Any fan of classic movies can remember the famous scene from the movie "Casablanca." The ever-lovely Ingrid Bergman, as Ilsa, is seated near Dooley Wilson (Sam) and his piano, breathlessly waiting to hear her song one more time. "Play it once, Sam, for old time's sake," she says. The pianist resists at first, then rolls his eyes and finally launches into "As Time Goes By." Until, that is, Humphrey Bogart, as Rick Blaine, stops him and says, "Sam, I thought I told you never to play " And we're off to a great film of espionage, murder, love and intrigue.
Nobody ever actually says, "Play it again, Sam," in the movie, but that line is so famously associated with the scene (and later became the title of a Woody Allen movie) that it lives on in our popular culture.
A few weeks ago, Pirates fans would have liked the umpires to be able to "play it again" when the plate ump blew a call that cost Pittsburgh the game in the 19th inning against Atlanta. At the time, Pittsburgh was in a hotly contested division race, and one game can mean the difference between going or not going to the postseason. It was not a close call, but Jerry Meals, the ump, ruled that Braves runner Julio Lugo was safe for the winning run after the two teams had battled for six hours and 39 minutes.
Look, I know blown calls happen every so often. I am reminded of Jim Joyce blowing a call that cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game last season. Incidents like these call attention to the fact that the officials in many sports sometimes need help.
So I think I should put in a few words for the guys in the striped shirts. (Or, in the case of baseball, the blue shirts.) They have an incredibly difficult job; and for the most part, they do their thing very competently. They could succumb to being corrupt; but to the best of my knowledge, there has only been one major league official (Tim Donaghy of the NBA) who has ever been found to have tried to dishonestly affect the outcome of a game. The officials of the various pro sports are overwhelmingly honest, dedicated, knowledgeable and in shape. Their love of the games they officiate is obvious. No one in his right mind would go through all the trouble it takes to qualify for those jobs if they didn't love what they do.
We always hear from the media when a blown call seems particularly egregious. But I know the players themselves in the various professional sports appreciate the commitment and competence of the officials who work their games. Knowing that a seasoned and knowledgeable official is calling a game gives most players a sense of confidence that their chances of winning that game will come down to their own performances and what happens during the contest.
A blown call or a fluke play is the very worst way to lose a game. Those types of losses seem to stay with you and continuously grate on you. I still remember a game during the 1972 NBA playoffs between the Lakers and Bucks – maybe not a blown call, but definitely a case where an official was involved in a fluke play that made a difference. The Bucks had won the first game on the road, and we were ahead in the second half of the second game when Manny Sokol inadvertently kept a ball from going out of bounds. The Lakers were able to keep possession, and scored. After that play, it seemed that the air went out of the Bucks' effort. We lost that game by one point, 135-134, and we ended up losing the series in six games. I'm certain my teammates and I felt that play was the moment we lost our focus and incentive.
But I also remember one game I played during a snowstorm in Madison, Wis., for the Bucks. We arrived at the arena by bus from Milwaukee, which is an hour and a half drive away. The other team had arrived a day earlier, but the referees were supposed to fly in on game day. Because of the snow, one of the refs didn't make it. So Mendy Rudolph, who arrived on time, was the only official on the floor for that game.
Mendy was one of those refs who had earned the respect of all the players, coaches and executives in the NBA. His judgment, honesty and temperament were never questioned. He called that game by himself, and no one questioned a single decision he made. The players went out of their way to help him out by taking the time to do things such as retrieving balls that went out of bounds or relaying information to or from the scorer's table.
Mendy was a product of a special time in the NBA, and I miss him and his peers. People such as Richie Powers, Bill Saar, Jake O'Donnell, Daryl Garretson, Sid Borgia, Norm Drucker, Earl Strom, Hugh Evans, Joe Gushue, Sokol and many other refs set a standard that has endured. I'm sure players from any other professional sports could come up with their own lists of officials who earned their respect and made the fans feel confident that the contests they were watching were being run honestly and competently.
So for their sake, and for the cause of giving the officials the best chance to do their jobs well, I think that a replay official should be a part of all professional sports. Major League Baseball has been very reluctant to allow the replay of close calls, but incidents such as the one in Atlanta this year and in Detroit last season were caused by obvious human errors that changed the outcome of games and could have been corrected. They are strong arguments for giving the umps a much-needed hand.
The cameras don't lie. An official in the replay booth would enable the fans to have more confidence in the integrity of the sport they support. It has worked well in football and basketball. I see no reason to keep baseball in the 19th century when it comes to how its games are umpired.
It's time for Humphrey Bogart to let Sam "play it again" so we can all be satisfied that the officials are getting it right.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.