The Folly of Replay

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I was drug kicking and screaming into this world of baseball instant replay, but I’m here. The 2014 season is in full swing, and along with it so is Major League Baseball’s new system of reviews and play challenges. I have come to accept the that expanded replay is here. That now that it has burst through the game’s front door it is not going to be going away. Ever.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Ever.

This whole replay movement wasn’t driven by the players. It wasn’t driven by the managers, the umpires, the owners or the commissioner’s office.

No. This cause was championed by the sports media. Men and women who, with the help of HD television and the instant access medium of the Internet began crying foul with every perceived umpiring injustice they could make an argument about.

“Get with the times, baseball! Stop being old, irrational traditionalists and embrace technology. Every other sport is doing it!”

Every other sport may be doing it, but none of made the blown call go extinct.

The pursuit of perfection is just that – a pursuit. One that is never-ending because it is unattainable.
No matter how much technology is implemented into the game; no matter how many camera angles are provided to its umpires; no matter how often the commissioner’s office tries to rewrite the rules governing reply, there will never be a Major League Baseball with absolutely no missed calls.

There will inevitably always be mistakes made at some level. It’s impossible to eradicate imperfection.
The notion that we should try and get every call right is idealistic and aspirational. It comes from a good place. But in practice, continued expanded use of replay comes with costs that hurt the sport as much as helps it.

The rollout of baseball’s new replay system has been exciting, but in just two weeks it has already blossomed into controversy and debate.

It has put a microscope to some of elements of the game, the minutia of which were never expected to be so closely examined when the rules of the game were written.

The most recent example of replay controversy is the best example of this point.

This past weekend, Red Sox manager John Farrell was ejected for arguing a reviewed call at first base (the rules provide that arguing any call made after replay review is an automatic ejection). With runners on first and third in the fourth inning of a game against the Yankees, the Red Sox believed they had turned an inning-ending double play after Francisco Cervelli was called out on a bang-bang play at first. Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged the call, which was overturned because – while the ball got to the first baseman’s glove in time, the ball was not actually squeezed until after Cervelli had reached.

So apparently, in order for a catch to be made on a put out, the ball has to reach the glove AND the player has to squeeze the ball with the glove; the player has to demonstrate control and possession.

Who knew? The answer: no one, really, because never before have umpires had to review these types of bang-bang plays in slow motion. Previously, these types of calls were made on the field and in the moment. The umpires would look at the play, see whether the ball or the runner reached first, and had the benefit of pausing to ensure that the ball was actually controlled and caught by the fielder prior to making a call.

With replay, distinctions and clarifications like this will continue to be necessary. The rule book will have to be updated as reviews require new and more intricate definitions.
For example, the way the rules of baseball are written there is no such thing as a “tie”. The notion that “the tie goes to the runner” is an age-old myth. According to the rule book, either the ball/tag gets there first or the runner gets there first. Period. In every case.

So what happens when replay – slowed down to the millisecond – seems to show that the ball/tag and the runner arrive at the exact same time? If the call on the field was an “out”, there would not be conclusive evidence to show that the runner got there first, which means the call on the field would have to stand. Good luck explaining that one to players, managers and fans. The outrage would be explosive.

It was already palpable just the day before Farrell’s ejection, after the Yankees’ Dean Anna was ruled “safe” at second on a double. A replay on the network broadcast clearly showed Anna’s foot briefly came off the base as he stood up, and that shortstop Xander Bogaerts was holding the tag on him. However, this conclusive angle wasn’t available over in New York’s replay headquarters, so the umpires making the judgment there didn’t have enough to overturn the call. The MLB later admitted the call had been missed.

There are only so many places Major League Baseball is going to be able to place its official replay cameras. It’s impossible to ensure that those official lenses are able to capture every conceivable angle of potential plays. Nowadays, almost all of the game-attending populous has cameras on their phone. Television broadcasts are in high definition and feature extreme slow-motion lenses capable of capturing the action like we’ve never seen before. The Anna/Bogaerts play will not be the last of its kinds. The public again will find itself watching a replay provided in the ballpark that clearly shows what the call should have been, but the men behind the screens in the New York nerve center – the guys actually making the calls on replay review – will not be privy to the same shots.

These two examples are from just one weekend of MLB action. Already, outcries that the system is broken and needs serious repair have flown from the same media talking heads to demanded replay in the first place.

But the pursuit of perfection is like Ponce de Leon’s quest for the fountain of youth. It can’t be completed, because that which the baseball writers and fans are searching for doesn’t exist.

And it comes with a great cost. Baseball is already perceived in this country as a boring sport. The pace is too slow, there is too much downtime and too many delays between pitches and innings and at-bats. Replay will only further that.

To those that naysay that point, just look at how the final minutes of the NCAA Tournament games this year played out. Replay was crippling; it brought the flow of the game to a near stand-still.

Replay proponents rest on the idealistic notion that it’s more important than anything else that the calls are right, so that a missed call doesn’t determine the outcome of a game. But a reviewed call can kill a team’s momentum. That, too, can determine the outcome of a game – and is probably more likely to do so than a solitary debatable call.

I know there is no turning back. That’s the thing about progression; it’s all about moving forward. Replay in baseball will not be undone. It will be further tweaked and modified and revamped as we continue to see glaring errors, omissions and defects in the system in play.

But no matter what baseball does – no matter how many man hours it commits, no matter what new technology in installs and no matter how much money it invests –no game will ever be called perfect.

That is the folly of replay.

Respectfully,

Matthew N. George
Attorney

About Matthew George

Matthew George graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2008 with a bachelor of science in journalism. He spent three years writing sports for the Kentucky Kernel, the university's daily paper, and served as assistant sports editor. After undergrad, Matthew attended Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University where he earned his juris doctorate. He is now admitted to practice law in Kentucky and Indiana.

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