It is easy to sit and ask for full-blown, every-call, get-it-right-or-pay-the-price instant replay when it sounds so simple. The technology is there. And if every couch potato with a remote who always fast forwards through the commercials and restarts exactly at the right time can so master a DVR, surely Major League Baseball can give this replay thing a proper whirl.
Here is the problem: It is not realistic, not yet, not when replay has the ability to dramatically alter the way we view baseball. To cast that aside as just an excuse is to ignore the thousands of hours people inside baseball have spent watching games, dissecting scenarios, doing dry runs and trials, and ultimately resolving to wade waist-high into this instead of jumping in headlong.
The truth about replay is this: The extreme likelihood is that it will get bigger and better, and that’s just this iteration. Before the passage of the replay plan proposed to owners this week – one that allows managers to challenge one call in the first through sixth innings, plus two more over the final three innings – it must be ratified by players and umpires, too. And one source at the World Umpires Association said they plan to ask for – and expect to be granted – what amounts to a doomsday trigger: If a manager is out of challenges and an imperative call is close, they can request a replay themselves.
Hopefully, this calms some of the complaining from the baseball cognoscenti that scoffed Thursday when commissioner Bud Selig announced the outline of the league’s replay plan for 2014. That was expected. Of course hardcore fans want full replay on every play. The languid pace of a baseball game suits their sporting tastes and pleasures.
Because baseball has ballooned into a nearly $9 billion business, its game must satisfy a far greater number of people than those with so much invested in it already. Staunch fans will not ditch the sport en masse because of a replay plan that doesn’t fully placate their idea of a replay plan but goes so much farther than the pathetic version in place currently. Casual fans, on the other hand, already plotz at the down time during a game – at relief pitchers taking three minutes to warm up instead of the scheduled 2 minutes, 25 seconds, or batters stepping out of the box after every pitch, or starters taking half a minute in between pitches.
Adding significant interruptions to the game – and make no mistake, they would be significant – is dangerous enough to at least force baseball to whet people’s appetite and see how they react instead of giving them the whole meal and having to take it back because it was all overcooked.
Take, for example, this scenario in full-blown replay, either with a fifth umpire in the press box or a centralized system at MLB’s offices in New York. The bases are loaded. The batter hits a ball to the gap that an outfielder scoops with a fairly obvious trap – one that probably would go unchallenged, as would the relay that comes to the plate where the runner trying to score from first base is called out.
In order: The replay official would need to ensure the outfielder trapped the ball, which takes at least two angles’ worth of replays. Next would be the play at the plate, which, if it were close, would probably necessitate three angles. Can’t forget making sure all three of the runners touched the proper bases on their way home, which totals six bases to worry about. That is one play. Though not nearly as convoluted, there are plenty more in a single game, enough that the average game might find itself 15 or more minutes longer.
To sit there and blame those at MLB for this is wrong-headed. The game itself is to blame. It is not altogether receptive to replay. Non-action time during a game is dreadful enough that Deadspin has started a gallery of people reading books at ballgames. Of course Tony La Russa, John Schuerholz and Joe Torre, the influential members of the league’s Executive Council who helped shape the final plan, would like broader replay in a vacuum. Even Bud Selig, a longtime replay opponent, wants more than this. Anybody who thinks a group of smart men is sitting in a room and conspiring to come up with ways not to get calls right should check out the window, because those black helicopters are mighty close.
Baseball simply doesn’t want to overreach and miss, and its prudence is to be commended. Instant replay will work only if it works, which is to say the public must show it’s willing to accept its detriments before its full benefits can be unleashed. If strong enforcement of pace-of-game rules – players’ objections before the plan is put into place will be about how the league is expected to hound them over doing things faster – happen to offset the time spent on replays, baseball will happily re-open the matter for discussion and expansion.
Schuerholz told as much to owners at the replay meeting in Cooperstown, N.Y. One ownership source said he appreciated the Atlanta Braves president’s candor. Schuerholz said this is the first step of many in replay and that he’s realistic enough to understand there will be changes to it at the end of the 2014 season because of unforeseen scenarios that baseball games so often produce.
Everyone involved, from MLB to the umpires to the players to the managers who themselves aren’t altogether keen on adding another duty to their already-stressful job, admit this is an imperfect system. It is also light years better than what’s in place now and should cut down on a significant majority of the blown calls. The public’s voice in this has been heard, whether it’s convincing Selig to join the revolution or willing the umpires away from their no-way stance three years ago and into their we-want-more position today.
There are plenty of situations where baseball is unreasonable and intractable. This is not one of them. Between now and November, when the final plan is locked in, replay will get better, and between the end of next season and the beginning of 2015, it will improve, too. And that is the point, after all: to change the game for the better, even if it takes few steps instead of a giant leap.
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