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SPORTS: The 13 Worst Sports Calls Ever
Matt Mitchell
 

In the year 1711 the renowned poet Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” But we’ll have to pardon him for his naivete. The guy wasn’t a sports fan. We all know how it feels. We’ve all endured that pain, that special sting that can only come from an official blowing a crucial call. We’ve sprung to our feet in furious protest at the nearsighted referee, the nervous line judge, or the grudge- olding umpire. These caricatures are now as old as the sports they officiate.  Our familiar heckles about brain function, weight issues, and suspect vision echo from outfield bleachers, to center ice, and back to the obstructed-view seats in the corner of the end zone. The home fans may demand perfection from their team, but they expect perfection from the officials.

Any miscue or questionable ruling is seen as outright theft, with a bad call always being a more convenient scapegoat than your trusted quarterback’s interception, or your hometown shortstop’s error. A beloved player making a mistake is something fans can understand, but a critical error by a referee is something they could never forgive.

From an interfering youngster in the Bronx to some cold-war politics on the hardwood, there are plenty of infamous mistakes that never fail to rile up loyal fans, revealing old wounds as fresh as the day they were inflicted. Player examines these lapses in judgment to reveal the thirteen worst calls in sports history. The severity of each mistake is judged on each game’s particular situation, with playoff and championship match-ups obviously generating the most controversy.

Please be warned: This article is not for the faint of heart. Only the most heart wrenching, blood-boiling miscues have made the cut. You’d better buckle up.

13. The Pine Tar Incident
Kansas City at New York, 1983 MLB Regular Season
The visual is enough to jog the memory of any true sports fan: Kansas City legend George Brett’s face contorted in pure fury, racing out of the dugout with murder in his eyes toward home plate umpire Tim McClelland. In the ninth inning of a July 24th game in Yankee Stadium, Brett shocked the Bronx faithful by pounding a two-run homer off closer Goose Gossage to pull his Royals team ahead by one run. But as he rounded the bases, New York manager Billy Martin  barked at his bat boy to retrieve Brett’s bat. It was taken and brought to the attention of McClelland. The rules clearly state that the handle of a bat may not be treated with any substance higher than 18 inches. The bat’s pine tar went past this mark, and McClelland ruled Brett out  and the homerun nullified. Next came George’s meltdown. After the game the Royals appealed McClelland’s ruling. This was upheld by the league, who ruled that the bat should have been removed from the game but that the batter could not be called out. The game was then replayed twenty-five days later, starting after the  controversial home run. Royals closer Dan Quisenberry would end the 12-minute affair to give his team a much-deserved 5-4 victory, and George Brett some much-needed relief.

12. The Long Count
Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey, 1927 Heavyweight Boxing Championship
In 1926, the shrewd and evasive Gene Tunney met working-class icon Jack Dempsey in Philadelphia before a rain-soaked crowd of 120,000. Fans came to see heavyweight champion Dempsey, “The Manassa Mauler,” defend his title for the first time in over three years. But Tunney would upset Dempsey, sending shockwaves through the boxing world. This upset set up one of the greatest and most widely publicized circus-atmosphere rematches in boxing history. On September 27, 1927, Tunney and Dempsey met again, this time at Chicago’s Soldier Field, before a crowd of over 104,000. Spectators would pay more than $2.65  million to attend the match, creating a new gate record that would take decades to break.
The spry Tunney built a clear lead through the first six rounds. Then, in the seventh came a classic moment in boxing history. Dempsey connected with a wicked combination: a right, followed by a left hook to the chin. As the champion Tunney staggered backwards, Dempsey sent him to the canvas with a brutal four-punch combination to Tunney’s unprotected head.
At the time, a rule that had recently been established by the Illinois State Athletic Commission stated that in the event of a knockdown, a fighter must go to the farthest neutral corner before the count began. Dempsey, who made a habit of standing as close to his fallen opponents as possible, refused to do so, possibly due to unfamiliarity with the new rule.
After referee Dave Barry finally moved Dempsey toward the correct corner, he began his count. Instead of picking up at the timekeeper’s count of six, he began at one. Tunney remained floored until Barry’s count of nine, giving him more than fifteen seconds on the canvas. Tunney used the extra time to regain his wits and would go on to a  unanimous 10-round decision, denying the former a champ a chance to reclaim his title in what would be Dempsey’s final bout.  Tunney would claim afterwards that he was aware of the miscount and could have stood up at any time he wished. He asked reporters the rhetorical question, “Why would anyone want to get up early in the same ring as Jack Dempsey?”

