The advancement of instant replay in sports has allowed us to get the calls right as often as possible. Not everything can be caught in every game, and not every bad call can be overturned, but for the most part the umpires and referees get things right these days.
Make no mistake, though, we’ve had some seriously bad calls in all major sports. Many of those calls have affected a playoff game or a championship, making them even worse in retrospect. There is nothing more painful for a fan than knowing your team lost because of a bad call. We took a look at the worst blown calls in sports history that made an ugly impact on either a playoff race, a championship, or just the game itself.
10. Cardinals benefit from odd infield fly call
In the bottom of the eighth inning of the 2012 National League wild card game, the Atlanta Braves trailed the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-3 with one out in the inning. But the Braves were threatening, with two runners on and only one out. With shortstop Andrelton Simmons at the plate, Mitchell Boggs induced a shallow fly ball into the outfield that should’ve been caught for the second out.
The problem is that it wasn’t. The ball fell in the grass between shortstop Pete Kozma and outfielder Matt Holliday. But the umpires called the infield fly rule, and the batter was automatically called out. Instead of bases loaded and one out, it was two on with two out. That’s a big difference. The call was bad, the Braves lost, and the Cardinals advanced to the NLDS.
9. Blackhawks Game 7 goal is wiped out
Back in 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Redwings played Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals at the United Center in Chicago. The game was tied at 1-1 late in the third period when Blackhawks defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson scored what appeared to be the go-ahead goal. But a Redwings skater on the opposite end of the ice had pushed a Blackhawks player over the boards and out of play, forcing an incidental minor call right as the puck was hitting Hjalmarsson’s stick.
The fact that the goal was disallowed on something so minor and so close in such a gigantic game for both franchises was unfortunate. On the positive side, the Blackhawks did end up winning the game and the Stanley Cup that season, so no harm done.
8. Thanksgiving coin toss benefits Lions
Every football fan remembers this one. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1998. The Detroit Lions were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and the score was tied 16-16 heading into overtime. Referee Phil Luckett allows Jerome Bettis of the Steelers to call the coin flip, and the running back audibly says “tails.” The coin landed with the tails side up, so Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions. Wait, what?
The ref was confused and thought he heard Bettis say “heads,” causing an obvious issue on the field. But in the end, the ball was awarded to the Lions and they drove down the field for the game-winning field goal. Fortunately there were no playoff ramifications because of this blunder, but it was still an ugly moment for the NFL.
7. Phantom foul helps Knicks advance
On the flip side, there were playoff ramifications to a phantom foul called by NBA referee Hue Hollins back in 1994. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the Chicago Bulls led the New York Knicks with just seconds remaining in the game. The series was tied at 2-2, leaving the outcome of this game as the turning point.
But as the clock wound down, Bulls forward Scottie Pippen ran out to defend Hubert Davis on a long two-point attempt. Hollins called a foul, but replay showed that very little – if any – contact was made. The Knicks won the game, the series, and ended up losing to the Houston Rockets in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s fair to wonder how history may have changed if Hollins had simply swallowed the whistle.
6. The Music City Miracle
The problem with the AFC Championship Game from 1999 is that a call should’ve been made that wasn’t. The Buffalo Bills had just taken the lead over the Tennessee Titans with a field goal, and there were just 16 seconds remaining in the game as the Bills kicked off. Fullback Lorenzo Neal fielded the kick and then handed it to tight end Frank Wycheck. He moved to his right, then turned and threw the ball to the left side of the field to wide receiver Kevin Dyson.
Dyson motored all the way to the endzone for the game-winning score, sending the Titans to the Super Bowl. The issue is that Wycheck made a forward pass to Dyson on the play, not a lateral. Replay showed Wycheck behind the white line, with Dyson standing just in front of it. It should’ve been flagged and the play – and touchdown – should never have counted. It was just one of many ugly moments in Bills playoff history.
5. Brett Hull’s skate is in the crease
In 1999, the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars were playing in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The game was tied at 1-1 in the third overtime, and a goal for the Stars would mean a championship. That’s exactly what happened, as Brett Hull got the puck right in front of the goalie and put it on the net. But not everybody agrees that the goal should’ve counted.
On the play, Hull had his skate clearly in the crease while the puck was outside the zone, making it an illegal play. That rule has since been changed, and there has been no admission of wrongdoing from the league. So history looks back on it as a Stars Stanley Cup victory, no matter how you feel about it. But just don’t say that to Sabres fans.
4. Jeter’s “home run” against the Orioles
The New York Yankees were taking on the Baltimore Orioles in the 1996 American League Championship Series, with the Yankees trailing 4-3 in the eighth inning of Game 1. Young shortstop Derek Jeter high a deep fly ball to right field off Orioles reliever Armando Benitez, and it looked like the right fielder was camping underneath it for a catch at the wall. But then the ball was over the wall.
As it turns out, young Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier robbed the Orioles of what was clearly going to be an out. The umpires missed it, Jeter got the game-tying home run, and the Yankees took the game to extra innings before winning it on a Bernie Williams walk-off homer. They won the series in five games, but who knows how things may have been different if the Orioles had won Game 1?
3. Seahawks ‘Fail Mary’ touchdown
Back in 2012, the NFL was moving forward with the regular season, despite not having their regular referees due to a labor dispute. So the league brought in replacement refs, and through the first few weeks it wasn’t going well. Bad calls were being made, but the league was still sticking it out. That was until the end of the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers game, which has become known as the “Fail Mary.”
With the Seahawks trailing 12-7 in the closing seconds, quarterback Russell Wilson tossed up a prayer into coverage in the endzone. He appeared to be intercepted by Packers corner M.D. Jennings, who went to the ground and got into a tangle with Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate. The result should’ve been a Packers victory, but the referee signaled for a touchdown. Upon review, the call stood. The Packers missed having a bye-week in the playoffs because of it.
2. Jim Joyce blows a perfect game
Late in the 2010 season, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was doing something that few have accomplished in Major League Baseball: Throwing a perfect game. He got all the way into the ninth inning, and with two outs it appeared he might actually do it. And if it weren’t for first base umpire Jim Joyce, he would have.
A groundball to first base was picked by Miguel Cabrera, who threw over to Galarraga covering the bag. Despite the runner being out by a step, Joyce signaled that the runner was safe. This was back before replay reviews in baseball, so unfortunately the call stood. The next day, Joyce made a tearful apology for missing the call and Galarraga graciously accepted. It still stings that the young pitcher had a chance at history, but Galarraga can always have the fact that he’s the only pitcher to earn a 28-out perfect game.
1. Cardinals lose in 1985
Another blown call at first base had even greater stakes attached to it. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Kansas City Royals in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, and it looked as though the Cardinals were about to win. Closer Todd Worrell was in the game, needing three outs to finish off a 1-0 victory. But leadoff man Jorge Orta would end up on first after umpire Don Denkinger called him safe on a play where the runner was clearly out.
The Cardinals allowed two runs in the ninth inning, losing Game 6 and pushing the series to a deciding Game 7. The Royals won that game, 11-0. You can’t specifically blame Denkinger for the Cardinals losing the series, because Worrell still allowed two solid singles and a walk in the inning. We don’t know exactly how things would’ve played out, had the call been correct. Plus, St. Louis had their chance to win Game 7. But the call was flat wrong, and it came in the biggest moment of the season.