“Progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, ‘All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up the charm of distance … Mister, you may conquer the air, but the words will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.'”
-- Henry Drummond, “Inherit the Wind”
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There’s always a little something separating us from the past in sports. This is the place where nostalgia breathes. You will hear people who grew up in the 1970s and '80s talk longingly of the absurd short shorts that basketball players used to wear, or the silly bullpen cars that chauffeured relievers to the mound like they were cartoon royalty or even the old three-to-make-two. Remember that? Young people never seem to believe me when I tell them that, yes, they used to give professional basketball players three shots to make two free throws.
There are a million more -– none of these were really great things. But, I suppose, we don’t really miss the random blips of light on Electronic Football or those Wimbledon television broadcasts where the ball was the same color as the grass and you couldn’t even see it going back and forth (it looked like the players were engaging in mime tennis) or pro football games where teams almost always ran the ball on first and second down. I think what we miss is being young and that feeling we had when sports felt new and mysterious and perfect.
And I guess that sort of pointless nostalgia is what this one is about.
Because, as illogical as it is, I find -- more and more and more -- that I miss the days before instant replay.
* * *
Start with the obvious: Of course, I think it’s important to get the calls right. The engine that runs spectator sports is fairness, or, perhaps more accurately, the appearance of fairness. The countless sports flaps through the years -- steroids, Spygate, gambling, the Tiger drop, the imperfect game, college athletes who don’t get paid, the Hand of God goal, the Don Denkinger play, the 1919 World Series, the 1972 gold medal basketball game and Jeff Bagwell not being in the Hall of Fame -– all come down this simple principle of fairness. We have to try and get the calls right because we cannot abide our games being blatantly unfair.
Basically, it’s this: Life is unfair. We fans believe that sports should strive harder.
And in sports, we do strive harder. There is now some form of replay in just about every sport we watch. It is limited in some games –- soccer, except for leagues that use goal-line technology to determine if the ball crossed the line, actively avoids replay –- and it is rampant in other sports like the pro football and, increasingly, basketball and baseball. There is almost nothing in a football game that is not reviewable. Touchdowns. Fumbles. Catches. Heck, the referees’ mark is now up for review. The most egregious of calls are almost always overturned –- and this unquestionably makes the game fairer. Nobody is nostalgic for missed calls.
But, like Drummond says in my favorite passage from the play “Inherit the Wind,” I sometimes wonder if we appreciate what we give up for progress. Replay has entirely changed the way we watch games and, I would argue, in some ways most of us never saw coming. The main arguments we always heard against using instant replay in sports were aesthetic ones. Replay would make the games too long. Replay would interrupt the flow. Replay would make sports somehow less human. I find all these arguments –- then and now –- to be pretty unpersuasive. A few extra seconds, a slight interruptions in the action for commercial breaks and a more scientific method to officiate games all seem a reasonable price to pay for getting calls right.
Thing is, we find more and more that those aren’t the real price of replay.
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You probably saw the play a couple of weeks ago in Detroit. It seemed pretty simple on the surface. Baltimore’s Nick Markakis hit what looked like a sure double-play ground ball to second. The Tigers’ Ian Kinsler fielded it cleanly and flipped it to shortstop Andrew Romine. He caught the ball, stepped on the bag, and then fumbled the ball as he tried get it out of his glove to make the throw.
The umpire called both runners safe.
It was clearly a blown call -– at least, it was the wrong call as viewed through the eyes of millions of lifelong baseball fans who had seen countless versions of this play through the years. If the guy catches the ball, steps on the bag, and then fumbles it on the exchange, the runner is out. That’s how it was in 1950. That’s how it was in 1970. That’s how it was in 1990. By the eyes, the ball was snug in Romine’s glove, he stepped on second base, open and shut, and if you watch it again, you will note that both announcers spoke confidently that the call would be overturned.
The call was not overturned. The umpires went through the new baseball replay process –- with an umpire in New York breaking down the replay –- and ruled, for reasons not clear at first, that Romine did not have control of the ball and therefore the out at second was not recorded.
How could he not have had control of the ball? Well, this sent nutty baseball fans like me to the MLB rulebook, where we found this definition of terms referring to what a catch is:
Official Rules: 2.00 Definition of Terms
A CATCH is the act of the fielder is getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it … In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he had complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught.”
