The year is 2012. On Sunday, a human being left a pod suspended by helium 24 miles in the air and plummeted to earth at a speed that was faster than sound, in free fall for four minutes and twenty seconds. This was broadcast to us live from several different camera angles to our telephones, computers and televisions. Later that evening, another human being failed to see a base runner get tagged by a fielder in an important baseball game and incorrectly called him safe when he should have been out. This, too, was broadcast to us live from several different camera angles to our telephones, computers and televisions.
While the impressive accomplishment incorporated and embraced technology in order to make it possible, the folly had to ignore and turn a blind eye to available innovations in order to ensure a negatively impactful error.
Perhaps I’m being unimaginative, but I don’t believe there’s much in the way of a valid argument against the purpose of video replay, which is to ensure the most accurate judgment calls possible. All baseball fans want this. We must also admit that humans, alone, simply aren’t able to provide a suitable level of accuracy to meet this desire.
Now, I should clarify. When I refer to instant replay, I’m not writing about balls and strikes. As I’ve expressed before, I actually rather like the idea that no matter how the rules might define it, every single pitch involves a theoretical strike zone space as imagined by an umpire, a pitcher, a catcher and a batter. This battle for interpretation is something that defines baseball, and makes each match up that takes place one that involves the reading and complying of what is essentially a text that’s already been written and interpreted during the previous plate appearances.
Baseball games are often characterized by a strike zone, and a uniform one would make for uniform games, which I don’t believe to be anyone’s goal. I liken an umpire’s strike zone to something similar to outfield fences in different stadiums. They’re unique, and as long as the walls aren’t moving in and out too frequently, they’re a part of the entertainment value inherent in unique experiences. This, to me, is part of baseball’s charm, and when arguments in favor of “the human element” come up, I’m inclined to agree, as long as it pertains solely to the strike zone.
Accuracy in this instance isn’t as important as consistency. And consistency is better made certain by ensuring that good umpires call games rather than relying on a machine or technology to automatically infer whether each pitch is a ball or strike. In addition to this being a soulless prospect that would take away from the character of the game, it wouldn’t be feasible in terms of time or, as we’ve seen before, in stopping conflicts.
However, these excuses don’t exist for actual plays that happen outside of the strike zone. Major League Baseball has already made accuracy a priority when it comes to boundary calls judging home runs and fan interference. The collective bargaining agreement signed this past off season also called for expanded replay on fair-or-foul calls as well as trapped balls in the future, but why stop there? Why doesn’t Major League ensure that safe/out calls are as accurate as possible? This can make a very significant difference in a game.
Evidence A: Robinson Cano, on what should have been a run scoring single, is called out.
Evidence B: Omar Infante (who appears as surprised as anyone), on what should have been the third out of the inning, is called safe.
This is not to push blame toward Game One’s first base umpire Rob Drake or Game Two’s second base umpire Jeff Nelson. Human beings are not perfect. We make errors, and while these two officials made especially important ones, which arguably cost the Yankees both games, they also made several correct observational calls throughout both games. We’re selectively pointing out the very worst in them with these images, which is rarely fair.
These are merely two recent examples of easily correctable mistakes interfering in the outcome of an important game. So, again, why? Why would baseball not extend the same level of replay, which is granted to spectators solely for entertainment purposes, to those whose job it is to actually determine what the replays are making it easy to see? It’s like giving someone a hieroglyphic, asking them to interpret it without assistance, while those judging the interpretation have a literal translation already in hand.
In a non-facetious manner, I’ve asked for arguments against instant replay being used by umpires on several different occasions. I’ve never come across an issue for which the opposition’s argument makes such little sense to me, and so I’ve wondered if I’m not missing something. These are the counter arguments with which I’ve been presented.
It’s About Tradition
Tradition is important, perhaps more so to baseball than any other sport. However, it’s ridiculous to suggest that moving forward with improved practices somehow discredits it.
The athletes who play baseball have evolved, as has the way that fans ingest the game. By not allowing tools for umpires to keep up with faster and stronger players making more agile maneuvers and closer plays, while simultaneously providing these very same tools to the audience for their enjoyment, the competitiveness of the game is at risk of becoming questioned on a frequent basis.
