For a few years now, I’ve been saying that Major League Baseball will expand instant replay … not because it’s the right thing to do or because the fans want it, but because they have no choice. That’s seems to be how baseball works. They allow themselves to fall way behind the technology of the day and then, a few years after they have been made to look ridiculous, they act with some knock-off half measure. They then spend years trying desperately to catch up, never quite doing so. It’s the charm of the game.
It was clear many, many years ago that baseball could not keep ignoring that umpires were being embarrassed on a near-daily basis because everyone could see, clear as high-def, that the umps were missing calls. In baseball, unlike most other sports, the umpires spend most of their time making true-false calls rather than judgment calls. Safe-out. Fair-foul. Catch-drop. Home run-not home run. With the possible exception of balls and strikes -- and there should be less subjectivity in those calls, too -- we are not talking about elusive assessments like blocking and charging calls or pass interference or if the football was actually loose or if a slash rises to the penalty level of “slashing.” There are mostly right and wrong answers in baseball and so, if anything, baseball is MORE predisposed for replay than other sports.
Which is why baseball has looked absolutely ridiculous every October, when people across the country started paying attention to the same game and see, often more than once a game, a blown call that would take exactly two seconds to correct. It’s the obviousness of it that makes baseball look bad. People will argue forever if the Music City Miracle was a forward or backward pass or if Tom Brady fumbled. Nobody will argue if Jason Donald was out as 27th and would-be last batter in Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game -- we KNOW he was out. In baseball, blown calls are just that: BLOWN CALLS. You can see them on television.
MLB has tried to counter this undeniable truth with its usual methods of ignorance, unreasonableness and tradition. They have tried to make the case that bad calls are a part of the grand history of the game, which is a bit like saying that miscalculations are part of the grand history of mathematics or that clerical errors are part of the grand history of tax collecting. More often, they will call umpire mistakes a “human part of the game,” as if Abner Doubleday himself, when he was inventing the game in Cooperstown that year he wasn’t actually there, granted umpires the inalienable right to blow calls at first base.*
*One of the most illogical arguments I’ve heard against replay is the “we don’t expect players to be perfect, we shouldn’t expect umpires to be perfect” nonsense. This is one of those statements that makes perfect sense until you take four seconds to think about it. Nobody, with the possible exception of family members, goes to baseball games to see umpires perform. That’s because they are not “performing.” Umpires are executing a job, a job that we as spectators expect them to get right. If you go to the ballpark, and the public address announcer keeps mispronouncing “Asdrubal Cabrera,” you don’t say, “Well, ballplayers aren’t perfect, why should the announcer be perfect?” If a beer vendor spills three beers on you, one after another, you probably won’t say, “Well, ballplayers aren’t perfect, why would I expect the beer vendor to be perfect.” If you go to an ATM at the ballpark, withdraw $50, get only $40, you probably won’t say, “Why would I expect the bank to be perfect?”
These types of arguments made some sense when human beings represented the very cutting edge of umpiring technology. Put people as close to the play as possible, give them the best angle, that was your best shot to get it right. Now, of course, with multiple cameras, slow motion, the ability to zoom in on any particular part of the play -- human beings are not the standard of accuracy. It’s not their fault. They are very good at what they do. They are very FAST at what they do, which is a big part of the job. But one look at a play, live, will simply not be as accurate as several looks at the same play slowed down. This, like the Jason Donald out, is inarguable.
Baseball has known all this for a long time and held off on expanded replay for as long as they possibly could, but now, finally, they seem ready to boldly face the future … or the present … or, actually, let’s face it, the not-so recent past … and incorporate replay into the game.
“This is a historic day,” Bud Selig announced to the world, which is a bit like a Compuserve representative coming out and announcing that it is an historic day because they are now offering high speed Internet.
Anyway, it looks -- unsurprisingly -- like Baseball is going to blow it.
The proposed Baseball system, best I can tell, seems to be this: Managers will get three umpire challenges. They can use one of them the first six innings and the other two after the seventh. Their challenges would be reviewed and judged in some room in New York, where I’m guessing there will be umpires watching games on multiple screens. I guess there’s also something in there about managers get to keep their challenges if the call is overturned but will lose them if the call is right. Basically, Baseball is just taking the NFL model of challenges and bringing it to baseball.
And this is EXACTLY why I loathe it. When has baseball EVER succeeded by following football’s lead? They are two different very different sports with very different fan bases and very different expectations. Baseball had -- has? -- an opportunity here to be original, to be bold, to use replay in a way that fits the rhythms of the game. And they go and copy football’s challenge system only without many of the details that makes football’s challenge system work in the first place (remember in football, in the last two minutes of each half, every play is automatically reviewed. And beginning a couple of years ago, every single scoring play and turnover is automatically reviewed).
See, by doing it this ridiculous way, baseball made it the MANAGER’S responsibility to get the call right rather than BASEBALL’S responsibility. And that’s just wrong. Baseball should take it upon itself to get it right. This really shouldn’t be that hard. When you are not considering balls and strikes, there are how many close calls in any given baseball game? One? Three? Seven? Some games there are no close calls.
How hard would it be to have a replay umpire watch every game in a booth somewhere, buzz the ump if the play is close enough to review, take 30 seconds to review it, and then either fix the call or confirm it. How hard is that?
They are missing such a unique opportunity. It seems like baseball could help us rethink the way to use replay. The thing that drives me crazy about football is that they will look at the play and look at the play and look at the play, over and over and over, slowing it down to standstill, obsessing over every finger on each hand on each arm on each torso under each helmet on each body on every blade of grass. If you look at a play long enough, from enough angles, with enough addiction, you can begin to LOSE clarity rather than obtain it.
Baseball could have reworked this whole thought process. Something like this: A replay umpire gets 30 seconds to look at it from three different angles. If it is not clear after those 30 seconds and three angles, the call stands.
Instead, they are trying this stupid challenge system, which will no doubt cause all kinds of problems they are not anticipating. Managers will find ways to use challenges in ways they weren’t intended -- to slow down the game, to give their reliever a few extra seconds to warm up, to give their pitcher a chance to regain composure, whatever. With three challenges to play with, they will probably challenge plays they know were PROBABLY right, but hey, it’s the end of the game, might as well try something. And there are countless other ways it will probably muck up the game that I’m just not thinking of right now.