As you can see, this rule -– like more or less every rule in every sport –- seems to have been written by a precocious 13-year-old with a thesaurus. It reads like a book report someone writes after not reading the book. Look: On the one hand you have to hold the ball long enough to prove that you have complete control or else it’s NOT a catch. On the other hand, if you drop the ball in the act of making a throw, it IS a catch. So how long do you have to hold it in order for it to count as a catch? No idea. How can you prove you have control? Get affidavits from witnesses? Where does the catch end? Where does the act of making a throw begin?
And now we are getting to the heart of what replays cost.
We are now arguing about the very meaning of what it means to catch a baseball.
Nobody EVER wondered about what constituted a catch in baseball before all this legal wrangling. We all just knew. It was in our blood as baseball fans. We were all in the same sports time zone; we all worked off more or less the same internal spectator clock. But now, with replay, the catch is an abstract concept, like justice or infinity or what it is to be a Kardashian.
And THAT is the cost of replay because this sort of ambiguity pops up again and again in our games. Stuff that was always blindingly obvious to us now comes down to intensive review. Every moment in every game, it seems, is played back and forth, back and forth, like the Zapruder Film. Every moment in every game is argued about like it’s the Dreyfus Affair. Nothing is real anymore.
This trend has been creeping into sports for more than a decade, I think, but there’s no doubt that the Calvin Johnson catch back in 2010 was a watershed moment. You remember that one –- Johnson leaped up, caught the ball, had it in one hand for long enough to autograph it (if he’d had a pen), then fell and the ball ticked the ground and bounced away. The pass was called incomplete. Replay review confirmed it was incomplete. The only problem was that it LOOKED complete. I think if you could have had an instant poll, 97.8 percent of all football fans would have checked the box that read: “Of course he caught the ball.”
But, the referee said he didn’t, and replay confirmed he didn’t, and soon afterward they clarified the rules of what a catch means. You have to catch the ball “long enough to perform an act common to the game,” which means more or less nothing, and if you go to the ground, you have to “complete that process.” So now: Does anyone really know anymore what constitutes a catch in pro football? Seems like you have to catch the ball, get two feet in bounds, hold it through completion of the play, refuse to give it back to the officials, carry it with you to dinner that night.
We used to just know. It was innate. It was something we understood from the moment we were 3 years old and caught our first football.
This is what our growing reliance on replay does: It takes away what used to be one of sports' greatest qualities. It takes away the certainty of the game, the black-and-white nature of it, the natural understanding we all had and replaces those things with an endless appeal processes and Talmudic wrangling over the most insignificant things.
What’s worse, replay shines a bright light on probably the most vulnerable part of sports: the rulebooks. Have you ever sat down and read the NFL or MLB rulebook? Well, of course you have not because you have a life, but I have and I can tell you: The rules range from inscrutable to ridiculous.
This is the nature of rules and laws. Nobody can write a rule or law that covers every possibility, because life is infinitely more complicated than we ever expect. It’s always fun to go to this hilarious site and see some of the dumb laws that are still on the books in states across America. Gorillas are not allowed in the back seats of cars in Massachusetts. It is illegal to sing in public wearing a bathing suit in Florida. One of my favorites: New York bans anyone from walking around on Sundays with an ice cream cone in his or her pocket. I’m not sure about the accuracy of these laws, but we can all rest assured that there are hundreds of incredibly dumb laws on the books, and the reason is that nobody can anticipate all of the loony things people will try. Some clown walks around with an ice cream cone in his pocket on Sunday, and someone else shouts: "Hey, that’s wrong. That’s against the law."
The clown says: "Actually, no, it’s not against the law."
The offended says: "Well, it should be."
And they make it against the law.
That’s more or less how sports have worked through the years. The pitcher's box used to be 50 feet away from home plate. Then, pitchers started thrown the ball too hard, and it became a mound, 60 feet, 6 inches away. It used to be illegal to catch a pass first touched by a teammate. Then, the immaculate reception happened and they scrapped that thing. There used to be no shot clock in college basketball. So teams started holding the ball forever, and they put in a shot clock, then made the time shorter, then shorter still.
