Twins Blog: The Case Against Replay

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Victor Martinez was involved in a controversial home run call which was “resolved” by instant replay. Or was it? Guest Twins Blogger Chris Ellston, of WCCO Radio, makes his case for getting replay out of baseball.

It’s time to make a counter-argument in opposition of the expansion, or even the very existence of instant replay in the game of baseball.

We’ve heard the statement ad-nauseum: “If we can get it right, then we should get it right.”

It’s an argument born out of our ability to watch the game in a 21st century fashion.

Viewing it from an infinite number of angles, in high definition, and on 72 inch screens in 3D. All of these things are great as they bring us closer to the game, and let us feel as if we are right there on the third base line, while still being able to access our home Wi-Fi network.

We love this because it makes it easier for us to send out tweets about who would be better served playing center field for our favorite team, and we can instantly tell the world how much better we would have been at managing the team out of that bases-loaded jam in the third inning.

However, the marriage between sports and technology only exists to do that: bring us closer to the game. It is not there to make us a part of it. Until now. We now are getting such a close look at the game that we feel when a mistake is made on the field, not only is the team being cheated, we are too.

Because we saw the mistake with our own two eyes we deserve a do-over because it just isn’t fair. And MLB has taken the bait hook, line, and sinker. It has heard your cries and it is attempting to make things right. After all, “if we can get it right, then we should get it right”.

But guess what, you can’t always get it right.

On Tuesday afternoon, Victor Martinez hit a towering fly ball that apparently left the field, and into (and incidentally, off of) the hands of an eager Tiger’s fan.

It was a ball that may or may not have been caught by a leaping Josh Reddick. Reddick reacted the way you’d expect, prompting the umpires to react in a way that I am still not used to. They left the field, spent a few moments in a secret umpire’s cone of silence and returned to the field, fingers circling.

The new universal symbol to baseball fans that after moments of anticipation, and possibly a bathroom break or a phone call, it is now OK to celebrate your favorite team’s latest achievement.

However, the umpires made this call despite MLB rule 3.16 (please try to ignore the ironic connection) stating: “When there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his own opinion will nullify the act of interference. APPROVED RULING: If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball the umpire shall declare the batter out.” The play was clearly interfered with.

That is all that can be determined from the replay. To my knowledge the umpires did not have access to the alternate reality-cam. (Caveat: nobody but the umps knows exactly what technology exists in the secret umpire’s cone of silence, so I admit the possibility does exist.)

That aside, replay can only tell you what happened on the field, not what might have happened. What might have happened is not reviewable because it never actually happened. It’s elementary. This is not to say the call is right or wrong.

We will never truly know. We accept that the call was right because the umpire said it was. What a novel idea. Truthfully, in this particular case it differs very little from life before replay. The umps made a judgment call. Actually they made two. One before the replay, and one after. But there is still room for debate. Even if the margin of error is diminished it still exists.

Now, I don’t make this case to admonish the umpires. Quite the contrary. I make the case to prove the point that no matter how many bells and whistles you incorporate, human beings are fallible. Which is to say you can’t always get it right. I concede that the majority of the times that replay is utilized, a questionable call will correctly be confirmed or overturned.

I’m sure that when the time comes, that bang-bang play at first with our team down eight runs in the fifth inning in game 82, we will really appreciate that. But what about the one time in Game 4 of the playoffs when they don’t get it right? Isn’t that enough to call the entire process in question? Is that not the very reason that the system has been incorporated? Imagine living in New York City and buying a military issue Humvee because at some point you may want to go off-roading.

After a year-and-a-half slogging that bull through heavy traffic and trying to find a parking spot on crowded NYC streets you finally get the chance to take it out to the country. Then, imagine the moment you put the beast in the mud and throw it in gear the axles snap and the engine block cracks. That’s the equivalent.

Like the streets of New York City, the baseball season is long, crowded and requires a great deal of patience. People who really love baseball are willing to sit still and watch a game that at times will trudge along like an H3 in rush hour because they know that at any second they could be treated to a moment of pure excitement.

The baseball fan pines for the instant the batter beats the throw to first by a measure of time so brief it can barely be taken in by the human eye. It’s the sliding catch in the outfield or tag of a diving player at the plate that gives us the true visceral reaction. These are the moments that bring us out of our seats and make us turn to a total stranger with a hand in the air for the obligatory high five.

Why do we want to rob ourselves of these moments? Understand that as replay settles into the game and we adjust our expectations we will instinctively turn to the umpire’s secret cone of silence instead of the stranger behind us. We will become conditioned to wait in anticipation on every single close play because hey, “if we can get it right, we should get it right”.

But still, all of this stands only as a criticism of replay and is not the counter-argument I promised. So here it is.

Why the obsession with perfection? Why, in a game that is already perfect in its imperfection, are we demanding flawlessness? We must remember that our favorite players fail at the plate a vast majority of the time. We need to remind ourselves that we measure the greatness of defensive players by how many mistakes they don’t make. We need to try to recall our most memorable moments in the game and examine how perfect they were.

There have been three perfect games thrown since Jim Joyce blew the call that fateful night in Motor City. Can you name the pitchers who threw them? My guess is that without the help of baseballrefence.com, you can’t. One of them was thrown by a Felix Hernandez, a man who will most likely be in the Hall of Fame. In the end it will be a footnote in his career, but for Armando Gallaraga that game was his career. Every baseball fan will recall that story for years to come because of the imperfection that surrounded it.

I would hate to sit with my buddies and recall the 1991 World Series without being able to pretend like Kent Hrbek never pulled Ron Gant off of first base. And think about the atmosphere at Fenway Park in 1975 after Carlton Fisk willed the legendary 12th inning home run ball fair. Now imagine the Boston faithful having to pause their celebration while the team of umpires convened behind closed doors to decide if it was OK to erupt.

And what if it wasn’t. We are robbing our children of great tales of the game of baseball so that we can justify our $8 a month upgrade to HD. And the worst part about it is we’ll never know what we’re missing.

Those legendary tales will be whitewashed out of the game in place of a more sanitary, less controversial product. And since when did we shy away from controversy in this country?

The game of baseball was perfected sometime before the Civil War and has withstood the test of time. The nation has endured world wars, civil rights violations, terrorist attacks and natural disasters and has never called the imperfection of the game into question. Have we become so perfect that we can no longer tolerate this injustice?

This game has let us down as often as it has lifted us up and that’s why we love it. A major-league sized injection of technology will only serve as gratification in the short term. The long-term effect will be a watered down product that will be completely void of the glory of imperfection. And how human is that?

But hey, if we can get it right.

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