Batting Around: Baseball must embrace modern technology

Many professional sports are now openly embracing instant replay technology that allows close calls to be reviewed and, if necessary, corrected. Professional football has even implemented instant replay in the form of a challenge system, which actually adds an element of strategy to the game.

Unfortunately, America’s oldest professional sport continues to pretend that the umpire’s eyes are the final word in precision when it comes to split-second calls on the base path, down the foul line, or at home plate. But if you’ve ever watched a televised baseball game, in which replays are broadcast after every close play and “K-Zone” graphics show which pitches fall in the strike zone, you know that umpires have nothing on slow motion, high definition cameras.

Nor should they be expected to. Putting an ump behind home plate and scattering three in the infield was the best way to get correct calls at every base and on balls and strikes — in 1900. Over a century later, does it make sense to treat an umpire’s call as not only infallible, but irrevocable? Here are some reasons why it might not:     

1. Baseball is better when the calls are correct. If we can all agree on this, it will make the discussion much easier. There is no more frustrating feeling in sports than losing a game as the result of a blown call, but being on the other side isn’t much better. What true competitor wants to win as the result of an umpire’s mistake? Correct calls make for better baseball, period.

2. Physical limitations of human eyesight. Have you ever considered what it takes to make a call at first base? Since it’s impossible to watch the bag and the ball at the same time, most 1st base umpires listen for the ball to hit the 1st baseman’s glove while keeping an eye on the runner’s feet. Close plays can come down to a fraction of a second, and while umpires are trained professionals, they aren’t superhuman. Mistakes at first base can be harmless — or they can be devastating, like Jim Joyce’s blown call on the would-be last out of the 9th inning to rob Armando Galarraga of a perfect game last summer. Not even the remorseful Joyce could pretend that it wasn’t a travesty. Unfortunately, nor was he able to reverse his call, even after viewing the indisputable evidence of his mistake. Think about this: do we rely on a referee to tell us who hits the wall first in an Olympic swim race? Of course not — we build sensors into the walls, because this is the 21st century, and we can do that now.

3. Fairness to the players. Now imagine you’re the runner who legs it down to first base like your rear end is on fire, and you’re called out. Or, you’re the shortstop who tosses a cannon from the outfield grass, or the first baseman who scoops a ball out of the dirt, and you don’t get the call. Your professional effort is rewarded with the best human judgment can offer, while a dozen cameras trained on the base cannot be consulted for any reason. Frustrating? You better believe it.

4. Player/manager outbursts. Professional competitors are passionate — it comes with the territory. But the temper tantrums professional athletes and coaches are capable of throwing are an ugly mark on baseball. Does it teach our children good sportsmanship to watch a player return to the bench spewing curse words at an umpire who called him looking on strike 3? How about a manager literally stealing 3rd base and walking off the field after his player gets called out stretching a double into a triple? Sure, we can blame the player, not the game for any unsportsmanlike conduct, but instant replay would allow for a measure of finality — closure, if you will — on any call that might inspire such conduct. 

5. The stakes are too high. With some baseball players earning 8 figures per year and the World Series champs receiving a sizeable cash prize — not to mention the exorbitant prices fans now pay to come to the ballpark — there is too much money riding on the limited ability of human eyesight. Even the Little League World Series, in which the coaches and umpires are volunteers and the kids are playing for the love of the game, employs a replay challenge system similar to professional football. If they can acknowledge the importance of getting close calls right — or at the very least, getting the chance to review them — why can’t the most valuable professional sports league in America?

6. They already review home runs. Whether or not the ball cleared the fence is already subject to review by instant replay. Why is this the only play in baseball worthy of review? Sure, it’s a potentially game-changing play, but in the post-steroids era, teams are hitting fewer home runs and winning more games by playing small ball — base hits, sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, hit and runs. These plays can be game-changing, too. In fact, baseball is such a mental game that any play — any pitch, for that matter — can be change the complexion of the game. It doesn’t need to make a highlight reel to be worthy of review.

Of course, I understand the counterarguments. Self-proclaimed “baseball purists” are loathe to discuss major changes to the game they grew up loving. I’m not disputing that the umpire is an ingrained part of baseball, as much as peanuts and cracker jacks. But I’m also not arguing that we eliminate the umpire and replace him with a robot, simply that we give managers some form of recourse for contentious calls other than huffing and puffing and threatening to blow the stadium down. Respecting the call made by trained professionals is one thing — pretending that they’re impervious to error is quite another.

Others acknowledge the need for instant replay, but are hesitant to slow down and prolong an already sluggish and lengthy game. This is an understandable concern, but I question how often plays would actually be reviewed — there are always those calls managers roll their eyes at in disagreement, but there is rarely more than one per game that makes them storm onto the field in fury. Moreover, the MLB could strictly control the use of replays — say, give each manager one challenge per game. Let them choose when to use it. That would add no more time to the game than two prolonged bouts of screaming between manager and umpire, and ultimately be more productive for both parties.

For all the reasons listed above, we have got to stop pretending that questioning an umpire’s call is somehow a breech of gentleman’s conduct or an insult to the umpire himself. What is un-gentlemanly about saying, “Mr. Umpire, sir, I acknowledge and respect that from your angle, you feel that I was out. But, perhaps if you saw the play from another angle, slowed down, you might feel differently”?

 If the officials in professional football and hockey can admit that they don’t always make the right call, maybe we — and Bud Selig — need to start asking what makes an umpire so much more immune to error.

Ian Trombulak is a rising senior at Middlebury College, and is interning at the Addison Independent as a news reporter and member of the online team this summer. He likes sports — a lot — and, as with most things he likes, he spends a lot of time thinking about them. He hopes that you enjoy the cathartic weekly release of those thoughts, and that you will share yours as well in the comments below.

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