11. Knoblauch’s Phantom Tag
New York at Boston, 1999 MLB American League Championship Series Game 4
The Yankees traveled to Fenway Park to play the rival Red Sox, up two games to one in the series. Boston came to bat in the eighth inning, down by one run. Following a Damon Buford strike out, Jose  Offerman singled into right field. Dominating closer Mariano Rivera is brought in to face third baseman John  Valentin, replacing Yankee starter Andy Pettitte. Mariano gets Valentin to ground to second, where the Yankees’ Chuck Knoblauch fields the ball and attempts to tag the sprinting Offerman on his way to second base. Despite coming up at least four feet  short when attempting the tag, umpire Tim Tschida calls Offerman out. Knoblauch then throws to first to complete the inning-ending double play, killing Boston’s rally with Nomar Garciaparra on deck. Outraged at the call, Boston manager Jimy Williams goes ballistic  and is thrown out of the game for arguing the call. Camera angles do nothing but confirm the ridiculousness of the call, and fans begin littering the field with debris in protest. Tschida would admit after the game to blowing the call, though referring to Chuck Knoblauch as “Knobby” in a post-game press conference did not win him any friends in Beantown. The Yankees went on to clinch the pennant in Game Five, and swept Atlanta in the World Series.

10. Pippen’s Phantom Foul
Chicago at New York, 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 5
Michael Jordan’s sudden retirement following the 1992-1993 season left famous second fiddle Scottie Pippen as the Chicago Bulls’ undisputed leader. In the team’s lone playoff run between their first successful Championship “three-peat” and Jordan’s return in March of 1995, Pippen led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Semifinals to face their most hated rival, the New York Knicks. The home team would win every game  of the seven-game series, with the Knicks taking the first two in the Big Apple before falling to the Bulls twice in the Windy City. Pivotal Game Five looked like it would change this trend, with the Bulls clinging to a precarious lead late in the game at a packed Madison Square Garden.
But in the closing seconds referee Hue Hollins calls Pippen for a foul on New York guard Hubert Davis during an unsuccessful three-point attempt, leading to screams of protest from, among others, Pippen and coach Phil Jackson. Davis would sink all three free throws to give his Knicks the crucial win. A famous photograph of the play would publicly expose Hollins  gaffe, revealing that Pippen contested the shot legally and could not have committed a foul. This caused howls of conspiracy from Bulls fans  nationwide, and even referee supervisor Darrell Garretson would criticize Hollins’s ghastly call. Chicago would rebound to win Game Six at the United Center, but the  Knicks rode their home court advantage to a victory in the series finale. Asked recently about the famous call, Pippen insisted it was “water under the bridge.” But by ruining his only chance to lead his team to a ring  without MJ, it’s a safe bet Hue Hollins has blown his whistle in plenty of Pippen’s nightmares.

9. Hrbek Lifts Gant Off First Base
Atlanta at Minnesota, 1991 MLB World Series Game 2
His Atlanta team down 2-1, outfielder Ron Gant knocks a two-out single to left field. The thirdinning hit moves teammate Lonnie Smith to third with the slugging David Justice due up next. Gant scampers  back after rounding the bag, just as pitcher Kevin Tapani fires the ball to first baseman  Kent Hrbek, the Twins’ 250- pound first baseman. Using his significant weight advantage, it appeared obvious that Hrbek lifted the 172-pound Gant  off the bag while applying the tag. Umpire Drew Coble believed it was merely Gant’s momentum doing the lifting. Gant is called out, ending the inning and the rally. Gant, along with normally reserved manager Bobby Cox, have a few choice words for Coble, but all is in vain. he incident would be just another case of home-field advantage in this classic seven-game thriller,  capped off with Jack Morris’s historic 10-inning shutout for Minnesota. In fact, the 1991 World Series can be remembered as the second time in Series history that the home team won every game. The only other time? The Twinkies seven-game victory over the Cardinals just four years earlier.

