I was an unabashed proponent of expanded instant replay in MLB, believing it was foolish to let incorrect calls stand when the technology existed to make it right.
Suddenly, that conclusion is being challenged all around baseball. Upon further review, I’m going to uphold my initial conviction, because the evidence to overturn it remains inconclusive.
But that doesn’t mean that instant replay, in its early unveiling, has been foolproof. Far from it. You’ve had clunky, time-consuming reviews; unnecessary reviews instituted merely because the manager had a challenge to burn; and challenges that couldn’t be issued because the manager had already burned the one he had.
Most troubling of all, however, have been the (apparent) incorrect calls meted out after the replays had been scrutinized back at the command center in New York. After all, that was the point of the whole thing in the first place: Get it right.
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So you have Boston manager John Farrell saying Sunday night, after two challenges over the weekend went against the Red Sox, when it appeared to all the world that they were on the right side of both, “It’s hard to have any faith in the system.”
So you have National manager Matt Williams saying, after losing a challenge that again appeared to be conclusive in his favor, “I’m extremely frustrated by the process at this point. Because if they’re seeing the same feed that we’re seeing, I don’t know how he’s out.”
And you have Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, telling reporters in Seattle on Sunday, “I’m really worried about where we’re headed with replay and the effect it’s having on the games and the effect it’s having on the fans.”
I’m right with him. Not worried enough to scrap the system, mind you. Through Sunday, there had been 185 games played, 84 calls reviewed, and 28 (33 percent) overturned. Even with a few glitches in the mechanics of the process, that’s a lot of umpiring miscues being corrected. Eventually, some gruesome gaffe, along the lines of the safe call that negated Armando Gallaraga’s would-be perfect game, is going to be rectified, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief that replay exists.
But in the meantime, there are still a few “hiccups” — to use Tony La Russa’s phrase in an ESPN interview — to eliminate, if MLB wants to restore the faith of Farrell and other doubters.
La Russa, Joe Torre and Braves president John Schuerholz were at the forefront of developing the current challenge system. That’s a lot of baseball brainpower. But even Schuerholz cautioned last year that it would take three years to perfect the system, telling MLB.com, “This is historic, and, as you can tell, quite complex. Every time we peeled back one layer of the onion, we found more complexities.”
One thing that’s not so complex, and must be fixed, pronto, is making sure that the $30 million Replay Operations Center, where the decisions are made, has access to the same television angles as home viewers.
MLB admitted that a play Saturday, when Yankees shortstop Dean Anna appeared to be tagged out by Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts after sliding into second with a double, then stepping off the bag, had been called incorrectly. Farrell challenged the safe call, but after the review process, it stood. MLB spokesman Michael Teevan said the replay ruling was incorrect because “the conclusive angle was not immediately available.”
That’s inexcusable, but this miscue actually doesn’t concern me. I’m no technical genius — hold your laughter — but I’ve got to think that it won’t take much reconfiguring to make sure that the folks doing the review get the best angles. Especially if they’re already available in the television broadcast.
Of more concern to me, as the onion gets peeled, are the subtle changes to the time-honored rhythms of the game. For example, the appealing spectacle of a manager charging out of the dugout for a nose-to-nose argument has been replaced by the slow stroll onto the field after a close play, the manager delaying the confrontation until he gets the signal from his bench on whether to challenge. The phrase “turning the ump” has been coined for the managerial technique of positioning the argument so he can see into the dugout.
Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Lou Piniella or Earl Weaver abiding by those guidelines. Not only that, the delays while the replays get scrutinized are a new intrusion on what many already perceive as a slow, boring sport. While Schuerholz predicted last fall the game would actually speed up, because arguments took longer than the expected time of replay review, it sure hasn’t seemed that way.
But I suppose we’ll get used to all that, and I trust the process will get snappier. We’ll also eventually get used to the strategy of when, or if, to utilize your replay. The Giants already have had a situation this year where manager Bruce Bochy unsuccessfully challenged a call early in the game, and thus didn’t have a challenge available for a close call in the sixth inning.
But as La Russa said last year in an interview with MLB.com, “We told our managers at the Winter Meetings, ‘You have tough decisions in the game. That’s what they pay you for. If those bother you, you’re doing the wrong job.’ ”
It’s the new normal in baseball, and we’ll all adjust to it, just like we adjusted to interleague play, expanded playoffs, and — yeah, I’m old — the designated hitter. The alternative — blatantly bogus calls being allowed to stand — is untenable.
But for those of us with a lifetime of looking at baseball in a particular way, it’s not surprising that it all still seems so, well, off-kilter.
Intellectually, I know replay is here to stay. I’m just trying to find the proper angle.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.