Instant replay | Instant replay

Baseball could be about to go the way of most other sports on the planet by embracing technology, in particular the fabled and much maligned instant replay. For something so darn useful instant replay sure generates heated arguments among fans, players, umpires and the media. What is all the hoo-haa about?

There are many arguments why instant replay is bad. Perhaps the one trotted out most is that it undermines the authority of umpires on the field. After all, if the men in black are paid to judge a game then why not let them do it? But is that assertion really true? I think it is an excuse, as there are countless sports in which some form of replay is used to help determine the result.

Take the 100m. Can you imagine trying to determine the positions by eye alone? No, of course not. We use replays and photo finishes to split the protagonists. Another example is a sister sport to baseball: cricket. Cricket uses replays for a whole host of decisions. Controversial run outs can be referred to the TV umpire, as can tight calls when it is difficult to determine whether a long ball went for a four, or six, or in fact stayed inside the park. If you have no clue what I am wittering on about read my article on cricket. (I’ll stoop to any excuse to plug my own content.)

An extreme example is Formula 1 motor racing where Lewis Hamilton, a driver, was hauled before a court of appeal after an amateur video was posted on YouTube showing him driving like a maniac. The video went up five days after the incident! Tennis too. If Roger Federer wants to dispute a line call, then thanks to the modern miracle of technology he can. Add football, rugby, hockey, basketball and NASCAR to the list of sports that have embraced slow-mo. Even Rodeo, that most arcane of sports, has adopted 20th century technology. The “undermining the umpire” argument just doesn’t hold water.

What else?

Let’s turn to a couple of baseball luminaries to get their views on the subject. First the irascible Dan Shaughnessy (quote courtesy of The Boston Globe):

No. No. A thousand times no. Baseball doesn’t need beanbag delays or the sight of Walt Coleman staring into a camera, then changing the course of sports history. It would be nice if the umpires could get together a little more often and help one of their own reverse an obvious incorrect call. This happened with the Red Sox twice in the ALCS last year and that’s the best way baseball can handle it.

Dan’s idea of instant replay is the NFL model, which, I’d proffer, could be improved. There are many examples where instant replays have been implemented to the benefit of the game. Rugby is one such example. Rather that the umps huddling over a camera the footage is projected onto the big screen showing the incident from all angles. In a booth upstairs is another umpire who gets the final say on the decision. Sure it take a minute or so, especially when it is a tight call, but it is exciting as fan involvement adds to the tension.

For instant replays to work in baseball some rules would need to be agreed upon. For instance, only umpires have the right to refer the call to the TV replay—that will certainly keep a lid on the number and will also weed out unnecessary referrals. Another option is to limit the use of replays to specific situations. The one on the table at the minute is for controversial home run calls. One could easily foresee difficulties if the use of replays were extended to, say, running plays. What on earth is the trigger to determine whether the umpire crew should revert to technology?

There is a possible answer and that is to give managers a couple of challenges that can be used at any point in the game, a la NFL and tennis. This could ratchet up fan tension whenever a manager decides to contest a decision.

This would address Shaughnessy’s other qualm, which is that by constantly referring calls to the TV the game takes even longer. With this solution it isn’t the case. If each team is allowed two challenges per nine innings then that is a maximum of four per game. At two minutes per challenge it is an additional eight minutes, which in the scheme of a three-hour game is spare change.

One of Shaughnessy’s colleagues at the Globe had an interesting spin on the concept:

Because there is a 162-game regular season, I feel costly and inaccurate calls against teams balance out. That’s not the case in a five-game Division Series or a seven-game League Championship Series or World Series. Therefore, my proposal is to adopt a replay system for the postseason. Might as well get it right at a time when the games really matter.

Sorry, but that doesn’t wash with me. Bad calls may even out over the whole season, but near the end of the season, the importance of calls is magnified (visions of a “bad call leverage index” are spinning through my head right now). Ask the Padres for their feeling on the call that cost them a trip to the 2007 postseason?

The other counter argument is that isn’t the way we do things in our National Pastime—some things are sacred, and the umpires’ final say on the call is one of them. In fact, the thesis goes, being able to chalk a loss down to a bad call is a way that we humans deal with defeat.

Those sentimental arguments don’t really strike a chord with me. Baseball isn’t some amateur pursuit that people play for fun. It is a serious, professional endeavor with a lot of money at stake. Major League Baseball has an obligation to the teams, the fans, the sponsors and the players to get the big calls right. The ubiquity of TV cameras in ballparks means that every inch of the yard is covered in greater detail than Moscow was at the height of the Cold War. Cameras will get the call right 99% of the time.

And if it is done right, it will pique fan interest and be good for the game.

Come on Bud, don’t procrastinate over this decision. Let’s see some form of instant replay in 2008.

References & Resources
The Boston Globe had some useful articles on the subject, which were helpful.

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