Another call for instant replay
NEW YORK – The human element. That’s the best argument purists muster against widespread instant replay in Major League Baseball. Let’s see how that works: Umpires make mistakes because they’re human, and … that makes it OK! Somehow, it’s difficult to believe such reasoning would stand up in a court of law or, say, anywhere in the world not populated by baseball’s dopey decision makers who don’t understand that a huge integrity problem is about to smack them in the face.
On Friday night, a bad call might have cost the Minnesota Twins a chance to beat the New York Yankees on the road in their American League Division Series. In the 11th inning of Game 2, Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer(notes) sliced a ball down the left-field line that not only glanced off Melky Cabrera’s(notes) glove in fair territory but also bounced at least 6 inches inside the line and then into the stands for what should’ve been a ground-rule double. Umpire Phil Cuzzi, standing 10 feet away, called it foul. And even though Mauer singled and the Twins managed to load the bases with no outs, they didn’t score, and the Yankees won 4-3 on a Mark Teixeira(notes) home run later that inning.
The Twins were here, of course, because of an umpiring error earlier in the week. A pitch glanced off the jersey of Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge(notes) with the bases loaded in the 12th inning of the Tigers’ one-game playoff with Minnesota. Umpire Randy Marsh didn’t call it. The Twins scored in the bottom half of the inning. Marsh claimed not to have seen the video, and MLB’s umpiring boss, Mike Port, said he stood by Marsh.
So that’s what baseball has come to: supporting egregious flubs to protect their own. It’s the epitome of an old-boys’ network, and it’s insulting to the game. MLB says it uses a grading system during the regular season that rewards the best umpires with playoff assignments. That alleged fair and impartial grading system, mind you, rewarded a postseason series to C.B. Bucknor, about whom a player once said: “My grandpa would be a better umpire than him. And my grandpa is dead.”
Bucknor, by the way, blew three calls at first base in Game 1 of the Red Sox-Angels series. Bungling one call is bad. Mangling two is unconscionable. Blowing three in a single game is fireable.
All of this, again, has happened within a half a week’s time. Two game-defining calls and three more that could have led to … well, no one knows. That’s a wall MLB hides behind: that even if Mauer were on second, who’s to say Jason Kubel(notes) and Michael Cuddyer(notes) would’ve followed with singles? Anyway, none of this would’ve happened had Alex Rodriguez(notes) not crushed a two-run home run off Joe Nathan(notes) to tie the game in the ninth inning, or if Delmon Young(notes) or Carlos Gomez(notes) or Brendan Harris(notes) absolved Cuzzi by doing something with the bases loaded in the 11th.
A sign something is totally backward: When the players wronged by an umpire are the ones whose later success can bail him out.
Technology exists to ensure that such errors are rectified before they cost a team. If Cuzzi is willing to admit he’s wrong after the game – “There’s a guy sitting over in the umpire’s dressing room right now that feels horrible,” crew chief Tim Tschida said – then it behooves him and others to allow their calls to be vetted in-game. In no way does it subvert their authority. Players will respect their fallibility, a grand quality for so many who try to play god.
In the most important part of baseball’s season, the best the sport offers is replay only on home run calls. Nothing on bang-bang plays at bases or pitches grazing body parts or balls floating near lines. Tennis’ replay system pinpoints every shot. Football offers a set of challenge flags that allow a team to protest. Baseball – the sport with perhaps more questionable calls than any – trusts almost implicitly the eyes of men, many older than 60, to make judgments that some aren’t equipped to make.
Now, this isn’t a rant against umpires. It’s against the system that enables them when they screw up. Replay wouldn’t have to extend to balls and strikes, an area that most umpires call consistently. It could encompass the rest of the field and work in a way that practically absolves umpires and turns blame instead on managers.
Take the cue from football. Use a red replay flag. Each team gets two per game. If the manager throws them too early, or misuses them, and can’t overturn a poor call later, it’s his mess. MLB likes to render decisions on home-run calls now in two or three minutes. One game’s replays, if all played, would consume 10 to 12 minutes – and might save time, too, presuming umpire-manager confrontations over blown calls would dip dramatically.
Back in July, a major league manager said this: “I’ve said all along that I want a red flag.”
It was Ron Gardenhire. He manages the Twins. They had lost a brutal game, and he was tired of the lack of accountability. He wouldn’t bite on the replay question Friday. So instead, Gardenhire and the rest of the Twins unloaded on Cuzzi. His lone job as the left-field umpire – a position, along with right-field umpire, used only in the postseason – was to judge fair-foul calls down the line. Nothing more.
“I wasn’t the only one who blew one tonight,” Nathan said.
He was just warming up.
“Hopefully, [Cuzzi] gets better,” Nathan said. “Hopefully, that umpire realizes he has to do something to get better.”
There was more.
“There’s really nothing we can do about a terrible call,” Nathan said. “And that’s exactly what it was. It was an awful call at the wrong time.”
Perhaps MLB will use the money it takes from Nathan in forthcoming fines and use it to start exploring expanded replay.
Accompanying the technology is the urgency. Nobody inside baseball wants a postseason defined by its umpiring screw-ups, and yet year after year, they happen. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. The NBA for years tried that, and now, in spite of the greatest talent influx in a generation, it’s a league hijacked by bad refereeing. Replay can help basketball marginally. It would help baseball, instantaneously and enormously. And it must.
“That’s a sticky situation,” Twins second baseman Nick Punto(notes) said. “I really like the human element part of the game. Where does it end? Maybe one day there’s robots back there umpiring, and that’s no fun.”
Fine. Though Punto would’ve preferred a robot that got Friday’s call right over a Cuzzi that didn’t.
“I mean, yeah,” Punto said. “Of course.”
That’s how it works with replay converts. The evidence piles up. The drawbacks seem minuscule comparatively. And the romanticizing of the human element in umpiring turns instead into another thing so great about humans.
The ability to recognize when you’re wrong.