Baseball in a Time of Replay

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By Alex Entz

It’s October 17, 2004. Red Sox utilityman Dave Roberts takes off for second base. Millions of Americans watch with baited breath as he slides into second base right as the throw from Jorge Posada arrives. The umpire signals safe. The crowd goes crazy.

Then, with the replay splashing onto the screen, we head to a commercial break while the umpires schlep to the dugout to review the play. Three minutes later, after we are reminded of Coke and Wal-Mart and KFC, they come back out to a quiet stadium, and signal that he was, indeed, safe.

Seem a little anticlimactic?

Major League Baseball has gone to great lengths to expand instant replay this year. Managers now have up to two challenges (that’s right, just like football), and nearly every play is reviewable, including “tag plays.” Baseball has always had a human element to it. In trying to emulate the commercial success of football and basketball, baseball is losing the humanity that makes it unique.

Unique, okay. But if an umpire blows a call, shouldn’t we want them to get it right?

There are a couple of reasons I think that “correctness” should be secondary to “human element,” and the first is, quite simply, that the game has always been this way. Baseball is nothing if not a historic sport. It’s not just about Derek Jeter, Mike Trout, and Starlin Castro—it’s also about Lou Gehrig, Shoeless Joe, Cy Young. It’s about their stories, their momentous gains and failures, their legacies. We have to remember our roots. The best way to do that is to play the game that they played.

Second, missed calls in baseball are rare—indeed, umpires make 99.5% of calls correctly. Over the course of a game, umpires make judgment calls on everything from balls and strikes to fair and foul, and they get the vast majority of them right. Much of the beauty of baseball comes in those bang-bang moments, when the runner and the ball arrive at first at the same time. Slowing the game further and adding a mechanical element robs the game of the romance of argumentation. The game is perfect in that it is not.

It’s also important for baseball to be fallible because, in many ways, it reflects us. Unlike more aggressive, high-intensity games like football and basketball, baseball’s slower pace builds to moments of extreme intensity and suspense—much like our own lives. Life is not a grind-it-out, constant-action epic. It has an active but decidedly calculated pace. We make mistakes. Baseball makes mistakes. Mistakes add to the furor and intensity of fandom; they allow for arbitrary, absurd moments that we’ll remember forever. Remember Steve Bartman in the 2003 NLCS? Jeffrey Maier in the 1996 World Series? Don Denkinger in the 1985 World Series? All reviewable calls. But if there’s a certain right answer, what is there to argue about? What is there to be passionate about?

In a game where players regularly flip from Red Sox to Yankees, where there’s no loyalty to anything but money, where even Wrigley Field is being scrubbed clean of its charm to bring in huge scoreboards and video graphics, I find it comforting that my friends and I can still yell at each other about perceived wrongs. That’s part of what makes the game special: it’s the same thing that our grandparents did before us, the same bond that has united fans across generations. The game is not mechanized, and it was never meant to be. Baseball is not football.

In 2004, the umpires got the call right, as they do 995 times out of 1000. Even if they hadn’t, baseball would have survived: arguing about blown calls and throwing the dice with the umpiring gods has always been part of the game. What is not clear is whether or not baseball, in its truest form, will survive if concessions are repeatedly made to modernity.

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