NEW YORK – At some point, whether it's the first game of the season or deep into the September pennant push, Major League Baseball's new instant-replay system will unleash a disaster of a call, one that leaves fans caterwauling into the night. Baseball understands this. With thousands of reviewable plays and a fallible technology – yes, even with the tens of millions spent on replay, it's not perfect – expecting any different is expecting too much.
To understand that crucial point is to understand what MLB hopes to accomplish in this first year of replay: progress above perfection. A presentation to about a dozen reporters Wednesday at the MLB.com offices that serve as replay's nerve center was full of detail and technology and enough glistening HD monitors to trigger a seizure. The league outlined its plan, emphasizing transparency and hopeful that spreading the word on replay buys it some goodwill when the inevitable problems occur.
Now, this is not to cast replay in a bad light; on the contrary, MLB's roll-out strategy is by and large a smart one, absent one issue that draws little attention and could fester as an unsolvable conundrum. Rather than jump headlong into full-blown replay without knowing the ramifications or unintended consequences, the league is dipping its foot into the waters of unknown temperature. It took baseball forever to accept the inevitability of replay. The very last thing it needs is to spit the bit in its first year.
Because here is the reality: Replay is going to fundamentally change the game of baseball, change it in a way that takes some acclimation from players, managers and fans. Baseball dreads the idea of doing anything to further isolate its customers, so it has done everything possible to minimize the effect, but it's real. And though it will take some getting used to, this change is very, very good. It will bury the anachronistic notion of umpires' elemental shortcomings being a necessary part of the game and replace it with what everyone should celebrate: getting things right.
Which, as Wednesday's presentation highlighted, will take some time. The plays subject to replay are limited in scope, and because this is baseball – because every game invites some new, crazy going-on – it leaves the league prone to complaints of underserving its mission.
MLB's rules cover most common plays, though some inconsistencies dot the rules. Force plays and tag plays will account for a significant majority of replays. Fair-or-foul and trap calls are reviewable so long as they're in the outfield (no go for those in the infield). Hit-by-pitch case are now subject to replay, as are timing plays (for example: Did a runner score before the last out of an inning?), touching a base (which requires an appeal) and boundary calls (home runs, ground-rule doubles, catwalks, fielders jumping into stands and, yes, Jeffrey Maier, fan interference). Same goes for record-keeping screw-ups like an illegal substitution and an umpire losing track of the outs or balls and strikes.
And that's pretty much it. The walk-off obstruction in Game 3 of the World Series? Nope. The infield-fly rule from the 2012 wild-card game? Sorry. Check swings? Uh-uh. Foul tips? No, sir. Ground balls that may or may not have gone over first or third base? Negative. Tag-ups on fly balls? Denied. The list goes on. It is long. And the league will not consider changing it until the 2015 season.
More than that, fans should gird themselves for the technological limitations that exist. And after a tour of the fancy-shmancy replay control center, where all the magic will happen, plus a live demo that allowed reporters to play the role of replay umpire, this much was abundantly clear: as difficult a job as it is for on-field umpires to get the calls right without the benefit of slow motion, replay umpires' task is far from easy, especially with the expectation they'll render judgment in a timely fashion.
The league hopes the actual analysis of any given play will take between 60 and 90 seconds. Some will be shorter, others longer, and that doesn't include the time managers use to call for a challenge, which, by the way, includes four different scenarios.
If it's a play within a still-live inning, the manager must request a replay from the umpire who made the call in question before the pitcher steps on the rubber and the batter gets into the box. During a pitching change, the manager for the team on the field must do so before he calls for a new pitcher, and the hitting team's manager must do it before the new pitcher crosses the warning track or foul line. After the third out, the manager needs to run onto the field immediately and notify the umpire of a challenge within 30 seconds (or thereabouts; there will be no clock, and the umpire can prompt a manager to call for a challenge if he feels the jawing has persisted long enough). And at the end of the game, it's simple: The manager must immediately issue a challenge, if he still has it in his pocket or wants the umpires to do so at their discretion.
Remember, the system works like this: Each manager gets one challenge. If the call is overturned – by MLB's definition, that means there is "clear and convincing evidence" to change the call on the field – he is given one more. If confirmed – the same evidence threshold except it agrees with the on-field call – he cannot challenge further. Same goes for if the call stands, which is to say there is not clear and convincing evidence to change it. Umpires can request a replay on a play from the seventh inning on, though if a manager has not used his challenge and wants a call overturned, he must call for the replay.
Do not be surprised if calls that stand generate the most controversy. As great as the technology is, replay officials often will be at the mercy of varying conditions. Cameras send clearer video during day games. The number of camera angles for a Yankees game may be 12 because of the YES Network's superior production value, while a small-market team with a lower-budget regional sports network may provide seven angles. And the quality is not always uniform. Some broadcast feeds may utilize a high-speed camera. Others may use cameras that stream at 720p resolution with just 60 frames per second, leading to the sort of motion blur that breeds inconclusiveness.
