Peter Schmuck: Baseball needs video replay, but it comes at a cost

So the same Baltimore Orioles fans who are in favor of instant replay because it might have overturned the infamous Jeffrey Maier phantom home run in the 1996 playoffs need to ponder how they might remember Earl Weaver if he never had to argue a bang-bang play at first base.
Jan 22, 2014

 

Now that Major League Baseball has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, we can all take comfort in the fact that truth, justice and the national pastime will forever be protected by modern video technology.

Don’t misunderstand the sarcastic tone. The decision to dramatically expand the use of video replay to reverse bad umpire rulings is the correct one for our time. There’s no reason to let bad calls stand when there is an almost foolproof way to replace them with good ones.

Still, it’s fair to examine what we are sacrificing on the altar of getting it right.

It is what the people who debate this issue refer to either reverently or derisively as “the human element.”

Baseball has long accepted — and even embraced — imperfection as a key aspect of the character of a professional sport that was born in the age of stand-still photography. This is the game, after all, in which a hitter can fail seven times out of 10 and still make it into the Hall of Fame.

It is also the game that revels in a history filled with unique personalities and quirky events.

So the same Baltimore Orioles fans who are in favor of instant replay because it might have overturned the infamous Jeffrey Maier phantom home run in the 1996 playoffs need to ponder how they might remember Earl Weaver if he never had to argue a bang-bang play at first base.

The talk show host who trotted out the blown call by Don Denkinger in the 1985 World Series might at least want to acknowledge that he would not even remember who won that otherwise nondescript Fall Classic if not for that historic mistake.

This is not a defense of incompetence, but it is an attempt to contextualize what will be lost and what will be gained as baseball adopts a watered-down version of the NFL challenge system for correcting officiating errors.

Perhaps the best illustration of the double-edged nature of this debate occurred June 2, 2010, when umpire Jim Joyce miscalled what would have been the final out of a perfect game by Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga.

It was the perfect argument in favor of expanded replay. There is no doubt that if this new system was in place then, Galarraga would have become the 21st pitcher in major league history to pitch a complete game without allowing a base runner.

In a baseball world sterilized by the quest for perfection, his name would have been added to a list of what now would be 24 perfect game pitchers, and his jersey would have been packed away in a storeroom in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Instead, what happened that day and the day after was a study in accountability, forgiveness and sportsmanship that reminded anyone who witnessed it that there is (or should be) way more to baseball than trophies and $200 million contracts.

The incident and its aftermath were recounted weeks later in a terrific story by Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated under a headline that said it all: “A Different Kind of Perfect.”

Once again, this is not an argument against video replay. It is important to get the calls right, and the new system should go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. But it would be wise to remember it is the human element that fills the space between each pitch, and Major League Baseball diminishes that at its own peril.

If perfect accuracy were the only goal, the technology has existed for years that would make it possible to determine balls and strikes without a home-plate umpire. But there are subtle differences in the way each umpire interprets the strike zone that add an extra layer of nuance to the duel between pitcher and batter.

Presumably, that’s why ball-strike calls will not be reviewable, and nobody has proposed that we dispense with the guy behind the plate and replace him with RoboUmp. At least, not yet.

 

 

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