Instant replay is not so instant, and not a good idea for baseball

New instant replay rules will keep MLB umpires busy in 2014.

New instant replay rules will keep MLB umpires busy in 2014.

This spring, besides honing their skills as they do each year in Florida and Arizona, MLB players, umpires, and managers are getting ready for two major new rules for the new seasons. Fans had better get ready too, for while one of the changes is eminently sensible and long overdue, the other is perhaps the stupidest of all the idiotic alternations in the game that have occurred under the rule of Bud Selig, Worst Commissioner Ever.

Contrary to the protests of some veterans, the effort to reduce home plate collisions won’t alter the game of baseball in any significant way except to reduce the chances of career-ending concussions. To make home plate just as accessible as the other bases brings nothing but logic and consistency to baseball. You can’t block access to the other bases, and you can’t deliberately bowl over fielders trying to catch a throw and make a play at the other bases, and you’re supposed to slide on a close play — that’s baseball. It’s not football, so its time to stop brutal collisions at home. The new rule should accomplish that purpose, and the game will be better for it. End of discussion.

But the other change — the inevitable expansion of the misnamed abomination known as instant replay — will lengthen games that are already way too long, and for no good purpose. It might take a little heat off umpires for awhile, but it will be nothing but agony for fans.

There are widespread maladies that sap the convivial spirit of our society stemming from the urge to use technology just because it is available. Umpiring is an art, but like all aspects of baseball, it is a flawed pursuit, with perfect execution never attainable. Baseball is a game full of failure, and so is the umpiring of it. From its first incarnations, the game has always fostered the sad spectacle of umpires being yelled at, despised, and even sometimes attacked by fans — and disdained and blasted by players and managers. But the game has survived it and flourished. Blown calls are part of the game.

One beautiful — some would say “magical” — aspect of baseball is that the still-perfect distance between bases along with the physical skills of fielders, runners, and throwers results in many close plays. Without them there would be far less excitement and enthusiasm for the sport. So many very close plays occur so frequently that they long ago gave rise to the mistaken adage that “the tie goes the runner.” There is no such rule, of course.

With the increasing use of camera technology that allows viewers at home and broadcasters in press boxes to see replays of close calls from many angles, more evidence is available that umpires—who train ceaselessly to get into the best position to make calls but can never possibly be able to see every nuance of every pay from every angle—on rare occasions get calls wrong (along with the illusion that they are blowing more calls than ever). Horrors! Arguments abound as they always have, but now technology adds a new sense of justification to each aggrieved party. And the urge to let technology rule us all fosters a new desire to get every call right every time.

Why does this illusory desire for perfection dictate the dethroning of umpire judgment by machine mind? It’s not, after all, a matter of life and death. Is it worth the time spent? I would say emphatically no.

In all the sports in which replay technology has supplanted imperfect officiating, fan get to watch the incredibly boring spectacle of officials scurrying to the stands or the scorer’s table to spend interminable minutes reviewing what TV viewers have already seen. The games grind to a halt. Probably commercial sponsors enjoy this, but who else does? Not the spectators at the game. Not the players who see momentum deflate and energy dissipate and muscles go lax. The “instant” of what was originally called “instant replay” lasts forever.

Luckily, everyone now has mobile devices so they can stare at their own screens while the officials stare at theirs. So much fun!

Here’s the problem: Instituting replay won’t reduce arguments or cut them short. It will instead multiply and lengthen them. Managers will pop out of dugouts to make sure they get use their “free” challenge to question something—anything—by the sixth inning of every single game, just to show they’re doing their job. After the sixth inning, when umpires can decide on their own to invoke replay, managers will argue every call they dislike to try to convince the umps to review it—and most umpires will feel duty-bound to go to the monitors just to make sure they aren’t graded down for the arrogance of knowing they are right 99 percent of the time.

And what will happen when the technology fails to definitively identify the right call, when different camera angles show results that contradict each other? Would more cameras have been able to determine if Lou Brock was out at home in Game Five of the 1968 World Series? Maybe—but maybe not.

I know a lot of fans want this. But it’s really being done for CYA—the overriding mandate of our era. With backsides covered, nobody can ever take the blame—or the responsibility. Bill Veeck probably had three better ideas before he even got out of bed in the morning.

If I were an umpire, I’d feel just as offended as a judge being replaced in the courtroom by a computer programmed to determine guilt or innocence. Why bother going through all those years of training? I think the umpires should go on strike until this silliness ends. They won’t, of course, because they’d just bring in the robot umpires now rather than ten years from now.

Oh, and of course the umpires are still being allowed to call balls and strikes — for the moment, just to humor them, I suppose. But the day that an electronic system takes over that task isn’t far off, either. And then nobody will be able to shout “Kill the ump!” But that will hardly matter—because people will have long since stopped coming out to the old five-hour ball game.