Here’s the plan for an effective replay system
If by now you are not in favor of Major League Baseball drastically overhauling its instant replay protocols, you are as blind as Jim Joyce was Wednesday night.
Whatever causes such myopia, rest assured it is curable. Us advocates of replay are not trying to tromp on your sacred game. We do not want to slow it down or cause mass hysteria or increase Bud Selig’s agita quotient. Most of us, in fact, are just fine with umpires, and not HAL 9000, calling balls and strikes.
We are simply believers in fairness, in justice, in what is right. If an umpire misses a call, and the technology exists to correct his mistake, nothing should prevent it from doing so. Not misguided romanticism. Not red herrings into which players so readily buy. Not an obstructionist commissioner.
And so while the protagonist and antagonist in our story turned such a miserable situation into a true tearjerker – Armando Galarraga’s(notes) treatment of Jim Joyce after the umpire’s blown call denied him a perfect game is a lesson in humility and forgiveness and the human spirit – the play underscores the need for change.
Surprisingly, after the Galarraga victimization, the attitude inside two clubhouses remained split. I spoke with 14 players, coaches and managers Thursday morning to survey their feelings on replay. Five were for it. Six were against it. Three weren’t sure.
The opponents espoused the typical tropes. They are, of course, a bunch of malarkey, each issue easily dissected and thrown on its face. And as Selig announced he and a committee would reconsider a change to the current replay rules, it’s best that, once and for all, we eviscerate the logic of the dissenters so that when the time comes we can all agree: More replay is the way.
Even better: We’ve got the perfect system to implement when it happens.
Why this argument is stupid: To err is human, yes. So is to err and wish there were a time machine so you could go back and fix the thing at which you erred.
To so blithely idealize screw-ups reeks of a brainwashed baseball culture. Nowhere in the rulebook does it say: Umpire error is part of the game. It grew to be so because umpires so regularly missed calls, players developed that attitude as a defense mechanism. Now that slow-motion instant replay gives us the truth, there is no reason to hold onto such a hackneyed opinion, to believe utter nonsense because it’s repeated often enough.
Now, this is just a guess … but I have a difficult time believing that when a replay confirms or denies a call, any player or fan will say: “Boy, I sure miss that human element.”
Argument No. 2: Replay takes too much time
Why this argument is stupid: Right now, when a questionable home run call goes to replay, all of the umpires gather and head to a special TV and telephone to confer with baseball officials in New York. They discuss the issue and, at most, it takes five minutes. Most rulings take closer to two minutes.
Cutting out the on-field umpires and using a fifth man at the press box level with access to the television crew’s cameras would significantly shorten the time wasted traipsing back to the box. Most TV broadcasts replay a close play several times between at-bats – a matter of seconds. Give the fifth umpire a time limit – say, two minutes – and if, by that point, the call remains inconclusive, let it stand.
Most replays will take seconds and cause only momentary pauses – the same sort that come from a beach ball landing on the field, or a fight in the stands, or a drunk running on the field, or any number of distractions that already break up the game’s continuity.
Argument No. 3: But baseball is different!
Why this argument is stupid: Baseball is different, all right. The NFL’s replay policy is infinitely more comprehensive and allows for wrongs to be righted. The NHL – the incompetent NHL – embarrasses baseball with its refusal to hold human error sacrosanct.
Well, baseball did institute replay on home runs calls two years ago in late August. That means 135 games into the season. And, well, a rulebook exists as a primer on how the game is played; as the game evolves, so should its guidelines.
Argument No. 4: They’re so infrequent, why bother?
In a nutshell: “How many plays happen like that, in that situation?” – Chen
Why this argument is stupid: One is enough, is it not? Especially one that prevented a historic accomplishment.
Go ahead and point to missed calls in a 14-1 game. In the grand scheme, their importance is minimal. Though what if one bad call leads to a player missing a batting title? Or another failing to reach a contract incentive? Or any number of situations in which something so seemingly insignificant actually has merit?
The replay issue is front and center right now because of Galarraga, yes, but it doesn’t lessen the reality that umpires biff calls, and those calls deserve a remedy. Four years ago, when I was a naïve sycophant who opposed replay, I asked MLB’s director of umpiring, Mike Port, about the number of blown calls the previous season. He reported that his umpiring supervisors attended 50 percent of games played and found one missed call every 12.2 games – about one a night. I tried to argue that with such a small amount, replay was unnecessary.
