It's not college football, but Wednesday night's perfect-game gaffe in Detroit probably deserves its own wing in the Dubious Officiating Hall of Fame, both for the staggering ineptitude of umpire Jim Joyce's call at first base and the ramifications breaking up just the 21st perfect game in major league history. And maybe for the fallout: MLB officials are reportedly meeting to discuss a response to the call, which will almost certainly include a grudging concession to instant replay. At least one forward-thinking outlet has already called for human umps to be replaced by robots, which isn't quite as "Brave New World" as you might think (we have the technology).
As a general seeker of justice, I support replay in every possible situation in sports; sometimes I think it would be useful in most walks of life (then I remember Britain). But where bad calls used to drive me to righteous anger and visions of violent retribution, even in games in which I had no rooting interest or emotional stakes whatsoever, these days I find myself reacting the intense backlash and crusades for justice that accompany particularly controversial calls with more of an attached bemusement. (See, for example, the SEC's decision to suspend the head official who threw a pair of sketchy calls in Florida's win over Arkansas.) It's not that I'm any less committed to the idea of "getting it right." But the notion that there's any foolproof way to actively achieve that goal only strikes me now as absurd. And the reason for that is Oklahoma's visit to Oregon in 2006, possibly the only call in sports history that can be legitimately described as "Kafkaesque":
Instant replay has provided its share of baffling and straight-up bad calls – the infuriatingly tedious application of the "Tuck Rule" in the New England Patriots' playoff win over Oakland in 2001 lives in particular infamy – but compared to the Oklahoma-Oregon onside kick, none in recent memory has scaled the walls of mere "controversy" so completely for the wide-open range of the absurd. There is only one possible response to watching officials stand over a mass of bodies scrapping for a ball that isn't there, seriously debate the matter as an Oklahoma player holds the ball aloft and finally award a phantom recovery to the team the team that had clearly never possessed it – then declare upon further review that video evidence indisputably confirmed a fantasy version of events directly at odds with the video evidence – and that response is laughter. At the creative endurance of chaos and human fallibility, and especially at the irony of their triumph over the systems we put in place in a futile attempt to defeat them.
I don't trust "the human element," but it was on the onside kick, contemplating what the officials could have possibly seen in the pigskin-free pileup that prompted them to signal Oregon possession, that I had to admit some admiration for its persistence.
Oregon scored the game-winning touchdown a few plays later, and that was it. Appeals to justice were futile; there wasn't even an "other side" to argue with. Even the replay official who upheld the call later admitted he knew the call was bogus; appropriately, he was suspended along with the rest of the crew the following week. Oklahoma's president lobbied in vain to have the game stricken from the record, the same way some writers and fans are lobbying (hopefully in vain) for Armando Galarraga to be awarded his perfect game.
But do-overs are for children. Adults put rules and systems in place to deal with potential mistakes as consistently as possible, and live with the results; if they can't live with the results, they change the system. But even the best systems will ultimately operate at the discretion of the people who oversee it, who sometimes reveal themselves to be too old, or nearsighted, or temperamental, or just out of position. Selectively second-guessing certain calls, when there are legitimate complaints in practically every game in every sport, is inevitably a Pandora's box you'll be lucky to get closed again.
Baseball should adopt instant replay as an insurance policy against all of those common defects. They should install the most up-to-date, high-tech monitors on the market and staff them with the most competent people they can find. But as college football fans learned a long time ago, there is really no such thing as "indisputable." When it really comes down to it, once they take those headphones off, it's anything goes. And, as long as they're trying, that's ... okay.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.