8. The Ineligible Man Downfield
New York at San Francisco, 2003 NFL Playoffs
After blowing a nearly insurmountable 24-point lead, the New York Giants still had a chance to win this game—one of the most frantic, hotly contested playoff games in NFL history. Down 39-38 with six seconds remaining, the G-Men lined up for a 41-yard field goal. But after holder Matt Allen fumbled the snap, chaos reigned. Allen scrambled and threw a desperation pass to guard Rich Seubert four yards short of the end zone. But before this prayerful heave can reach its target, Seubert is dragged down by 49er defensive end Chike Okeafor, a blatant case of pass interference. A flag is thrown, but it’s actually against the Giants’ Tam Hopkins  for being an illegal man downfield. San Francisco declines, the game is ended, and the 49ers move on to the next round. As both the NFL Commissioner and  Director of Officiating would agree later, the penalty called was correct, but the passer’s intended target was legally downfield. The failure of the referees to call pass interference would be deemed “totally unacceptable.”
An interference call would have offset the ineligible man downfield penalty. Since a game can’t end on offsetting penalties, one additional untimed play should have taken place. In effect, this would have created a “do-over” for New York, and allowed them to re-kick the potentially  game-winning field goal. After the game 49er coach Steve Mariucci would confess that he expected a well-deserved pass interference flag, but wasn’t too upset when one didn’t come flying. Even the guilty party, Okeafor, readily admitted that it should have been called. But unlike most Giant fans, New York general manager Ernie Accorsi  was not ready to hang the burden of the loss on Ron Winter and the rest of the officiating staff, saying plainly: “The officials didn’t blow a 24-point lead.”
That’s right Ernie. They just blew the last six seconds.

7. The Jeffrey Maier Game
Baltimore at New York, 1996 MLB American League Championship Series Game 1

The Orioles led the Yankees 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning when Derek Jeter hit a deep fly ball to right field. Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco seemed ready to come down with the ball when, from over the  fence, a glove appeared to deflect the ball into the stands. Umpire Rich Garcia erroneously ruled it a home run, which tied the game, and the  Yankees went on to win the game, the ALCS and the  World Series. The guilty party was Jeffrey Maier, a 12-year-old kid from New Jersey who received a ticket to the game at his World Series-themed bar mitzvah the previous week. And while his play  didn’t exactly hand the Yankees a victory, it was the catalyst in the pivotal first game. New York would still need a Bernie Williams walk-off in the eleventh to win. Afterwards, Maier became a Big Apple  folk hero. He made the talk-show rounds, and was even given the key to the city by mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Eat your heart out, Steve Bartman. Maier would also become a rather distinguished ballplayer  himself, and holds the career hits record at Wesleyan University, a Division III school. In an ironic twist, Orioles owner Peter Angelos even considered drafting him. When Scott Erickson, the Orioles  Game 1 starter, heard that his team was considering drafting the boy that stole his playoff victory ten years before, he said he really  hoped the kid would make it to the majors, adding, “so I can drill him.”

6. The Buffaloes’ Fifth Down
Colorado at Missouri, 1990 NCAA Football Big 8 Conference Game
Despite spiking the ball on a fourthdown play, followed by an inconclusive touchdown run and an officiating crew meeting that lasted more than fifteen minutes, Colorado would be given the victory on their  final play against a fuming Missouri team. Down by four with time winding  down, quarterback Charles Johnson began marching his Colorado team down the field from deep in his own territory. In wet and  slippery conditions, a pass to his tight end gives the Buffs a first down with forty seconds remaining, and just a few yards short of the Missouri goal line.
Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock on the ensuing first down, and the running play that follows is stopped short of the end zone. Colorado runs another failed rushing play, bringing up fourth down. Claiming he thought it was third and not fourth  down because the down marker had not changed, Johnson again spikes the ball to stop the clock. The officials do not catch their error, and on “Fifth Down,” Johnson calls his own number and is ruled in for the touchdown as time expires.
A lengthy crew meeting followed, and the Colorado touchdown was ruled official. After the game Missouri’s chancellor would appeal the loss, but Big Eight commissioner Carl James declared it was “not a post-game correctable error” and the victory would be allowed to stand. Seven of the officials working the game were given indefinite suspensions. Under the guidance of head coach Bill McCartney, a former Missouri football player, Colorado would go on to win a share of the National Championship that season. But it wasn’t until  eight years later, during a stop back in Columbia, Missouri, that Coach  McCartney would first claim regret for the outcome of the infamous game, saying he was “truly remorseful” for what had occurred. However, he has not, as of this issue’s printing, forfeited his National Championship.