Actually, it makes replay even more alluring. Gone is the argument about too much time spent reviewing plays. If the goal of umpires is to get each call correct – the essence of fairness and impartiality – then it shouldn’t settle for all of them except, oh, every 12 games or so.
Argument No. 5: Live with it, you communist
In a nutshell: “You ruin the game. This is how the game is supposed to be played. As players, we make errors. As coaches, we make errors. Umpires make errors, too.” – Mike Butcher, Angels pitching coach
Why this argument is stupid: OK. Getting something right ruins the game. Still trying to figure out the logic on this one.
Yeah. That about covers it.
Argument No. 6: Just get better umpiring
In a nutshell: Getting rid of the worst umpires – Joe West, Bob Davidson, C.B. Bucknor, Angel Hernandez – will eliminate the majority of bad calls and the need for replay.
Why this argument is stupid: Jim Joyce is, by all accounts, an excellent umpire. Twice a Sports Illustrated player survey ranked him second.
“When I heard it was him, I hated that it happened to him,” Hunter said. “He’s good behind the plate. He’s good with the players. Talks to everybody. If he makes a mistake, he’s like, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.’ He’s always been that way. That’s why I think it’ll die out – because of who he is. If it was Joe West … “
The lesson is that even the best umpires mess up. Tim McClelland, considered the preeminent ump today, was embroiled in controversy last October.
It happens. While a purge would help, it wouldn’t get rid of the underlying issue: Humans are fallible, and the game deserves better.
Argument No. 7: The umpires won’t like it
In a nutshell: Umpires are authority figures and do not want some inanimate object subverting their clout.
Why this argument is stupid: Holding umpires accountable for their calls, publicly as well as privately, gives baseball much-needed transparency. Replay not only shows umpires’ true abilities, it gives added incentive for improved performance. The last thing anyone wants is a public embarrassment played again and again and again. Just ask Jim Joyce.
And if the umpires don’t like it? Well, tough crap.
Argument No. 8: Expanded replay opens a Pandora’s box
Why this argument is stupid: That Pandora’s box even exists with baseball replay is a fallacy. There is no movement to totally overhaul the game, to replace umpires with machines that call balls and strikes, to turn the game into a technological morass.
There is actually a very simple delineation: Calls that are not up to interpretation should be subject to replay. Rulings that are subjective should not. This allows for the inclusion of enough human element to satisfy the purists: Umpires act like Supreme Court justices, interpreting the law when such situations present themselves. Otherwise, they use all elements possible – their eyes and, if necessary, a replay-only umpire – to render the correct decision.
Under these rules, the following situations would call for replay:
• Plays at bases – bang-bang plays, like with Galarraga and Joyce, or questionable tags.
• Trapped balls, whether by outfielders or infielders, that may or may not have grazed the ground before going into a glove.
• Fair-or-foul calls down the lines – the likeliest culprit to extend a replay to the two-minute time limit and end up inconclusive, but an important one nonetheless, as seen with umpire Phil Cuzzi’s mangling of a Joe Mauer(notes) line drive during the 2009 postseason.
• Tag-ups in which camera technology can determine whether a runner left a base before the ball was caught.
• Borderline home runs that necessitate a closer look, since umpires’ perspectives are sometimes skewed (a rule already).
• Fan interference, so Jeffrey Maier doesn’t happen again.
• Catchers’ interference, which umpires generally get right but should be there anyway.
The no-replay list, which allow umpires sufficient interpretation, includes:
• Balls and strikes
• The infield-fly rule
• Check swings
• Baselines – and only for consistency’s sake, because it would seem odd to have the first-base line, with its chalk markings, reviewable while the other baselines are left up to the umpires. Ideally, all baselines would be available for review, too, but such sacrifices are worthwhile if the rest of the non-interpretation calls are instituted.
How baseball applies replay is another important question. While the NFL version has its merits – two challenges per team per game – it still allows for missed calls. The NHL version – universal replay – gives the fifth umpire enough power to ensure that even the slightest problem is vetted to the degree it deserves.
Whatever Selig and his committee do, it will be an improvement. And yet we hope it’s something substantive, something that keeps umpires in check, the integrity of the game alive and future perfect games intact.
There’s a new paradigm coming in baseball, a new element onto which all humans can attach themselves: the belief in fairness, justice and, most important, what is right.