Twelve years later, Don January would tell a newspaper in Massachusetts that he remembered May 2, 1995, "like it was yesterday."
In one sense, there wasn't much to remember. The Montreal Expos defeated the New York Mets 9-6, a victory that meant nothing. New York would finish the year at 69-75, 21 games behind Atlanta in the National League East. The Expos were 66-78, dead last in the division.
Don January didn't play in the game. Nor, for that matter, did he do all that much of consequence within it. He was an replacement umpire working home plate, a footnote to a job that, under most normal circumstances, is also a footnote. The usual subjective counting of balls and strikes notwithstanding, January made exactly one error of note—which just so happened to be hilarious.
Thanks to January, the Expos batted out of order in the sixth inning.
You could wait a whole season to see a team bat out of order. In fact, you could wait a whole lot of seasons. It's the sort of basic snafu that just doesn't happen. Only it did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it happened under the watch of a replacement umpire, a figure that has not been seen in Major League Baseball this century.
From 1970 to 1999, MLB and its umpires had a rocky relationship. Three different strikes meant replacement umpires were pressed into duty in 1979, 1984 and 1995; a fourth strike was narrowly averted in 1991. Since that span, however, the two sides have enjoyed labor peace. January's once-in-a-lifetime gaffe has faded into the past, and the prospect of a replacement umpire even being in position to do something similar seems remote.
But is it?
Ironically, the same technological advances that could one day render the need for replacements like January obsolete—specifically, sensors and software than can accurately call balls and strikes—could also touch off a ferocious new fight between baseball and the men who officiate it.
Here's what went down with January.
It was the sixth game of the strike-shortened 1995 season, with a first pitch time of 7:55 PM ET in Montreal. While the players were back, the umpires had only just ratified a new contract after being locked out since December. They were set to return on May 3, leaving men like January to handle one final game.
By the start of the sixth inning, the Expos had cruised to a commanding 8-3 lead. With the game seemingly in hand, manager Felipe Alou made a pair of changes at the top of the inning. Luis Aquino came on in relief of starting pitcher Jeff Fassero, and would bat ninth. Cliff Floyd, meanwhile, would play first base and hit fifth.
Somehow, January jotted those two simple tweaks down incorrectly. Which is why, when Floyd came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the sixth and a runner on first, Mets manager Dallas Green protested. Thanks to January's error, Floyd was now batting out of order. Alou, for his part, was incensed, arguing that Floyd should bat in his rightful fifth spot because January had made the mistake.
"Felipe got real belligerent with me, tried to intimidate me," January recalled to The Eagle-Tribune in 2012. Multiple calls by VICE Sports to a number listed for January went unanswered and unreturned for this story.
January's recourse? He ejected Alou.
A debacle ensued. Although the umpires had been on the job for little more than a week, they had been placed under a media microscope. Just five days earlier, The New York Times ran a story that opened with the quietly searing anecdote of one replacement umpire trotting out onto the field in an "anachronistic" chest protector. The same piece ended with pair of backhanded compliments from New York Yankees players Danny Tartabull and Jimmy Key, the latter of whom concluded that things were off because the replacement umps lacked the consistency of "the real umpires."
That story came in the wake of the ejections of three managers, and countless other confrontations. One American League official told The Los Angeles Times that the new labor deal with the umpires was almost a direct byproduct of how badly their replacements had handled the games in their absence. "In some cases, the situation was almost out of control," the official said. Added Anaheim Angels general manager Bill Bavasi, "It's the same situation as with the players. You want to see major leaguers on the field."
Now there was January's screw-up, the baseball equivalent of a clerical error that had not only delayed a game, but resulted in the ejection of a manager who—rightfully—was furious that a mundane pair of substitutions had been bungled through no fault of his own.