5. Park Steals the Fight
Park Si-Hun vs. Roy Jones Jr., 1988 Light Middleweight Boxing Olympics
After shooting up through the amateur ranks, supremely gifted 19-year-old Roy Jones Jr. fought his way to the Olympic gold medal bout in Seoul, South Korea. He would square off against Park Si-Hun,  the Koreans’ homegrown pugilist, in the 156-pound final. Ringside announcer Marv Albert described  Park’s sluggish style as “dipped in molasses,” and with just over a minute left in the third and final  round, nearly all agreed when he said the overwhelmed Korean was “taking  a thrashing.” But soon after Jones raised his gloves in post-bout triumph, judges would rule 3-2 in favor of his opponent. The  controversy that resulted would take nearly a decade to officially resolve, and even today nothing has been truly settled. A final IOC decision in 1997 found no clear definitive proof of bribery or wrongdoing  among the judges. Jones was never awarded his gold medal, despite out-landing his punches by a  count of 86 to 32, including a remarkable 20 to 3 in the opening round. The three dissenting judges would later be suspended under suspicion. But  Jones would receive nothing more than his silver medal, and an ironic parting gift: He would be awarded the Val Baker award as the Olympics’ best  boxer. Jones would go on to one of the most successful boxing careers in history and was named “Fighter of the Decade” in 1999. But after such injustice in Seoul, Jones surely agreed with Marv Albert when he bellowed, “Park Si-Hun has stolen the bout!”

4. Denkinger Calls Orta Safe at First
St. Louis at Kansas City, 1985 MLB World Series Game 6
It is Game Six of one of the greatest Fall Classics ever. The Kansas City Royals’ Jorge Orta comes to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth, his team down 1-0. Facing St. Louis Cardinals’ closer  Todd Worrell, he hits a roller to first baseman Jack Clark, who flips it back to Worrell  covering the bag. Despite being at least a foot short of the bag, Orta is called safe by umpire Don Denkinger, who  instantly becomes the most reviled character in the St. Louis sports universe. The hit did not give the Royals the victory, however. With just a man on first and facing a team fielding five Gold Glovers, the Royals still needed a dropped foul pop-up by Clark and a passed ball from catcher—and 1982 World Series MVP—Darrell Porter before the winning single by Dane Iorg, a former Cardinal who hit just 223 that season.
The subsequent seventh game would prove to be anything but an instant classic, with Kansas City blasting a deflated Cardinals squad 11-0, giving the “Comeback Kings” their only World Series crown. Denkinger can take solace in none of this, however, as he remains a hated figure by the Cardinal faithful to this day. Some even blame his call for keeping beloved manager Whitey Herzog out of the Hall of Fame. He received barrels of hate mail, and even death threats, including one voicing a desire to shoot him with a .357 Magnum. But today, as the angry letters still trickle in, Denkinger is at ease, believing, “in my heart, and to the best of my ability, I made the call as I saw it.”  Tell that to the Gateway City, Don.

