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May 11, 2011

Wezen-Ball

Conflicting Feelings About Instant Replay

by Larry Granillo

Umpires are terrible, right? 

Well, no, not really. But listen to fans in Boston or Tampa Bay or Anaheim or Minnesota or pretty much any other major league city and they'll tell you they are. Recent blown calls - some minor, some major - in those cities can't help but give the everyday fan that opinion. With 24-hour talk radio, high profile cable shows like Sportscenter, Baseball Tonight, MLB Tonight and others, official team blogs and websites, and a countless number of fan blogs all there to analyze any and every movement on the field, a blown call can reverberate like never before. Umpires can turn into household names - for all the wrong reasons - overnight. It's not an easy job.

But that doesn't mean that the umpires get a free pass. Umpires do make mistakes, but they don't have to remain as such. Instant replay, if done right, can make the game of baseball better. It's utterly ludicrous - and, frankly, insulting to fans -  to see a blatantly poor call on the field stand due solely to the umpires' refusal to look at the evidence. It's something we all learn at four years old, when our older brothers tried to frame us for breaking the window even as they held the bat in their hands: give your evidence to the authorities and they'll make it right. And there is no lacking for evidence during a baseball game.

There are at least eight different cameras watching every play in every ball game. Granted, not every camera is focused on the ball at all times and, yes, not all angles are conclusive. We've all seen the bang-bang play at first, where the blurry foot and the blurry ball seem to reach their destinations at the same moment, or the sliding play at second where the ball is obscured by an assortment of limbs and anything can be happening in a four-inch space that could mean the difference between a stolen base and the end of an inning.

But those plays will always be a problem. The plays that scream for instant replay are the ones where cameras all over the field can prove the umpire wrong in a heartbeat. When Jose Reyes slid into third last week well ahead of the throw, he was called out by umpire Marvin Hudson because Hudson thought he saw Reyes take his hand off the bag. Reyes argued until he was blue in the face, but Hudson didn't budge. Of course, Reyes's hand never left the bag, and just about every camera in the park could easily prove it. By not using the available technology, it was as if the umpiring crew that day closed their eyes, stuck their fingers in their ears, and shouted "LA LA LA LA LA!!!" in front of a tv screen.

Or the play in Tampa Bay this week, when Adam Lind swiped a tag at Sam Fuld as he tried to reach first base. Joe West, umpiring at first, had a bad angle on the play (with Lind directly between him and Fuld), but initially called Fuld safe. Angel Hernandez, one of the few umpires with a worse reputation than West, was at second and didn't like the call. The two deliberated for a minute and, when they were done, West had changed his mind, calling Fuld out. As you can imagine, cameras showed that to be the wrong call. Fuld was safe; the tag never came within a foot of his jersey.

Rays' manager Joe Maddon came out to argue the call, but neither West nor Hernandez would back down. Like all calls, the ruling had been made and nothing could change that. Well, nothing except another umpire ninety-feet away calling his colleague over and telling him to change it. But nothing else. Nothing except thatcould change the call on the field. And definitely not instant replay.

When a play is as simple and clear-cut as those examples - and anyone who watches even a little bit of baseball knows that these are not isolated cases - there is little reason not to allow instant replay to overturn them. A system as intricate and complicated as the NFL's, with challenge flags and timeout penalties and whatnot, isn't even necessary. In fact, the system is already built into the game's structure. The Fuld/West example shows it clearly.

The umpiring crew for a standard game consists of four umpires, led by the Crew Chief. On any given play, if the Crew Chief deems it necessary, the umpires can come together after a call is made (and after the play is over) to discuss any particular call. If the responsible umpire then decides that another umpire had a superior look at the play, and that his view clearly showed that the initial call was wrong, the umpire can overturn his initial call, making adjustments to the baserunners as necessary. This is how Sam Fuld went from being safe to out at first base.

To introduce instant replay into this system, all that would be necessary would be to add a fifth umpire to the crew and station him in the press boxes in front of an array of televisions. On any close calls down on the field, the fifth umpire would review the various camera angles and buzz down to the Crew Chief on the field if he feels the call was incorrect. He would be given a limited amount of time to review the video - maybe fifteen or thirty seconds - and would have final authority on any call. Under most game circumstances, the fifth umpire would be completely invisible to the crowd, only making his presence known on an obvious blown call. It's almost too easy of a solution.

