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MLB: More Embarrassment is the Only Spur to Expanded Instant Replay

There is only one prediction here. Five years after Torre finally works out the kinks in the replay system and it’s established, everyone will wonder what took so long, and what the fuss was all about? And we’ll have full employment of four umpires working each game, the human factor still predominant in making calls as with all other sports.

MLB: instant Replay
MLB: instant Replay

Oct 23, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Umpires huddle after Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (not pictured) was initially ruled out on a fielder’s choice at second base during the first inning during game one of the MLB baseball World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. The play was overturned and Pedroia was ruled safe. Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Quiet is the way baseball wants it as they finally transition to a widespread video replay system.

The grand ol’ (fashioned) game came off a World Series without umpiring controversies, save a two-minute interlude to end Game 3 with a Cardinals victory. The interference call on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks was clear-cut, with no disputes with managers melting down on the field. Baseball’s sensitivity to bad umpiring calls was manifested in the post-game press conference of both Jim Joyce, the veteran who made the call, and MLB operations director Joe Torre. There would be no carry-over into the next game. End of story.

Thus if Torre and commissioner Bud Selig can finally implement the comprehensive replay for 2014, they’ll start with a  clean slate without the bad taste of a bad call that could have been reversed via video.

Amazing, though, how baseball changes only when thoroughly embarrassed.

The gambling and attempts at game-fixing that infested the sport at all levels wasn’t addressed until the Black Sox were exposed a year after fiddling with the outcome of the 1919 World Series. Interestingly, the subterfuges weren’t totally stamped out for another decade with original commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis apparently looking the other way when reports of gambling involving Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Since the late 1920s, there has been no rumbling of fixes other than then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s investigation of Cubs manager Leo Durocher for suspicious game management in 1969 and Pete Rose’s  compulsive betting on his own team in the 1980s.

Steroids established a squatter’s seat in baseball’s back hallways and off-shore locations until the power numbers reached sci-fi levels. The public demanded action while some of the guilty parties looked like fools in Congressional testimony. So now MLB has the toughest testing program – until the next generation of performance enhancing drugs takes root one step ahead of the testers. The ultimate game of failure features its performers trying anything, anytime to beat the system. Cheating is baseball’s constant companion.

We could write an entire book about the slow pace of integration from Jackie Robinson forward. Suffice to say, the laggard teams like the Red Sox were thoroughly embarrassed before they dropped their own color lines.

Replay is no different in showing how baseball resisted doing the right thing. Selig held out as long as possible while all other pro sports marked the start of their own video programs as almost ancient history. A hero here is Torre, as upstanding a player, manager and executive as has worked in the game in the last half-century.

Joyce’s egregious final-out blown call that cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010 did not move the chains toward extensive replay even though high-definition cameras were installed at all ballparks by this point. Selig continually claimed he felt no groundswell for expansion of replay other than “boundary calls,” even as the HD eyes exposed even more umpiring errors. Technology had finally caught – and passed – the human element that so many baseball traditionalists feel is vital in the sport. To err is human, they say. Blown calls are as part of the game as fumbled grounders was their flawed logic.

Enter Torre in his post-manager’s calling. He realized a tipping point was reached during the 2012 postseason.

“Last year when so much was made of a missed call at Yankee Stadium in the postseason,” Torre said during the Civil Rights Game weekend in Chicago in August, “I just found that more people were talking about the misplay than the game itself. At that point we realized we needed to look at a broader spectrum of this thing.”

MLB Instant Replay

August 7, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; The umpires return after watching replay to call a home run for the Oakland Athletics during the sixth inning at O.co Coliseum. Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Where going into 2013 replay expansion was  going to be limited to  fair/foul calls and trap plays in the outfield, the adverse fan reaction obviously pushed Torre and Co. to speed up the process of installing replay for all plays except balls and strikes. Implementation,  of course, requires approval by the umpires – always wondering about the slippery slope the video eye might generate – and the Players Association.

The general outline apparently calls for a specific number of manager challenges per game. Funny, that’s what Galarraga advocated – two per manager per game – a few months after his lost perfecto. Too late to help the right-hander, out of the majors by 2013.

I continually checked to take the temperature about replay from the Galarraga game forward. Selig was right. Even among the player ranks, there was little appetite to expand replay with seeming acceptance of not getting the call right due acceptance of the human factor.  More recently, top agent-provocateur A.J. Pierzynski criticized the attempt to expand to everything but balls and strikes. That would eliminate the manager arguments which Pierzynski enjoys, and which he claims fire up a team. He didn’t say the arguments, and resulting ejections, would take up more time than the actual video-review process.

Bob Brenly stood out against the vast majority in his own advocacy. The 2001 World Series-winning Diamondbacks manager and crackerjack TV color analyst wanted to see wall-to-wall replay, including balls and strikes. Brenly believed umpires haven’t kept up with the increasing speed and pace of the game with their positioning and pacing.

Galarraga backed up that analysis in 2010.

“Before, it was more easier to call (pitches) behind home plate for a guy throwing 85, 86 (mph),” he said. “Well, nobody’s throwing 85 or 86 anymore. It[‘s hard to see a fastball thrown 96, 97 and being located. The umpires have to practice more. I don’t know how they can (specifically) do it.”

One internal umpiring analysis focused on the timing of calls. In Joyce case, that would be too quick on the trigger. Another concern at the ownership level was the non-standardization of camera positions, as each ballpark is designed differently. Replay views thus would be taken from different positions, and despite great close-up lenses that created a shadow of a doubt.

I can see why if I was an umpire, enjoying a modicum of job security, I’d be nervous. Just as the internet and instant news transmission is threatening to put newspapers out of business, HD technology seems headed toward development where balls and strikes can be called accurately and automatically.  The calls would be more pure than the subjective analysis of each ump interpreting the zone differently. One guy calls low strikes, another doesn’t. A strike is a strike according to the rules.

But other sports haven’t laid off their officials as replay has developed.  At the Stanley Cup Finals in Philadelphia in 2010, right after the Galarraga game, several star players re-affirmed that replay was an important part of the game. A year later, NFL referee trainer Jerry Markbreit said baseball was 20 years behind pro football in the use of replays.

“Just because other sports had it didn’t mean that we had to automatically jump into it,” Torre said. “Our game’s a little bit different than other sports. We don’t have built-in time outs. We have half innings. We were concerned about the rhythm of the game.”

There is only one prediction here. Five years after Torre finally works out the kinks in the replay system and it’s established, everyone will wonder what took so long, and what the fuss was all about? And we’ll have full employment of four umpires working each game, the human factor still predominant in making calls as with all other sports.

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