It appears that Major League Baseball is going to implement instant replay, maybe even as early as August 1 of this year. This might say more about the things (and people) I read than anything else, but Joe Morgan is the only person I know of who is against it. (Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a healthy minority of former players is against the idea, as former players sometimes seem to agree on a lot of things that go against what “outsiders” think.) But even amongst people who favor the idea (and especially among those who oppose it), there is concern about the “slippery slope”: If we start using replay for home runs, what’s to stop us from using it on everything?
I think Rob Neyer was mostly right when he said:
Now, about that old slippery slope … What sort of “assurances” would be worth a pail of warm tobacco spit, anyway? Sure, MLB can say this is as far as it’ll go, but what’s the point? One year, two years, five years down the road, absolutely nothing would prevent a change in policy. So I don’t expect MLB to make some empty gesture at this point.
And I wouldn’t want them to. Maybe today the guy in New York seems appropriate only for those home-run calls. But don’t you think our sensibilities might change? Here’s a prediction: Within five years, the expanded use of that guy in New York will be supported by even King Kaufman.
But I don’t think I agree with his prediction. I think there is a clear, discernible difference between home run calls and the other calls people are talking about with the slippery slope: distance. There are a lot of calls that umpires have to make, and for 99% of them, the guy responsible for the call is within a few feet. People worry about instant replay on balls and strikes, but there’s a guy getting paid to stand three feet from the plate and focus on nothing other than calling balls and strikes. Close plays at a base? There’s a man in blue within spitting distance making the call.
I am perfectly willing to accept — even embrace, to an extent — human error by the umpires, as long as we are putting them in position to make the right calls. The problem with home runs is that, in a best-case scenario, an umpire is 200 feet from the ball when he needs to make the call. Not to mention that it’s happening behind where he was facing when the ball was hit, which means he has to turn 180 degrees and pick up the flight of the ball again, all the while running out to get as close as possible to where the ball is going to land so he can try to make the right call.
When you talk about centerfield, it’s even worse. That blown call at Minute Maid Park in Houston the other week, when Geovanny Soto ended up with an inside-the-park homer on what should have been an outside-the-park homer … well, that poor umpire never had a chance. Super-slow motion replays showed us that it was on the left side of that yellow line, but do you really think an umpire has ANY chance to see which side of a yellow line a white ball hits from 250 feet away? I don’t think so.
Joe Morgan’s other argument is that home runs are not the only plays that affect the outcome of games, and he is absolutely right. But of all the plays that affect outcomes and expect middle-aged men to make calls from hundreds of feet away, the vast majority are home runs. And the others? I’m fine with using replay on them, too. I’d be fine with a rule that says, “Any play is eligible for review if the umpire responsible for the call was in his correct position and still more than 50 feet from the play.” Yes, there’s some quaint charm about umpires messing up and managers arguing with them — one of my favorite books of all time is “The Umpire Strikes Back,” by Ron Luciano, which is mostly stories of Luciano and Earl Weaver arguing about calls that Luciano screwed up — but I don’t think we need to resist opportunities for improvement just because we like to see Lou Piniella throw bases around.
And best of all, we wouldn’t lose those arguments. Arguments about balls and strikes or close plays on the bases are much more common than arguments about homers, and most arguments are more about the manager sticking up for his players than about the umpire being wrong, anyway. In Luciano’s entire book, there is only one story of him arguing about a home run call (although, I have to admit, it’s a doozy; it includes Luciano, who was famous for his flamboyant calls, saying, “I was all the way in the air when I realized I had no idea where the ball had landed”).
Overall, I am glad that replay is coming, and I am REALLY glad that the people I’ve been listening to — even Joe Morgan — have stopped talking about how much it will slow down the game. Because you know how quick the manager-vs.-umpire arguments always are.