Dave Phillips' worst fears materialized when he heard the muffled sobs of young girls on the other end of a telephone line. Phillips, as he watched the end of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals, had sensed trouble was brewing for good friend and fellow umpire Don Denkinger. Now it was hitting Phillips right in the face as he called Denkinger's family: hysterical crying, talk of threats from disgruntled strangers, a father hours away and unable to stifle the pain. As Phillips knew all too well, this is what happens when an official blows a call in a high-pressure moment.
The Cardinals had been in excellent position to claim the championship -- they were up 3-2 in the Series and holding a 1-0 lead to start the bottom of the ninth -- until Kansas City's Jorge Orta hit a ground ball to first baseman Jack Clark. Though television cameras showed that Clark tossed the ball to pitcher Todd Worrell in enough time to beat Orta to first base, Denkinger called Orta safe. It was the start of a perfect storm for the Cardinals, as they gave up two more hits, a walk, a passed ball and eventually the game by a score of 2-1. They also would lose Game 7, completing a devastating collapse that immortalized Denkinger as the epitome of what umpires shouldn't do in big games.
"The game had barely ended when I called his family and they already had received two or three calls from people threatening them," said Phillips, who worked as a major league umpire from 1971 to 2002. "I didn't call Don because he was still in Kansas City, but I can say with all honesty that there's no worse feeling for an umpire than when you miss a call. There's literally a hole in your stomach when it happens."
The same empathy Phillips felt for Denkinger in that moment should be something that all officials can understand, including the referees in this year's NBA Finals. Fans and media have been relentlessly debating key plays that involved either (A) referees altering the momentum of the contest with a shaky call or (B) referees missing calls that should've been made. The league even admitted some calls were missed in the final minutes of Cleveland's Game 2 overtime victory.
Making big calls in high-pressure situations is something for which all officials prepare. Most times, they make the right calls and the games go on without incident. But in the select moments when errors occur, they face the possibility of altering sports history. What goes through the minds of officials during such moments on the biggest stages?
As exciting as it sounds to be in the heat of such dramatic situations, the reality is that it's often best for them to remain invisible whenever possible.
"When I was starting out, I used to think about being in the moment that decides a game," said ESPN analyst Gerry Austin, who worked as an NFL official from 1982-2007. "That's what players want, and it's what coaches want. But eventually you learn that isn't your job. You want to create an even playing field and let the players decide the game."
That might be the goal, but when the stakes are high, officials feel the pressure, just like the players and coaches.
"It's not like you can't see the scoreboard," Phillips said. "Those big games are always more stressful. It's not like you're talking about a midseason game in Chicago with two teams that are seven games behind in the standings. When you're involved in a World Series game, you know that's the only game being played that day. You know everything is crucial and you need to be more focused and aware of what you're doing."
That's sometimes easier said than done. Detroit fans surely wonder why the referees weren't more passive in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals, when Pistons center Bill Laimbeer was called for a late, suspect foul on Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Abdul-Jabbar made both free throws after the call with 14 seconds left, lifting the Lakers to a 103-102 victory and forcing a Game 7 that Los Angeles eventually won). Miami Hurricanes fans also won't forget the overtime pass interference call against their team on what would have been the final play of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Instead of celebrating a 24-17 win and a national championship, the top-ranked Hurricanes lost 31-24 to No. 2 Ohio State in double OT.
The losers involved in those contests have to live with those calls for the remainder of their lives while constantly wondering what could've been. What's often forgotten is that the officials have to do the same thing. Austin worked three Super Bowls (XXIV, XXXI and XXXV). Though all three were decided by at least 14 points, he always prepared himself with the same mentality that had helped him reach the top of his profession: Make sure the call is there before you throw a flag.
"My basically philosophy came down to 'M and M,'" Austin said. "By that, I mean that if there was a milieu or mayhem, then you call it. But if you make a borderline call and the game ends with people asking if it was a foul, then you don't want that."
Austin learned that approach from the man who mentored him at the start of his officiating career, longtime NFL referee Fritz Graf. When Austin was a young official, he often met Graf on Saturday mornings, a few hours before the entire crew huddled to prepare for games. They'd go over film, contemplate scenarios and discuss the responsibility of the job. While dissecting a play on one occasion, Graf asked Austin a question that would become the foundation of Austin's officiating principles: "If you had the chance to make that call again, would you call it the same?"
Other officials handled big games with unique rituals. For example, former NBA referee and current ESPN analyst Steve Javie always treated himself to a new haircut when he was assigned to the Finals. He usually wore his hair slicked back, but he'd ask his barber to give him a distinct buzz cut. Javie's new look actually raised a few eyebrows during the 2000 NBA Finals, when Game 4 between the Pacers and Lakers went into overtime. Right after regulation ended, Javie was strolling by the Lakers' bench when their coach, Phil Jackson, said, "Yo, what did you do? Fall asleep in the chair?"
That's just the reaction Javie wanted.
"I figured if people, broadcasters and the like, noticed my hair, then they'd be less likely to notice my calls, in case I got anything wrong," he said. "All the attention would be on my hair."
Longtime former NHL referee Kerry Fraser wasn't nearly as creative in approaching his first Stanley Cup finals. The moment he realized he was entering into an environment unlike any other he'd ever encountered came when he was assigned to Game 2 of the 1985 matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. In his third year on the job, Fraser was stunned by the media crush inside the lobby of Philadelphia's Hershey Hotel on game day. Once inside the arena, he calmed his nerves by channeling his anxiety into positive energy.
Fraser kept that same mindset over a career that saw him officiate in 12 Stanley Cup finals.
"That 200-by-85-foot space was my office. It was the place I could function at my best," Fraser said. "People could be throwing stuff at me, chanting 'Kerry Fraser sucks!' and it not ever got between my ears."
It's pretty likely that every official working the remainder of this year's NBA Finals will feel the same way. Phillips can relate to what they go through because he refereed college basketball games in the early 1980s. He readily admits there is a difference when you're dealing with a game that doesn't have a clock and another that does. But he also believed in having the same level of aggressiveness and focus at the end of a contest as he had at the start.
To this day, Phillips knows plenty of people in St. Louis still haven't forgiven Denkinger for a call that wasn't even the deciding moment of that World Series. As he tells young umpires today, the only calls they're likely to remember in their careers are the ones they'll ultimately miss, especially at crunch time.
"There are butterflies that come with [officiating in big games]," Phillips said "It's the pinnacle of your profession, but the pressure is there. I always tell people that there are three teams on the field. Everybody sees the players, but the umpires are out there to expedite the game without controversy. If you get through a big game -- or any game -- without any controversy, there's no better feeling than when it's over."
Henry Abbott and Katie Strang contributed to this report.