It happens again and again. A rule is written up, everyone’s proud of it, someone finds a way to work around it, everyone gets upset, they change the rule, someone finds a way around that rule, everyone gets upset again, they talk about it, they change the rule again. And, in time, every sports rule becomes a camel -– as the old line goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee.
Point is: all of the replay scrutiny is making our games a lot less fun.
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It probably never helps a case to quote Sepp Blatter of FIFA, but not too long ago, when talking about using technology in soccer, he announced that international soccer would not go down the instant-replay rabbit hole. He made a rather remarkable statement:
“Let it be as it is and let’s leave it with errors. The television companies will have the right to say (the referee) was right or wrong. But still, the referee makes the decision.”
This cuts so hard against what has become our own view of sports that it’s almost hard for us to even follow the logic. Leave soccer with errors? What? For us, for decades now, it seems like every sport has had one goal: Get the calls right. That’s it. To get the calls right, we are willing to sacrifice time. We are willing to sacrifice the power of the moment. We are willing to sacrifice the simplicity that had charmed us about sports in the first place. We are willing to sacrifice all in order to reach the higher plane and get those calls right.
But are we right? Every now and again, I watch an old game on one of the various networks that play old games. You probably do that, too. Do you notice how different it was then? We used to cheer when someone extraordinary happened. Someone scored a fantastic touchdown in the corner of the end zone, someone hit a home run the umpire ruled fair, someone made a shot at the buzzer and the referee called it good, and we went crazy because it was done. There was a finality to the cheers … and a finality to the boos too.
That finality is foreign to us now. Almost nothing that happens on the field is real anymore. We can cheer when the double play is complete, but only halfheartedly. It’s not done yet. The manager can challenge. The umpire will review. Everything is upon further review …
And, yeah, I guess I do feel nostalgic for that feeling of finality. The NCAA tournament this year was encumbered by long reviews. It was hard to watch. Imagine how long it would have taken officials to review the Christian Laettner shot in Duke against Kentucky.
Verne Lundquist’s famous call: “There’s the pass to Laettner. Puts it up. YESSSSSSS!!!”
Verne Lundquist’s call today: “There’s the pass to Laettner. Puts it up. Yes. Now let’s see if it counts.”
I do wonder if this is part of the reason why more and more Americans are turning to soccer. There’s no doubt international soccer has countless quirks that can seem off to our American minds –- the timekeeping is bizarre, the one referee running around on the pitch seems overmatched, the diving makes it hard to determine what is a foul and what is not.
But the games are brisk, and they last less than two hours in real time, nobody stops for commercials and the referee’s calls are final. Maybe we miss some of that stuff. The officials do seem to miss plenty of offside and penalty calls, and non-calls seem suspect at best. But in exchange for a few disputed calls we get a game that beats and breathes in real time.
I’ve asked a lot of real soccer fans if they would want replay to look at these offsides and penalty calls –- you know, get more of them right. I haven’t yet heard one who would make the trade.
* * *
I actually have an idea for how to use replay in American sports, an idea that might help us get back some of what we’ve lost. Almost nobody agrees with me so there’s almost no point in bringing it up. But I have to wrap this up somehow, so I’ll share it.
Here goes: I think there should be a one-shot limit on replay. The replay official should be allowed to see the replay only one time. That’s all. I might be persuaded into MAYBE two if there’s an obvious second angle. But it doubt it. The referee sees it one time, decides instantly if the call was right (or probably right), we all go back to the game.
How would this help? Well, I think it would help in several ways. On an obvious level, it would speed up the process. We could use that. We have a pace-of-play problem in just about all of our games; the problem is not that the games are taking too long but that the time we keep adding is dead time.
But on a less obvious level, my one-shot replay idea could get replay back to what I think should be its real purpose: To overturn the egregious calls. That’s all. One shot replay would have overturned the Don Denkinger call. But it would not overturn those calls so close you have to break things down to molecular particles to come to some conclusion. It would not make us question, like some second-year philosophy major, what really makes a catch, what does a fumble actually look like and so on. It could give sports back some of the urgency and common sense that has been lost.
Of course, this would mean sacrificing accuracy. Officials in the one-shot replay system would get more calls wrong. And I concede that I’m probably in a very small minority of people who would be willing to pay that price. I’d trade a few wrong calls to get some of the old feeling back. But maybe that’s just old-guy nostalgia talking. I miss bullpen cars, too.