After booting Alou, January let Floyd bat fifth anyhow, never mind that this technically was illegal. Floyd, who also did not respond to multiple interview requests from VICE Sports, grounded out and advanced a runner. To remedy his scoring error, January then scored the play as though Aquino—who had never actually hit—was out, and then sent the runner back to first.
The matter was seemingly put to bed. Or would have been, had January then not ordered Aquino to bat next anyway, effectively attempting to reboot the at-bat from the fifth spot in the order.
If that seems illegal, that's because it was. Sean Berry, Montreal's number six hitter, should have been up. Aquino singled, sending the base runner back to second and completing an even more bizarre endgame: One hitter recording two at-bats at the same spot.
The New York Times was ruthless, running a separate item dedicated to the chain of miscues. Here was the lede:
"Managers have been ejected, players have registered complaints and mistakes have been during the replacement umpires' reign. No mistake, though, was as ridiculous as the one made tonight during the Expos' 9-6 victory over the Mets."
Years later, January still wasn't quite sure what went down. "All I know is it was a confusing incident," he told The Eagle-Tribune.
Replacement umpires made their debut in 1970, the same year that baseball added the League Championship Series. MLB umpires sought a raise to account for the extra postseason games they were being asked to work. When the owners balked, minor league umpires worked the first game of the inaugural NLCS, with minor league and retired umpires handling the ALCS. A deal was struck before the respective Game 2s, ending the replacements' tenure after one game.
It took the arrival of Richard G. "Richie" Phillips for them to be seen again. Phillips, a lawyer from Philadelphia, was appointed executive director of the Major League Umpires Association in 1978. He was also the group's negotiating attorney. Phillips quickly established a willingness to dig in on seemingly every labor issue—and if doing so meant a work stoppage, so be it.
"Let's just say that he was reputed to have something of a contentions personality," says Chris Williams, who authored a chapter titled "Major League Umpires and Unionization" for The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring. "A bull in a china shop is a good metaphor."
The bull got results: umpires quintupled their salaries over Phillips' 22-year tenure. On the other hand, tensions between the umps and the league continually escalated. Things finally came to a head in 1999 with a mass resignation and eventual rehiring of the league's umpiring staff.
Since then? Nothing. Williams credits the long peace to the ouster of Phillips in 1999. His replacement as negotiating attorney, player agent Ron Shapiro, has sought collaboration over conflict. "It was a sea change," Williams says. "It was a change from, 'OK, we have to fight tooth and nail for everything and take no prisoners' to 'OK, let's all sit down, talk about this and see where we can go and whether we can live with that.'"
Baseball's current umpire labor deal runs through the end of 2019. If negotiations are anything like the previous ones that have taken place under Shapiro's watch, a new five-year deal will be ratified, and the games will go on without replacement umps. But for the first time in a long time, Williams believes there is reason to be pessimistic—or at least concerned that a new battle is forthcoming.
This time, she suspects, the fight won't be over pay. Rather, it will be downright existential. It's only a matter of time before the right technology is developed to automatically call balls and strikes without the need for umpires. When that happens, baseball umpires will be subject to the same pressures wrought by automation in industries ranging from manufacturing to legal document review: fewer jobs, and less leverage to obtain better salaries and benefits.
"That's just a reflection of the times," says Williams, who practices employee benefits law at Perkins Coie in Los Angeles. "It's the same with auto workers. It's the same with coal miners. A lot of labor difficulties these days are because the technology has advanced to the point that people aren't needed to do the jobs anymore.
"I don't think umpires will ever be entirely replaced but I do think the technology is going to be a bargaining issue in the future: 'If we let you install this technology, we're putting ourselves out of work.'"
Some sort of future dispute seems inevitable. Whenever it arrives, there's a decent chance replacement umpires will make a final appearance along with it. And in a small but very real way, they'll have January to thank. In an otherwise unremarkable game between the Expos and Mets, he showed us what was possible—the awesome, unpredictable, and infinitely creative power of human error. All the way back in 1995, he made the case for the machines.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.