I can't take credit for this idea. I've heard various iterations of it for years now, at least since Phil Cuzzi developed temporary blindness in the 2009 American League Division Series. Baseball's umpiring, as good as it is - and believe me, it's miles better than it ever was when Cobb or Ruth or Williams or Mantle or Aaron or even Schmidt were playing - is not perfect. The split-second nature of the out/safe call, the simultaneous action at up to four different bases (not to mention the huge expanse of outfield grass), and the limited nature of the "human effect" all make it impossible for any umpire to be 100% right. A fifth umpire who isn't limited to real-time reactions, and who can fit squarely into the game's pre-existing timeline of action and communication, would remove many, if not all, of these imperfections and blown calls.

There is no good reason for Major League Baseball to not, at the very least, test this system out. For as much money the sport takes in every year, and for as heavily invested fans are to their teams in this day and age, an easily corrected blown call is plain unacceptable.

Of course, this is where my natural tendency towards neutrality gets in the way. There may be "no good reason" preventing MLB from moving forward with instant replay, but there are some reasonable fears. The umpire union, who may not want to be "shown up", and Major League Baseball, who "have tradition on their side", would have to be in favor of the program. Considering that the umpires would be opening at least 20 new jobs and that baseball has shirked tradition in favor of Wild Cards and interleague play in recent years, I think we can leave those arguments on the side.

The real problem that could be holding up an instant replay system is the amount of time it could potentially take. In football, for instance, referees are given two minutes to review a play (that's besides the time it takes to discuss the challenge and then to announce the results). Even on plays that a layman might consider to be obvious, referees rarely take less than the full two minutes. Why? Because once a ruling is taken through an appeals process - which is all instant replay is - the judge (referee, umpire, etc.) is given the responsibility to review all possible evidenceto make sure that the call is 100% right. There is no longer room for error. Fans see instant replay as a commitment to being absolutely correct. The weight of that responsibility forces the judge to be cautious. The fan at home might be screaming "Are you blind?! That's *so* obvious!", but he doesn't pay the same price the official does when he's wrong.

The solution, obviously, is to limit the amount of time a replay review could last. In baseball, where the games are already long enough and officials have to worry about managers gaming the replay system to give their relievers an extra two minutes to warm up, there isn't room for a time-hogging system like that in the NFL (especially since there would be no "red flags" to limit the usage). Thirty seconds should be plenty of time for a fifth umpire to review the kind of "obvious" plays discussed here. If an umpire can't figure it out in thirty seconds of video review, then it must not be all that obvious, right? Plus, that's about how long it takes for the next batter to get to the plate anyway, so it wouldn't be adding any time to the length of the game.

What happens, though, the first time a play reaches that thirty second limit and the umpire lets it stand, only to have someone on the television side of things find an angle two seconds later that overturns it? Once a league tells the world that they are striving to make every call as accurate as possible, fans will settle for nothing less. If a thirty-second time limit proves too short to accurately review all plays, it will undoubtedly be extended until those worries disappear.

The fear, then, is that it would eventually be a one- or two-minute process that would continue to snowball throughout the game. If it already takes 30 seconds for the next batter to come to the plate, wouldn't he just wait until the 30 seconds of review time are up before he made his way to the plate, effectively making it 60 seconds between batters? And what about managers? They already spend two or three minutes arguing bad calls on the field. Why would that change? They'd want an explanation from the umpires one way or another, time limits be damned. Add it all up and instant replay could be a real drag to the game.

Those are the fears I would have with a replay system, anyway, and I'm someone who is mostly in favor of instant replay. I imagine others who are more adamantly opposed have their own reasons. It's a tricky subject to be sure.

In the end, I see no reason for Major League Baseball to completely ignore the possibility. There are too many positives to be gained from implementing instant replay and there is an easily-implemented, unobtrusive system ready to be tested. If fans are to continue taking their sport seriously, the Commissioner's Office owes it to us to show how instant replay will (or will not) work in baseball.

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