Sunday, January 19, 2014
Former big league umpire Dave Pallone once set me straight on the credibility of the men in blue in the baseball diamond.
“Remember, we umpires may not always be right, but we’re never wrong.”
He’s right. The arbiters of the game might miss a call here and there, but their word is final. You’d have better luck protesting at a show trial.
But what is this? Baseball is about to pop open a bottle and let a genie out that has been corked inside for over 125 years.
Get ready for challenge flags and even more TV timeouts. Prepare yourself for confusion. Is this reviewable? Is that?
Video replay is about to be unleashed on the game, and unlike before, where it trickled out for a few select plays, this time Bud Selig isn’t messing around. He’s dumping the genie out fully with a big plop.
Someone once said of baseball’s lazy allure, “In baseball, you can’t run out the clock, like in other sports. You have to get 27 outs.”
Baseball and time have always had a relationship built on trust; they agree not to interfere with each other.
Umpiring the game has been no small part of this timelessness.
Even when technology grew legs and could walk around and visit every game known to man, sprinkling its advances like Johnny Appleseed, baseball always managed to stay unexplored. It was the unconquered game in that respect.
The means to allow umpires to have a peek at video replay to aid in decision making has been present since the 1960s. But half a century went by before baseball seriously considered using it.
The game that has survived the Black Sox, the reserve clause, spit balls, sign stealing, collusion, the designated hitter and George Steibrenner will soon have another cross to bear.
Selig, the outgoing commissioner, apparently wants to be known for more than a tied All-Star game and the wild card.
So he’s about to shove video replay—serious, some-holds-barely-barred replay—down our throats.
This is more than just the occasional home run, fair or foul calls that are now subject to review. Selig is opening up a whole array of plays that will now send the umpiring crew off the field and under a hood.
The list of plays of which managers can begin to challenge umpires’ judgment starting this upcoming season isn’t pretty, if you’re a baseball purist.
The Chicken Little people will tell you that baseball is taking a giant leap toward making every ball and strike an issue. The “let’s get the call right” people will tell you that any delays caused will be worth it.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
But there is one indisputable repercussion.
Once the videotape machines start whirring, there’s no going back. It’s not too maudlin to say that the game will be changed forever.
Baseball doesn’t change itself forever very often. I guess it figures that it got 90 feet for base paths right on the first try back in the 1850s, so it can be filled with hubris if it wants.
Once Bud Selig’s expanded replay system starts spitting out videos, we won’t have another Don Denkinger or Jim Joyce to kick around anymore, that’s for sure.
Denkinger famously blew a safe/out call at first base in the 1985 World Series that cost the St. Louis Cardinals a game—and maybe the series itself.
Tigers fans and Joyce need no introduction after the latter picked a horrible time to be human in 2010, robbing Armando Galarraga—remember him?—of a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, also with a missed call at first base.
We aren’t likely to have any more poster children for blown calls, once managers start using NFL-like challenges and more and more final words are taken from the umpires on the field.
Sounds good, right? The “get it right” people are doing a happy dance.
Since the 19th century, I’d say baseball got along just fine without halting play and making sure that every call was beyond reproach.
Despite the voluminous list of calls subject to review starting in 2014, not every play is covered. So there will still be plays that affect games which could go against a team unabashed.
The trouble with creating subjective lists of plays that are reviewable, is that inevitably plays are left out that will enrage TV viewers in their incorrectness, yet nothing can be done about them.
So baseball will have created a whole new set of problems.
It’s like changes to playoff systems. The more fair you try to be, and the more teams you include, the more changes and tweaks you have to make to validate those already installed.
You think more people have been placated by MLB’s playoff tweaks than were offended before the addition of the wild card in the first place?
Hard to say. But the fact that the answer isn’t clear, says something.
Baseball’s expanded use of replay in 2014 will include everything from safe/out calls to hit by pitch to trapped catches to tag and forced plays, and more. Managers will be allotted two challenges each up to the seventh inning, after which time Big Brother takes over and determines what is going to be reviewed or not.
You can say that if the technology is there, why not use it. You can say that there’s nothing wrong with getting a play right.
You can also say this. Once the videotape machines take over, baseball’s sense of timeliness goes away forever. We’ll be subject to on-screen clocks that are tracking how long reviews are taking to be completed. More fans will be looking at their watches.
Suddenly, a game that has been played at its own pace in time frames ranging from 90 minutes to four hours per match, for over 150 years, will be overshadowed at times by Father Time.
Managers will freely use their challenges—you can count on that, especially in the new system’s initial years. Callers to sports talk radio, as if they need anything else to bitch about, now have another bone with which to pick with their team’s manager.
The talk around the water cooler the morning after a game won’t be about Miguel Cabrera’s home runs or Max Scherzer’s strikeouts. It’ll be about “that challenge” in the fourth inning.
Will more calls be right than were before? Well, that’s the punch line. I have a feeling that video replay will support the original call on the field far more often than not. So play will be halted for several minutes, only for everyone to be told that the original call made by human eyes was not so bad, after all.
And the cry of “Play ball!” will need to be repeated over and over, between challenges and reviews.
How long before we look back longingly at baseball’s “pre-booth review” days?