GARY, Ind.—Kentucky’s season, as it were, came down to one swing, one at bat and one umpire’s ruling.
The Cats lost in an NCAA Tournament regional final Sunday, 3-2 to Kent State, ending their season. The game, brilliantly pitched by UK’s Chandler Shepherd and Kent State’s Tyler Skulina, was won on a three-run home run in the top of the eighth inning by Evan Campbell, the Golden Flashes’ center fielder.
But was it a home run?
At the time, it was a controversial call. In real-time, the viewer perceived it as such: Left-handed Campbell turned on an Alex Phillips fastball and pulled it down the right-field line. The ball ricocheted off something—something virtually indeterminable in real-time, though those in attendance had competing theories: Was it the wall? Was it a chair back beyond the wall?—and bounced back into play. First-base umpire Ken Durham immediately ruled it a home run. It was the first homer hit in six games at the Gary Regional in US Steel Yard, a park as oppressive to home runs as any college baseball team could ever encounter.
But was it a home run?
As stated above, the ball bounced back into play toward UK right fielder Cameron Flynn. Flynn fielded the ball out of the air and didn’t hesitate throwing it back toward the infield. The way he saw it, it was in play.
“I thought it hit the guard rail and came back and then turned around to get the ball and the umpire called a home run,” Flynn said.
The question was: Did the ball ricochet off a point below, on or above the yellow line along the wall?
Was it a home run?
According to assistant crew chief Travis Katzenmeier, a ball must clear the yellow line to be a home run at US Steel Yard.
“It must leave the stadium,” Katzenmeier said after the game. If the ball hits the wall on or below the yellow line, it is in play.
A quirk in the construction of the right-field wall at US Steel Yard obscured the judgment on Campbell’s shot. The wall from base to yellow line is about 10 feet tall, but a foot or so at the top of the wall is a chain-link fence; this is the area that Flynn described as the “guard rail.” The chain-link fence does not run on the same vertical plane as the actual wall. It’s offset, running parallel, between six inches and a foot apart. It’s possible for a ball to ricochet off one into the other.
Brian Milan, a sports anchor for WKYT-TV in Lexington, was filming the game Sunday night. Because the game wasn’t televised, Milam was the only videographer shooting footage from the game. He captured it expertly, and he allowed members of the media to watch the film.
Inspecting the clip in both real-time and in single frames, it’s only then made clear that the ball hit the guard rail right on the yellow line, ricocheted downward and bounced off the top of the wall, high up in the air and eventually into Flynn’s glove. The ball never left the stadium, fulfilling Katzenmeier’s stated requirement for a ball in play as opposed to a ball hit for a home run.
Katzenmeier said the call was in Durham’s jurisdiction since it was down the first-base line. Katzenmeier confirmed that the umpires never conferenced and that he never doubted Durham’s call or had any reason to alter it.
“That’s correct,” Katzenmeier said. “That’s his call.”
Flynn and the Cats’ outfielders all thought the ball stayed in the park, and they huddled up with second-base umpire Adam Dowdy to tell him they believed so.
But UK coach Gary Henderson never left the dugout.
“My first initial thought was he couldn't have missed three plays,” Henderson said, referring to Durham. “The law of averages is staggering for that to happen so I just kind of assumed he got it right. That's obviously on me at that point. No doubt about that. I should have been out there jumping up and down and hollering but I actually thought he got it right. The guy is on the line, he should be able to get that.”
(The other two plays: a contested play at first base in which J.T. Riddle was picked off in the third inning, and a safe call at first base in the top of the sixth on what UK thought was a 6-4-3 double play.)
Even if any rogue cameras were shooting Sunday night’s game, the NCAA rules do not allow for any sort of video instant replay. The umpires could have conferenced and overturned their call—if that were the case, a ground-rule double would have been ruled, and Kent State would have scored one run, taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the eighth, and had a two-out, two-on situation—but Katzenmeier said a conference was never considered.
“I didn’t have anything that would alter the first-base umpire’s decision,” he said.
Without the luxury to play through it, nobody will ever know how the game would play out if the call had been different.
Without the luxury to review it, the umpires will never have a chance to change their call. Katzenmeier stood by Durham’s decision, a home run. Durham was not available for interviews, but video evidence proved that the ground rules for home runs against the funky fence meant Campbell’s blast was not a home run. That video evidence, again, was not available for the rules-enforcers to inspect.
Instead the play was seen in real-time, quite incorrectly by one man, only a human, and it ultimately ended a team’s season.