And aside from all this, it’s pretty hard to argue against adaptation to societal change given baseball’s shameful history of discrimination and racism. After all, it’s tradition to not allow African-Americans and several other races not to compete at Major League Baseball. That’s not to compare video replay to racism, but it is to compare the illogical thinking at the root of both issues when it comes to baseball.
It Would Make The Umpires Look Bad
An overturned call doesn’t reflect negatively on the umpire whose original judgement is revised. As we’ve seen in the NFL, fans are typically relieved enough by the correct call being enforced that the official who made the original error is seldom even remembered. If anything, video replay shows how quickly events transpire in real time, and forgiveness, not shame is the end result. In fact, I’d suggest that opinion of umpires would improve, not be denigrated, by the enhancement of replay.
The argument also assumes that umpires get the majority of close calls wrong, which simply isn’t true. More often than not, video replay will serve to confirm that the umpire has made the correct call.
It Makes The Game Longer
Instead of managers arguing calls for what amounts to no tangible reason whatsoever, we’ll have replay requests that actually make a difference. The time it takes to pause a game and have someone watch a play from a couple of angles pales in comparison to the amount of time it takes for a player and a coach and a manager to dispute a call that won’t be overturned anyway. Video replay, if anything, would make the game more efficient, not less.
Stopped Plays That Should Have Continued Are Too Subjective
This argument relates specifically to trapped balls that are originally ruled as catches, as well as fair balls that are originally called foul. If we allow umpires to enforce ground rule doubles and automatic doubles (which are slightly different), and move runners forward according to where they are when the pitch is released, why can’t we allow them to make judgment calls based on where the ball lands and the proximity of the closest fielder? Or, if you feel that this is putting too much power into the hands of the umpire, have a hard rule like the ones that are in place for ground rule doubles and automatic doubles.
Arguing against video replay on the condition that it creates complications fails to take into account that adding a subjective element still protects the game from the greater inaccuracy. Even under a worst case scenario, when an umpire’s judgment on the placement of the batter and the base runners is inaccurate, it’s still, at the very least awarding a hit and advancement that otherwise wouldn’t have counted. Obviously, the less subjective calls are in the field, the better, but in this case, it’s the lesser of two evils.
The Cost Is Prohibitive
Estimates place the cost of additional cameras and staff to create an enhanced replay system at a dollar figure between $30 million and $40 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but to put it into context, Major League Baseball will earn $12.4 billion from their television deals alone over seven years. Taking a million dollars out of each team’s pot will hardly break any banks. In fact, we might go so far as to suggest that it’s a small expense to further ensure the legitimacy of the game.
I’d also add a question wondering if there is a greater cost than the potential for a Jim Joyce-level mistake leading to a World Series Champion.
It Eliminates Entertaining Arguments
If you truly feel that the arguments between managers and umpires are an integral part of your baseball watching experience, I would invite you to first consider that you are doing it wrong, and then use the MLB.com video archives and YouTube to watch until your heart is content. There should be enough of those confrontations available for viewing to render new ones as hardly necessary.
The end result in all of this is that the rules are in place to make the sport interesting. It’s the limitations in baseball that ultimately provide us with entertainment. Without them, it would be little more than the chaotic recess of an elementary school. If these rules aren’t enforced equally, the competition that baseball fans love becomes less legitimate. And we’re already to starting to see this with the increased wariness controversial calls are receiving from baseball fans.
That’s not to suggest that umpires are any worse than they’ve ever been. It merely means that we have more ways of telling that they’re wrong now than we did before. Major League Baseball and the umpires themselves should stop viewing this as a bad thing. My perception is that baseball thinks of replays showing bad calls as something of a pesky hindrance, when the truth is that it could and should consider using it as a tool that goes beyond an umpire’s observational skills and allows those officiating games to acquire a stronger level of authority.
There have been hopeful moves in positive directions, at least in terms of comments from the MLB Commissioner, but the likelihood of modern baseball broadcasts uncovering a terrible call in an important game is enough to make baseball fans not only hope for their favorite teams while watching a game, but also a fair contest without incident. This is something that a fan shouldn’t have to worry about, and it’s a worry that umpires shouldn’t have to face either.
All we ask is that they get it right, and that they be given every tool to do so. I don’t understand anything that’s wrong with that.