, unfair, way for a game to end. Which made it all the more beautiful.