Friday, November 15, 2013

Let There Be Replay, at Long Enough Last

By Jeff Kallman

"I'm for the game the way it is," Tommy Lasorda said, emphasis on is. "It's been like that for years. And I think it should stay that way." Lasorda was one of several Hall of Famers discussing instant replay, which the owners have now voted to go forward with a major expansion of using instant replay in 2014.

Imagine if Lasorda had said those words about, say, the old and discredited reserve clause. "It's been like that for years" finally didn't cut muster when Messersmith-McNally went to arbitrator Peter Seitz. It sure as hell didn't cut muster when Happy Chandler gave Branch Rickey his blessing to sign Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It finally didn't cut muster, more or less, when it came time for the owners to vote the proverbial brass tacks.

Appropriately.

The owners met Thursday and approved the funding. They'll vote and are expected to approve precise rules come January, after they finish hashing them out with the Major League Baseball Players Association and the World Umpires Association. Current and former umps would be the ones to rule contested calls from New York while watching games and replays.

Currently only contested home runs and foul line balls can be subject to replay. How will expanded replay work? Managers get two challenges a game and no more, and successful challenges won't count against the limit. Managers running out of challenges would mean umpires likely to call reviews on their own. With apologies to Groucho Marx, it seems so simple a child of five could understand it. Based on some other Hall of Famers' responses to the issue, someone should have sent them a child of five.

Earl Weaver got it. "As long as you've got human error involved," he said in an interview before his death, "and the umpire's seeing a play one way and you're seeing it the other way, the only way to decide it, the correct way, is through technology."

That came from a man who refined arguing with umpires into his own singular art. If Weaver stood for nothing else during his long and distinguished managing career, he stood for getting it right. Whether regarding his players on the field or the umpires on the calls. Lasorda wasn't exactly a shrinking violet when it came to a debate with an umpire or three, but leaning on the game the way it "is" and has "been like" for years leaves him in the dinosaur cage.

"I think it helps the game," said Tony Gwynn. "It helps the fans. I think it helps both teams. Because, again, the objective is to get the call right."

Gwynn must have been watching the World Series closely last month. Game 1 in particular. When it took less time for a television viewer to realize St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma never got his hands on a first inning ball toss behind second base, intended as a double-play relay on to first, than it took for an entire six-man umpiring crew to overrule Dana DeMuth's incorrect out call.

The ball bumped the web of Kozma's glove and fell to the ground. He never got so much as a fingertip on the ball. DeMuth called out; the crew overruled. By the time the umps finished their review, viewers at home saw four television replays showing Kozma never touched the ball for any kind of out. The error led to Mike Napoli banging a double off the Green Monster and three runs home when left fielder Shane Robinson bobbled the carom, enabling even rumbling David Ortiz (whose grounder to second started the controversy in the first place) to score from first.

"The only time I want all that instant replay, I mean all that stuff," said Al Kaline, "is during the playoffs and the World Series, because you hate to go home on a bad call." How about down the stretches of tight pennant races? Would you thrive on blowing a trip to the postseason because of a bad call? What about a pitcher who's one out from a perfect game — Jim Joyce's prompt apology notwithstanding, do you think in his heart of hearts Armando Gallaraga was thrilled to go home knowing he'd lost a perfecto on a blown call?

If it isn't broken, don't call the repairman. That's sound as a nut. But when you can fix something that can and too often does mean something less than fair play, that's not sound, that's nuts.

Harmon Killebrew wasn't nuts by any definition of the term, but the inappropriately-nicknamed Killer (there may have been no gentler giant this side of Frank Howard in his time) stood squarely on the side of the dinosaurs before he died. "To me it's the human element part of the game," he said about replay before his own death. "I think that should stay that way. Maybe I'm from the old school, but I think that's the way it ought to be played."

Don Denkinger doesn't. The man whose ninth-inning blown call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series made his name mud in St. Louis got on board with instant replay several years ago. It didn't do much to sooth those Cardinals, but it does plenty to atone for his missing a call that everyone in Royals Stadium including the surprised but grateful Royals knew he'd blown.

"There are so many areas you can use instant replay," Denkinger told the New York Post in 2010. "Maybe instant replay can clean things up. If a play is missed, it can be corrected. I didn't feel that way in '85, but I feel that way now"

The manager who fumed over Denkinger's miss, Whitey Herzog (who once gave Denkinger a Braille watch, good-naturedly, at a commemoration of the '85 Cardinals' pennant), has been saying it for years, just the way he said it in his splendid memoir, You're Missing a Great Game: "Bad calls at the bases and along the foul lines can be fixed in two seconds with a look at video," wrote the White Rat. (Did I mention he's a Hall of Famer, too?) "You'd have to put some limits on it, but that's what we ought to do. Like I said, this is for the championship — let's get it right."

Jim Bunning concurs. "Is the whole intent to get the play right, or isn't it?" asked the Hall of Fame pitcher turned U.S. Senator. That should have been the sole question around the issue. "Yes, umpires make mistakes. But if you have a replay, and you can correct it, that would take the human element out, and it should be taken out if it's wrong."

Doug Harvey, one of the better National League umpires for many years (he called many a game Bunning pitched), demurred. "You're taking all the humanity out of baseball if you're gonna do that," the Hall of Fame umpire said. Why don't we just get robots and let them play the game? I mean, if you don't need umpires out there and you can put robots out there, why do we need ballplayers?"

That argument is as erroneous as the one thrown up by the human elementalists saying reviewing or replaying a play is going to take up a crushing amount of time. No staunch replay advocate of my acquaintance ever wanted the umps taken out of the game. But the Kozma miscue should have shot the time element to pieces. If that didn't, the Jim Tracy argument of 2012 should have.

Then the Colorado Rockies manager, Tracy got into a row over a shallow fly ball that was trapped, not caught, by a Dodgers outfielder. He lingered arguing even more vociferously well after he got the thumb for slamming his cap to the ground. By the time he was finished, it had taken the umpires a few minutes to review and adjust the call and, counting Tracy's debate before and after ejection, about nine minutes full.

Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully hammered the point home with his usual unadorned aplomb: We have all this technology and they don't use it because they say it would delay the game. Well, what was that we just saw?

Game, set, and match. The human element isn't going anywhere. Fielders will still bobble balls or throw should-be double play balls three rows or more into the seats. Pitchers will still throw the wrong pitch. Catchers will still fail to get away with "framing" borderline pitches. Hitters will still try hitting 6-run homers and making egregious outs. There'll still be bench clearing brawls now and then over knockdowns, brushbacks, dome balls, and home run pimping; there'll still be players here and there appointing themselves field nannies enforcing the "unwritten" rules.

And umpires will still be only human. But getting it right when pennant races or championships turn is as right as mere humans and the technologies humans create can get.

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