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Clippings: Let baseball keep its imperfection

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Posted on March 12, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



When the northern part of the country eventually thaws and the 2014 Major League Baseball season begins at the end of this month, the game will look a little different.

After instituting instant replay in 2008 for the sole purpose of reviewing home runs, Major League Baseball is expanding the practice to include a slew of calls: ground rule doubles, fan interference, boundary calls, force and tag plays, fair/foul balls and others. Each clubhouse will be equipped with a video monitor, and managers will be able to challenge one call a game (if the call is overturned, they’re awarded another).

While balls and strikes and player interference will remain unreviewable — for now — the expansion of instant replay is a mistake. It is antithetical to the game and will diminish the role umpires have in it. Calls will be reviewed not by the officials on the field, like in the National Football League, but by an umpire in MLB’s headquarters in New York. That umpire then relays his final ruling back to the crew on the field.

Baseball is an imperfect game, played by imperfect players and officiated by imperfect umpires. While Major League umps are well-paid and highly trained (on average, umpires spend 7-10 years in the minor leagues before being called up), they are fallible and occasionally make mistakes. These mistakes are rare, and though they are sometimes glaring, we shouldn’t review every close call frame by frame to see what umpires couldn’t possibly see in real time.

One of the most memorable umpiring blunders in recent years occurred on a June afternoon in 2010, when a blown call in the ninth inning denied Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game — one of the rarest feats in the sport. The gaffe was made by veteran umpire Jim Joyce, who called batter Jason Donald safe at first base. Replays showed Donald was out by half a step.

While the blown call was embarrassing, baseball’s response shows exactly why instant replay isn’t needed. After reviewing the tape and realizing he’d made the wrong call, Joyce — who players had selected as the league’s best official in an ESPN poll that same year —  apologized to Galarraga. The right-hander took it in stride, and forgave Joyce. Players and managers around the league followed suit, praising both men for their humility. The first base bag from Comerica Park — the site of the blunder — now resides in Cooperstown.

What could have been a black eye on the game became a teaching moment, a lesson that is as old as the game itself — everyone, no matter how skilled, makes mistakes. Many in the public lobbied Commissioner Bug Selig to overturn Joyce’s call and award Galarraga a perfect game, but Selig declined. His message was clear: What happens on the field, for better or for worse, should stay on the field.

Since the Live Ball Era began in 1920, the rules of baseball have remained remarkably unchanged. Except for the addition of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973, which angered baseball purists, the sport remains nearly identical today as it was then. Unlike other major sports, baseball hasn’t changed its rules to increase scoring or make the game more exciting for fans. There is no shot clock, three-point line, two-minute warning, or two-line pass.

Baseball is a game rife with tradition, and nothing is more time-honored than the dirt-kicking, arm-flailing, hat-throwing rite of argument. Instant replay and the new challenge system threatens this tradition with extinction. Could you imagine Lou Pinella casually informing the umpiring crew he’d like to use his challenge after an obvious blunder? Can you imagine Billy Martin strolling to home plate to request a call to be reviewed? Bobby Cox probably wouldn’t have been ejected from an MLB-record 161 games if he’d been able to just point to a video monitor and challenge a few calls.

I love baseball as much as the next guy, but the game surely doesn’t need anything else that will slow the pace of play. In 1940, the average length of Major League games was just under two hours. Now, it’s around 2:45. It just seems plain wrong that for a sport that doesn’t even rely on time clock to suddenly lean on an intricate video system wired back to New York.

There have been countless instances where blown calls have altered the course of games, seasons, or even World Series — but instant replay will not bring an end to controversial calls in baseball (the NFL has had it for three decades, and reviewed calls haven’t garnered consensus there). Major League Baseball is looking to perfect a game that inherently can’t be perfected.

Umpires, like managers, have become a colorful part of the game — so ingrained in the sport than nine have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The expansion of instant replay would take discretion away from umpires and remove from the game the human element, one of the things that makes baseball distinct from the other major American sports.

Baseball, for all its flaws and imperfections, should be left as is. 

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