3. Brett Hull’s No-Goal
Dallas at Buffalo, 1999 NHL Stanley Cup Finals Game 6

In the game’s third overtime, Dallas winger Brett Hull scored on Buffalo’s all-world goalie Dominik Hasek, giving the Cup to the Stars and sending the entirety of the hockey world into an uproar. In the moments previous to the goal, Hull took a shot, but Hasek knocked the puck out of the crease. Hull then kicked the deflection toward his stick using his skate. While doing so, his left skate entered the crease without the puck. He shoots again successfully, and bedlam erupts.
Today these events would have been nothing to argue about. So why the frenzy? At the time, the rules stated that unless that puck was already there, “a player of the attacking side may not stand in the goal crease,” and if he should receive the puck and score while doing so, “the  apparent goal shall not be allowed.” Numerous goals that season had been overturned under similar circumstances. But the goal was not officially reviewed, and officials would later justify the non-call by saying the entire shot, rebound and kick sequence represented a single possession, making his crease violation legal. The rule was quickly changed during that off-season.
An area used to sports heartbreak, Buffalo’s public outcry has scarcely waned in the years following. One crestfallen fan even said the dubious call “led the people of Buffalo to question their very existence.” Even today, in the rear windows of some Western New York automobiles you can still see them: tiny, tattered flags waving, the words on them badly faded. “No Goal!” the flags scream. But you can cry  into your hot wings, Sabres fans. The dream is over.

2. Maradona’s “Hand of God” Goal
Argentina vs. England, 1986 Soccer World Cup
The masterful Maradona, Argentina’s team captain, scores a pivotal goal in their quarterfinal match against England with the help of the most infamous handball in World Cup history. Five minutes into the second half with the game still scoreless, a Maradona pass into the penalty area is deflected by his teammate. It is then floated back to the goalie off the foot of English midfielder Steve Hodge. In a flash, Maradona cuts through the middle of the English defense  and jumps to head the ball before the goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, can grab it. The diminutive Maradona (giving up eight inches to the 6’1” Shilton)  knows he won’t get a clean header off, and instead strikes the ball with the back of his left hand. Though clearly a handball, referee Ali Bin Nasser did not call it off, and Argentina would go on to win 2-1.  Maradona would say afterwards that the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Argentina would go on to defeat West Germany in the World Cup finals. It took Maradona almost twenty years to admit to the handball, but says he has never regretted it for a moment. The reasons for this stubbornness run deep.
In a 1966 World Cup quarterfinal match held in London’s Wembley Stadium, Argentina’s captain Antonio Rattîn yelled at a German referee during a tense first half. He was subsequently ejected for “violence of the tongue,” despite the referee not understanding any of the player’s Spanish. When the supervisor of the referees, an Englishman, entered the field to remove Rattîn, it was seen as a sign of German-English collusion, and a fierce rivalry was born.
Add to that the 1982 Falklands War, an English manager calling Argentineans “animals,” and the 1998 World Cup red-carding of David Beckham, and it’s easy to see why Maradona said his famous goal felt like “stealing the wallet of the English.”

1. USSR Given Extra Time
USSR vs. USA, 1972 Basketball Olympic Finals

In what is widely regarded as the most controversial  international basketball contest ever played, the American Olympic team  had their string of seven consecutive Gold Medals broken when the referees  not once, but twice reset the game clock at the end of regulation. Going into the game, the United States had never lost in Olympic play,  but this was their youngest team ever. In fact it was Doug Collins, the 21- year-old future NBA All-Star and coach, who provided two of the game’s biggest points.
Down by one with time winding down, Collins intercepted a Soviet pass and was shaken up after being fouled hard driving to the hoop. Assistant coach Don Haskins (of Glory Road fame) begged head coach Henry Iba to  have someone else shoot the foul shots. But Collins stayed in and sank both free throws, despite the horn going off in the middle of his second attempt. With the U.S. squad up by one with three seconds remaining, the USSR in bounded the ball, but a referee stopped the game with just one second to play. The Soviets claimed they had called for a timeout before Collins’s second foul shot, and the officials had the clock reset back to three seconds. A referee put the ball in play, the Soviets failed to score again, and the final buzzer sounded. Game over, right? Wrong. As the American players celebrated, R. William Jones, the Secretary General of the International Basketball Federation, ordered the clock once again reset because the referees had put the ball into play before the game clock had  officially been reset. With a miraculous third chance, the Soviets were able to convert on an Aleksander Belov lay-up as time expired, enraging American players and coaches A post game protest by the United States was denied, and every member  of the infuriated American team would vote to refuse his silver medal. They remain in a Swiss vault to this day with at least one player stipulating in his will that his medal never be claimed

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