Baseball Needs Replay Now!

The several goofy and/or close calls in the 2005 MLB postseason slapped the notion of instant replay back on the baseball discussion table, and as far as I’m concerned, it will remain there until further action is taken. I’ve enjoyed baseball since being a wee biped and I respect its tradition. I also sympathize with the thankless efforts of the umpires who, in the main, do great work. Like any institution, pro baseball has incorporated improvements over time. But tradition gives the idea of instant replay - reviewing certain calls on video to make sure they’re correct, and reversing them if they aren’t - a frown and automatic dismissal, even when justice in climactic moments has been violated and replay would easily solve the problem.

And it is a problem, particularly if you’ve got a division title or a season or a World Series on the line and a clear call is botched, never to be reviewed. Good breaks and bad breaks may be part of the game, but outright injustice shouldn’t be. Umpire’s strike zone a little narrow today? Well, that’s the zone, let your multimillion dollar pitcher deal with it. “Tie goes to the runner” - okay, close enough. But what if the runner’s foot is 18 inches from the bag when the ball hits the glove? Clear call? What if a base stealer is clearly tagged out (from the camera’s vantage point) before touching second, and yet he’s awarded the base because the closest umpire wasn’t in position to see the tag? I guess every question can be reduced to “What if an officiating decision doesn’t follow observable reality?”

(And what if the umpire in the league championship series does the f*cking Macarena in calling a batter out on strike three, only to freeze when the batter pauses then bolts for first base, essentially granting the offense FOUR outs for that inning? What if this ump’s defense involves “well I guess the catcher dropped strike three, because the batter ran” when the ump could not possibly have seen whether the ball entered the catcher’s mitt from where he was standing? The same catcher rolled the ball out to the mound, assuming the inning to be over per normal procedure. His teammates also started walking off the field, assuming that the ump’s aerobics were meant to indicate that the ball had been caught and the batter was in fact out. Well, replay may or may not have changed the outcome of that infamous incident, but the whole horrible gaffe emerged from baseball’s netherworld of subjectivity.)

Anyway, when the sports commentators make their preemptive arguments against instant replay, they push two main ideas, both of which seem extremely faulty to me.

1) Instant replay would reduce an already slow game to a crawl. Oh please. Apparently no one who makes this argument has realized that when a manager comes out to argue a call, they’re delaying the game. Yes, the game is already slowed down whenever there’s a controversial call afoot and someone wants to argue it. And the cruel catch is that most of the time, nothing that happens in that downtime ever changes the call. The manager comes out to “talk” - i.e., point, yell, kick dirt, request another ump’s opinion, etc. - for minutes at a time, and nothing changes. Now, imagine that instead of this little charade, the manager can wave a little flag or something and send a call to a video booth for review. No tantrum, no throwing sacks of balls or bats onto the field, no getting tossed and toting a base back into the clubhouse (further delaying the game, even if it does amuse the crowd). Instead of an impossible situation where the deck is stacked entirely in favor of the umpire (who has Traditional Authority on his side), the call is reviewed by an impartial party - impartial to tradition versus technology. Whether or not the call stands, it would probably take less time than the usual fruitless circuses that stop play after a super-bad call.

2) Human fallibility is part of the “charm” of the game. Well, I don’t know about charm (people actually use that word), but of course errors are an expected and acceptable part of the game - on the part of the players. The PLAYERS. Not the officials, who are supposedly the arbiters of objective reality against which the players perform. Let’s say I ding your car in a parking lot. You’re the well-balanced sort whose first reaction is that the event was an accident, that I made a small mistake. You see me as “only human” in my minor driving indiscretion. Good so far. But let’s say I have no insurance and refuse to pay for damages. You take me to court, where, despite witness accounts, etcetera, the judge rules in my favor, and you gain nothing for your time and trouble. Do you then say, “well, the judge is only human, he’s bound to make mistakes, just like the guy in the parking lot”? No, you want your car fixed! You want the person in authority to register what actually happened and judge accordingly. You do not grant them leeway in the realm of error, not when they’ve got that robe on.

What the anti-replayers want, if the “charming fallibility” argument is to be taken to heart, is for everyone to embrace the detours from reality and justice, even from those in authority. When that crucial call is blown, it’s up to baseball fans to smile and say “Gosh darn it, that’s the way it goes in this game.” Actually, instead of smiles, it’s usually fist-pounding frustration, and we wouldn’t want to lose that tradition, would we?

