Instant replay is not a cure-all to the incompetence of umpires who forget rules, the uselessness of those who butcher calls and the hubris of those who delight in confronting and ejecting players and managers because they can. It is a salve, something on which Major League Baseball can use as proof that slowly it's targeting officiating issues and irradiating them.
[Y! Sports Radio: Jeff Passan talks instant replay expansion and other hot topics]
For now, it is on the owners to do their part. During what is expected to be a fairly uneventful set of owners' meetings in New York on Wednesday and Thursday, replay will meet another important juncture, according to sources: Receiving support, approval and, most vital, funding from ownership.
This is not the fait accompli it should be. Replay is terribly divisive because it offers so many possibilities. Some owners want a full-blown, replay-everything system. Others prefer it with challenge flags or believe it should stay how it is. And there are even holdouts who would just as soon not have any whatsoever. Getting 30 people worth a combined tens of billions of dollars to agree on anything takes consensus-builders extraordinaire, and that's the role Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz and MLB executive vice president Joe Torre must play.
They will front a meeting Wednesday with the league's executive council, a powerful group of owners who then will take the discussion points back to the full group of owners to consider solutions for implementation by the 2014 season. The two most important issues are intertwined with one another: What sort of replay is best for the sport, and how much will it cost?
Idealistically, owners will embrace the widest possible breadth of replay for what it offers: an antidote to umpiring fallibility and the ability to get the greatest number of calls right. Surely the question will arise about why they should invest tens of millions of dollars in replay when the current system produced the Angel Hernandez home run fiasco of last week, to which the answer will be: Angel Hernandez is exactly why we need replay. And every head will nod.
The financial figure, by the way, is no drop in the bucket. The final cost will depend on how much replay gets implemented. If it does what it should – a full replay hub in New York, with high-speed transmission of multiple camera angles that allow the centralized officials to render unbiased judgments on the umpires' calls that they themselves cannot – the tab will run well into eight figures. Should MLB contract out any proprietary technology to build what it wants rather than retrofitting another company's systems, that only will add to the cost.
Replay proponents should sell that cost to the owners this way: The league wants to ensure human error does not ultimately aid and abet sporting injustice. For $2 million or $3 million per team to start, replay can ensure baseball gets it right almost every time.
No technology is airtight, though in replay's case we often can chalk its imperfections up to operator error – #angel – than issues with the technology itself. And rest assured, with a system the most progressive people in the sport envision, not only will there be checks and balances to ensure one person doesn't bungle important calls, someone, a la Mike Pereiera with the NFL, will be there to explain exactly what's going on and how the most crucial calls were decided.
The trickle-down effect of replay is an important point not harped on nearly enough. Currently, MLB tracks its umpires through large amounts of data – what percentage of balls and strikes they get right, how often they make the proper call on close plays and other vital pieces of information. Still, because of the umpires' union, the league has only so much power in using such objective measures to get rid of the worst umpires. The league announcing the two-game suspension of Fieldin Culbreth for forgetting Rule 3.05(b) in the Angels-Astros game this week was a departure from the usual in-house wrist slapping.
Replay will make the umpires significantly more accountable for their mistakes, and this is a very, very good thing. While it runs the risk of giving players even more power in the odd dynamic between them and umpires, it gets more obvious by the unwarranted ejection or umpire blowup that the curtain must be pulled on them. If replay embarrasses umpires, there is a solution: Get the damn call right.
Umpires' jobs are incredibly difficult, and most of them do an excellent job. Baseball is no different than the NFL or NBA: the search for competent officials is a top priority, and it almost never bears fruit, no matter how many camps or clinics the league offers.
The fiascos last week reminded baseball this is a real issue, not one manufactured by a public that needs something to complain about. Some of the problems will take time, which is fine. Replay cannot. It is the first step, the most important, and needs the support in principle and pocketbook of owners.
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