SAN FRANCISCO – Baseball always has moved at its own pace, shuffling along like an old pitching coach who’d rather be nowhere else, but can’t seem to get there.
It’s what we love about the game, that it looks the same when our fathers watched, and their fathers, too, no matter how musty in parts.
Change, therefore, often arrives at the same velocity and arc as an Eephus pitch, allowing for rigorous examination and consideration and deliberation, followed by hands-in-pockets pacing, followed by … more talk.
And so as the playoffs leading to the World Series open in ballparks in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, baseball remains stubbornly and – to some – delightfully free of the technological advances that in other sports ensure the final score reflects what happened on the playing field.
A year after several umpires’ miscalls left a small but evident stain on the postseason, baseball remains uncommitted to expanding replay beyond the current system of verifying balls traveling to the left or right of the foul poles and above or below the home-run planes, and wholly against ramping up replay for October alone.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who championed the concepts of realignment, interleague play, the wild card and, two years ago, limited replay, has spoken of being more willing to consider broadening the replay scope. The system of confirming or overturning umpires’ calls has, in most cases, meant short delays and generally agreeable outcomes. But while the commissioner has softened somewhat on extending replay to the foul lines, which have proved an occasional blind spot for umpires, those close to Selig say he fears the reliance on technological arbitration could grow to the point it suffocates the game.
Would close calls on the base paths one day become reviewable? What about balls and strikes?
Meantime, the debate alone nearly swallowed last year’s playoffs, when umpiring crews in New York and Anaheim made calls that television replays revealed to be in error. One, on a fair-or-foul call in Game 2 of the American League division series at Yankee Stadium, cost Joe Mauer(notes) and the Minnesota Twins a leadoff double in the 11th inning. The Twins lost the game and the series. A week later, umpires missed three calls during Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Angel Stadium, two of which cost the Angels. They lost the series to the Yankees.
Those accompanied other, perhaps less blatant, inaccurate calls, and reminded many of past playoff series sent sideways by umpires, among them the 1996 ALCS, in which 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier interfered with Derek Jeter’s(notes) fly ball and turned it into a home run, and the 1985 World Series, when umpire Don Denkinger incorrectly ruled Jorge Orta safe at first, turning the series for the Kansas City Royals.
Then, it was about the umpires. Now, it’s about helping the umpires. When in June umpire Jim Joyce ended Armando Galarraga’s(notes) perfect game after 26 hitters, signaling safe at first base when the runner – Cleveland’s Jason Donald(notes) – was out, expanded replay again became the hottest of topics. When Giants leadoff hitter Andres Torres(notes) on Sunday ripped a line drive that landed on the left-field foul line, spraying chalk as it did, and was sent back to the batters’ box, replay won itself a convert.
“At that moment,” Giants third base coach Tim Flannery said, “I decided it might be a good time to have a little bit more replay.”
In the final game of the regular season, the San Diego Padres needed a win to keep their season alive. The Giants needed the win to become NL West champions. And as the ball struck the line, umpire Mike Everitt pointing foul, Flannery pointing fair, Flannery feared the worst.
“It would have been a tough one to swallow if in fact that would have been the breaking point of a ballgame,” he said, “and the end of a season.”
At breakfast, Flannery was satisfied with the current replay system. By dinner, he’d reconsidered.
“There are things that need to be visited,” he said. “And I think it’s important to the umpires, for them to get it right, so they don’t have to live with it. Look, I don’t know the answer. I just know at that moment I knew how big it could have been.”
In the hours after Mauer’s fly ball in last season’s ALDS should have been ruled a double and wasn’t, and after umpire Phil Cuzzi had viewed the evidence of his mistake, Jeter excused him by saying, “Umpires are human,” and crew chief Tim Tschida explained, “Nobody feels it worse than the umpire.”
Now, it seems, there’s a way to clean up some of the human error and a lot of the heartache.
“I just think it’s all about getting it right,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Umpires are human and they may not see a call and it could dictate who wins a game.”
The players themselves, however, don’t seem so convinced. If they’re willing to live with the outcome, right or wrong – and they aren’t, by the way – where does that belong in the debate?
Generally, they seem to fear endless delays caused by too many disputes, like they see in the NFL on Sundays.
“I wouldn’t touch it,” he said. “You’re asking for four- and five-hour games if you’re going to look at every call.”
And, had their season ended differently because Andres Torres’ sure double was ruled a foul ball, Wilson had a solution for that, too.
“Just don’t give up any chalk-liners,” he said.