"Somebody may find a shot that shows you by an eyelash we missed a call," said Joe Torre, the league's executive vice president of operations and unofficial replay spokesman. "That's what I think will happen. Not on a regular basis because the umpires get most of 'em right anyway. Just the fact that if it's too close to overturn, there may be some controversy there."
Controversy is fine. Really. Nothing this big in scope comes without it. The league said it hauled 85,622 pounds of equipment to the 30 ballparks for installation, including a new camera high above home plate that will be standard everywhere, and installed 17,214 miles of video cable. Each team has its own video suite in every stadium, manned by a video coordinator or coach, to help inform the manager whether he should use his challenge. MLB chose to standardize the equipment rather than let one team be limited by its budget or a road team given inferior technology.
During the replay, the crew chief and another umpire – usually the one who made the call – will walk toward a camera bay and don headsets. They will directly communicate with the designated replay umpire for that game. Regular umpires – think Joe West, Angel Hernandez, Jim Joyce and others – will rotate through New York, with eight a week manning the replay suites at MLB.com headquarters. During the challenge, the umpire at the field will communicate with the one in New York, relaying the exact challenge. Managers can ask for replay on multiple parts of a play – say, an outfielder traps a ball that is called a catch, then throws out a runner on a spurious tag – and there could be scenarios in which both managers challenge the same play. Those replays could stretch on for minutes, one of the league's biggest fears, and MLB said it will discipline managers who try to bastardize the intent of the rules.
On busy nights, umpires will watch two games at a time, sitting on the right side of a suite with a technician, who handles the video, on the left. The league chose to centralize the replay center to allow for collaboration. So on a tough call, if West needs a second set of eyes, he can fetch another umpire to assist. That, plus the standardization ensured by the replay center being in a 900-square-foot room with the same technology at every suite and under the supervision of the league, ostensibly gives MLB control over what it expects to be a successful launch.
Much of that depends on how many bad calls it overturns. The league commissioned research on "clear and convincing" incorrect calls from the 2013 season and said umpires definitively blew 377. Of those, MLB said, 86 percent were either force plays (like a runner being safe or out at first base) or tag plays (steals, pickoffs and otherwise). Though this data is rather misleading – there were plenty more wrong calls, except technology did not allow the league to put a number on it – it does show that baseball could see upwards of 400 calls changed this season.
Which is a great step, one to remember when the problems crop up, and they inevitably will. Torre said the league would do a better job of enforcing already-in-place pace-of-game rules to make up for the time spent on replay. Good luck with that. And while no team last season was victimized by three missed calls in one game last year, according to league research, over the course of 2,430 games there's the chance of a team successfully challenging two calls and still getting burned before the umpires'-discretion reviews kick in.
Then there is the nightmare scenario, the aforementioned unsolvable conundrum: placing runners. This could cause the most consternation, even more than a seemingly blown replay call itself. And it is what gives MLB officials agita, because it forces umpires to predict a future they cannot know.
Imagine there's a runner on first base and the batter at the plate hits a diving line drive to right field. The outfielder dives for it and seems to make the catch. The runner on first, about a quarter of the way up the line, scurries back to first base. The outfielder, however, knows he trapped the ball. And so he stands up and fires the ball to second base for what would be a force out.
If the manager appeals the catch and the replay umpire calls it a trap, it is up to the umpire to figure out where the runner on first base goes. Does he put him on second base because if the on-field umpire got the call right in the first place he might have run and been safe? Does he call him out because the right fielder essentially ignored the umpire's call – great precedent to set there – and threw a seed that would have beaten the runner had he chosen to take off?
The problem here is simple: Judgment calls are rife with bias, faulty logic and all sorts of other problems that demand parameters. Only because the game spits out so many different plays, the league cannot plan for them all, leaving it paralyzed by its own best intentions.
Placing runners is a Catch-22, and it's something the league hopes will not invite controversy and torpedo what otherwise is a smart, well-thought-out, well-executed plan. Other minor issues exist – neither the replay umpires nor on-field umpires will answer questions about the replay calls, which seems to contradict the desire for transparency that the league will foster by posting all of its overturned calls and their explanations online – but they're fixable.
Now comes the fun part: gauging the reaction of the customers who pay to go to games and watch them. After years of resisting it, the league started to fast-track replay following the 2012 postseason, when Robinson Cano tagged out Omar Infante at second base for an obvious out and umpire Jeff Nelson called him safe.
"The one thing I didn't want to have happen was have something like that really take center stage over the game itself," Torre said. "That's when I realized we certainly can't ignore the technology. This happens to be what the people want or think they want. We'll find out."
They do want it because, ultimately, they want what's right. There will be bumps and hiccups and issues and all the other things that occur with any multimillion-dollar unveiling. MLB hopes fans can weather them with patience. Perfection is the goal. Progress is a pretty good first step.