In Favor of Instant Replay

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Perhaps the greatest argument in favor of instant replay is the aforementioned want for justice. Too much is at stake, too much money invested in teams which may need to win to stay intact, for outcomes to swing unfairly based on miniscule umpiring errors. Major League franchises each employ hundreds between their players and front office staffs. Each of them has plenty of fiscal interest in every game. A playoff loss impacts many pocketbooks directly, and, on a huge stage, the smallest mistake can turn fortunes the other way. Baseball should let the players, not the umpires, make those game-deciding mistakes. New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi summed up this argument after a few missed calls contributed to a loss in this year’s American League Championship Series. “Too much is at stake. We play 235 days to get to this point, and two calls go against us,” he said. “In this day and age when we have instant replay available to us, it’s got to change.”

New York Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi is a strong proponent of instant replay. (William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE)

Further, some contend, frustrating mistakes drive potential fans away from the game and cement its image as “an old-timers game.” A poll conducted by Harris Interactive in January revealed that just 13% of adults who say they follow a sport name baseball as their favorite. That represents a negative change of ten percentage points since 1985, more than three times the next-largest popularity drop-off over the same timeframe, that seen by men’s tennis. What was once America’s pastime, though still faring well, needs to appeal to a modern audience with short fuses and little tolerance for umpire mishaps. Embracing technology provides one way to accomplish that goal.

Most other major sports have already entered the 21st century, and few complaints are heard about time and tradition when those sports rectify errors by video review. The National Football League has had some form of an instant replay system in place since 1986, and their current system allows for replay in almost every situation. The National Basketball Association swiftly implemented instant replay after lack thereof cost the Los Angeles Kings a game in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Today, NBA replay opportunities span a wide and expanding range of plays. The National Hockey League seems to successfully utilize their instant replay system to determine whether a puck crossed the goal line multiple times every night. It’s time for Major League Baseball to join the party.

I should note that, given the extreme difficulty of their jobs, major league umpires should be commended for their sharpness. I am not calling for baseball to replace them with robots. That said, I can think of no reason umpires should not have the option to consult technology when they deem it necessary. Some umpires agree, knowing replay could save them potential embarrassment and scorn. Don Denkinger, who umpired in the major leagues for 30 years and is best remembered for a critical blown call during the 1985 World Series, is one of those. “You want to get that right,” he said the day after Joyce’s mistake ruined Galarraga’s perfect game. “If you can’t get it right using officials, you should get it right by going to replay. That would’ve been very easy last night.”

I contend that baseball should allow for the possibility of overturning calls based on video replay on almost every type of call, with the exception of balls and strikes. Under an ideal system, as in every other professional sport, umpires would need to see incontrovertible proof in order to change their original call.

In order to limit the number of plays which go under review, saving time and the flow of the game, baseball could do a number of things. One option would be to utilize a challenge system, with each team allowed to request a certain number of reviews and losing challenges if they fail. Another would be to simply allow umpires to view replays at their discretion—when they themselves are unsure of a call. Baseball could also limit replay to plays involving only one runner, preventing confusion questions of where to place runners on an overturned call. Maybe replay would be limited to plays at first base or scoring plays.

No matter how it happens, something must happen. Thankfully, signs now point to some more open-mindedness on the part of Commissioner Bud Selig and his office. At the general managers’ meetings November 7th, discussion took place regarding expansion of video review to include fair or foul calls and traps in the outfield. They’ve also experimented with systems like the animation system currently in use to judge line calls in pro tennis and the TrackMan radar software used by the PGA Tour. If baseball expands replay even the smallest amount before the next season begins, it will be a victory for the game.