‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008 – Week Twenty One

Instant replay is on its way

Thursday was a momentous day in the history of Major League Baseball.  After years of saying it would never happen, baseball, the most traditional of all North American sports, finally agreed to the use of instant replays to help officiate games.  It was a day that somehow seemed inevitable, even though baseball has generally resisted radical change in the past.   

The use of instant replays already has been accepted by many other sports.  All of the other three major North American sports use it to varying degrees.  Tries in both codes of rugby have been awarded or turned down by a video referee for several years now.  Cricket, probably the sport most similar to baseball in this context,  is constantly trialling new ideas to increase its use for a wider range of decisions.  If they can find a way to integrate instant replay into their sports, why not baseball?

Its adoption can largely be attributed to the level of TV coverage that is now devoted to sports.  Every game is covered by a host of TV cameras and every incorrect decision is highlighted instantly.  Game-changing calls are occasionally blown, leaving millions of people sitting in front of their TV screens knowing conclusively that the wrong decision has just been made.  Meanwhile, the game carries on regardless.  While human error will always be a part of the sport, at some point allowing blatantly incorrect decisions to stand, when they could easily be reversed within thirty seconds, begins to hurt the credibility of the competition.

Instant replay had been knocking on baseball’s door for a while and it was only a matter of time before something enabled it to come crashing through.  Three incorrect home run calls in quick succession during May, most notably a Carlos Delgado home run that wasn’t on ESPN’s Sunday Night game, proved to be the breaking point.  At the MLB Owners’ meeting last week, Bud Selig announced that instant replay for disputed home run calls could be utilized before the end of this season. 

The move is certainly not welcomed universally.  As with anything, the devil will be in the detail: deciding to use instant replay is one thing, agreeing on exactly when and how is quite another.  Monitors are being installed in all thirty Major League ballparks, which will apparently lead to an umpire leaving the field to review a play.  That immediately calls to mind the hilarious farce that is the NFL instant replay charade,  where the ref goes into his little booth to review the play in question.  The system used in cricket and rugby, where the officials on the field simply instruct the video umpire/referee to review the call and to tell them the decision, is quicker and generally less ridiculous, but perhaps American TV execs prefer the spectacle of the officials making a grand departure to stage left?

News broke on Tuesday that the Umpires union still had severe concerns about the operation of the instant replay system and they consequently refused to take part in a conference call about the matter.  Fears that the situation might provoke unwanted division in the game, and possible strike action, where thankfully put to rest a couple of days later with the announcement that an agreement had been reached between all parties.  However, that is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

Football is another of the few sports yet to embrace technology and the most common explanation for this is the fear that introducing it for a limited purpose (whether the ball crossed the goal line or not) will open the floodgates.  If you use it for one thing to ‘get the decision right’, how do you justify not using it for other situations that could prove just as crucial in the context of the game (e.g. whether a player was offside or not)?  There’s no doubt that it could be a slippery slope.  In the WGN broadcast of the Nationals-Cubs game on Friday, commentator and former D-Backs manager Bob Brenly raised the possibility that the day could come where technology is used to call balls and strikes.  The QuesTec system already does exactly this for the purposes of evaluating the performances of umpires, so from a technical standpoint it is feasible.  Whether it would ever be accepted is debatable, and Brenly was playing devil’s advocate with his suggestion, but it illustrates the point that once you have adopted technology, there may be no turning back.

The WGN broadcast also raised another interesting point.  In response to a survey conducted during the game, only 52 per cent of those who replied were in favour of using instant replay.  Broadcaster Len Kasper introduced the survey saying that he thought he knew what the result would be and seemed genuinely surprised that there wasn’t overwhelming support for instant replay.  Still, he remarked that the first time the system made an important call in favour of the Cubs, their fans would be 100 per cent behind it and it’s hard to disagree.  Self-interest always comes first.

It does go to show that the announcement on Thursday is not an end to a long-running saga, but the beginning of one.  While instant replay is designed to make clear-cut decisions, anyone who thinks it will reduce controversy is kidding themselves.  If anything, it will only produce more.  There are interesting times ahead, that’s for sure.

Week 21 wrap-up

Tampa Bay (79-49) have increased their lead over the Red Sox in the AL East.  The Rays now have a 5.5 game cushion thanks to a 5-1 week.  The Angels (78-50) continue to coast along in the West, with the Rangers now sitting 16 games back.  The Twins (74-55) and the White Sox are probably going to be locked together the rest of ther way in the Central, swapping places every few days or so.  Minnesota hold the top spot today, half a game ahead of Chicago.  The Central also figures to have a say in the wild card.  Most people assumed Boston would take it, but they now have only a half game lead over the White Sox.  The Yankees are five games back and it is possible that we could have a post-season without both the Red Sox and the Bronx Bombers.  Bad news for the media networks.

In the National League, the Cubs (79-50) continue on their merry way despite the nervousness that seems to be affecting their fans (a 100 year wait for a World Series will do that to you, I guess).  They lead the Brewers in the Central by 4.5 games.  In turn, Milwaukee has a 3.5 game lead over St Louis in the wild card, so the Central pennant race might not be such an important race to win.  The Mets (72-58) have a 1.5 game advantage over the Phillies in the East, while the D-Backs (68-61) have a three game lead on the Dodgers in the West.

3 Responses to ‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008 – Week Twenty One

  1. Joe Cooter August 24, 2008 at 9:02 pm #

    I don’t know how I feel about instant replay. On the one hand, it would be nice to get the call right. On the other hand techknowledgy isn’t perfect and there are some plays that you will be unable to call correctly even with instant replay. Having said that, I disagree with the decision to implament instant replay in the middle of the season. I believe that the best thing to do would be to wait until after the season is over before you change the rules.

  2. Matt Smith August 24, 2008 at 9:55 pm #

    Hi Joe

    It does seem strange the way they are now seemingly rushing it through, after years of dragging their feet on the issue. You would think at the very least there would be a trial period where they evaluate the system away from the public’s gaze. There is a lot of apprehension about the technology and, while there are bound to be a few teething problems whenever you bring it in, it’s important that it gets off to a good start to build some confidence in the system. Like you, I would prefer them to hold off until next season now, rather than risk problems during the final month and the postseason.

  3. Joe Cooter August 25, 2008 at 11:51 am #

    What really upsets me are Media personalities like Mike Greenberg of ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning who have campaigned for an emediate change in the rules. The problem is, our beloved sport has a commissioner who repeatedly bows to media pressure when deciding policy directions. That is not true leadership.

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