Another argument/objection that might be made is that good teams will, in the long run, overcome the vagaries of occasionally errant umpiring. Well, of course they will, but if it’s potentially the last game of the season, that matters not a whit.

Let me return to the concept of objective reality for a moment and recall an interesting incident from a 2005 postseason game. Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano tried to “cheat” a particular force out by lifting his foot off the bag before catching the throw; the runner slid in behind him and was properly called safe by the umpire. Plain as day: foot off the bag before ball entered glove. That’s not an out, as any six-year-old would be quick to tell you. However, in the ESPN broadcast booth, Joe Morgan said the runner should have been out. Even after clearly seeing Cano’s gaffe on the replay, Morgan still insisted the out was made, and that the ump was at fault - that the ump was cheating Cano! Now, Morgan consistently escorts viewers into la-la land on every broadcast, so this bit of nonsense was nothing new. (In fact, to borrow a line from Glengarry Glen Ross, I subscribe to the law of Contrary Morgan Opinion: whenever Joe Morgan puts forth a piece of wisdom, I say bet the other way.) Maybe Morgan used to cheat the force-outs all the time when he was a second baseman, and maybe other infielders do it relatively often. And I might agree that if you can perform the slight-of-foot magic well enough to fool the ump standing right there, then you probably had the runner dead to rights anyway. But if the umpire calls you on it and says “no out,” don’t act like you’ve been robbed of your inalienable right to cut the rules’ corners. Which is what Morgan was doing vicariously. Even though Cano’s foot was clearly off the bag, far beyond what might be called the grace zone, Morgan insisted on the fielder’s right to get the call, in bald defiance of reality. And if that’s what’s happening to respect for the rules - the most fundamental rules at that - then maybe the game does need closer scrutiny.

Now, as for implementing video replay, I think you’d have to start with the playoffs, and you’d grant each manager one “challenge” per game. It wouldn’t be used to argue balls and strikes, but rather close calls at the bases, and maybe catches in the field - did the ball hit the ground before going into the diving outfielder’s glove, that kind of thing. The contrary reader may say that there aren’t enough controversial calls in baseball to justify the replay system, and that’s the beauty of it. It’d rarely be used, and I don’t know yet if using it during the regular season would be feasible, to be honest. However, for the postseason, it’s especially important to have it available IF there is an occurrence that requires a camera eye for proper decision-making.

The umpires, much as I respect them, would have to learn to defer to a higher authority in times of crisis. In fact, and this is being very loose with my imagination, maybe the umps could hold the right to voluntarily consult video replay, without being prompted by a steamed manager. Maybe one day an umpire will have the honor of being the first one to say, “You know what, I didn’t see that play very clearly, and neither did any of my co-workers, and since the outcome of my call will significantly impact the game as it stands now, I’m going to have it reviewed on video.” That umpire will be a hero.

So you start by allowing replay in the playoffs as an emergency backup officiating system. I admit that the idea of using replay in the regular season is probably out of logistical reach. You’d need the proper amount of cameras and a review crew at every game, and what with the hundreds and hundreds of games played per season, the extra overhead and fuss might be rather daunting - or would it? Without it, the anti-replayers could continue to delight in “charming” bad calls from April through September, and as they happen, the manager can take solace in knowing that such things will be eyed in the playoffs.

(Another possible objection is that “not all bad calls are game-changing calls.” I don’t buy that, sorry, and if replay is ever installed, what’s game-changing or not will be up to the manager to decide.)

So that’s my two cents on the whole replay thing. I don’t see any excuse, in this day and age, to let bad calls stand. The other motivation of my plea is to avoid arbitrary heartbreak for players and fans. It’s one thing to see your team lose fairly, and another to see them screwed out of accomplishment. Bad calls bug me when they go against my team, and they bug me just as much when they go for my team, because then the advantage is tainted, and then everyone’s able to say “your boys wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t got that big break.” Instant replay works in football. It works in hockey (when used; see the 1999 Cup Finals for what happens when it isn't.) It would work in baseball too, if its opponents would quit pretending that useless onfield arguments and altered reality form some celebrated ideal.

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