ORLANDO — Never thought so many of us who consider ourselves baseball purists would ever give it a chance, but now we have no choice. Full-blown replay is coming to the game, pending the approval of the players union and umpires union after owners approved funding for a new system beginning with next season.
Will we like it?
It depends on how quickly replays will be decided during games that already are taking much too long to play. It depends on the bugs that will pop up. It depends on how much we will miss the human element of umpires making mistakes and all of us reacting to those mistakes, which, for me, made the game real and void of the technology that often makes things cold and regimented.
It depends on how intrusive this will all be.
The beauty of baseball was always that it just happened. There were no artificial sweeteners. No machine telling us what was right and what was wrong. We had human beings on a diamond, reacting to things in human ways.
Not too complicated.
We had those wonderful manager/umpire spats. Remember Earl Weaver burying the plate with dirt? Remember Billy Martin, Dick Williams, and Lou Piniella going nutty over a botched call? It was fun, wasn’t it?
Those spats are pretty much eliminated now. Oh, there may be disputes about balls and strikes now and then, but managers usually back off those because it means an automatic ejection.
Teams actually keep stats on how many times managers get thrown out of games. Now most everything will be resolved. Close call? Yep, the manager informs the crew chief, “I’m challenging the call,” and then an ex-umpire or two sitting in a booth at a central location (New York) decides the call.
Now everyone gets the desired outcome: The call will be correct.
There will be fewer controversies about how the ump blew the call and cost our team the game. That’s great, I guess.
But it’s not so good for the news business. We used to spend days writing about controversial calls. Remember Jim Joyce’s blown call that cost Armando Galaragga a perfect game? The story was in the news forever.
Baseball will be watched differently now.
When there’s a questionable call, the play will be shown on the big screen at the ballpark. The manager can make two challenges per game, the replay will be instant, and the decision will be made quickly.
One AL owner said, “It’s expensive, but worth it.”
The two-challenge rule limits the amount of times the game can be disrupted. Along the way, there was a suggestion to forgo a limit on challenges and just replay whatever is perceived to be a controversial call. It appears that umpires, like NFL officials in the final two minutes of halves, will have the discretion to challenge a play on their own.
There should never be another close call that ends in dispute — unless the replay is inconclusive, which is not likely to happen very often.
Everything except balls and strikes, some foul tips, and check-swings can be reviewed.
It’ll be interesting to see whether this eliminates things common to the game such as the old “phantom” play at second base, where if you’re close enough to the bag while turning a double play, you get the out. What if that’s challenged on a regular basis? And if a second baseman or shortstop has to hang in longer to actually step on the bag, will that get more players hurt?
Will managers find ways to exploit the system — perhaps challenge something just to freeze a pitcher? MLB says it will have rules in place to guard against this stuff, but there will be bugs.
“The current thinking is that if a manager comes out and argues, once he argues he can’t challenge that play,” said Rob Manfred, MLB’s chief operating officer. “One way to control the timing of challenges is to use the natural flow of the game — that is, the next pitch cuts off your right to challenge.”
Major League Baseball is probably looking at a two-year experimentation phase, in which it will accumulate data on what works and what doesn’t. The system will be tweaked along the way.
The last thing it wants is for the game to change dramatically because of instant replay.
The system was tested last week during Arizona Fall League games, with two major league umpires reviewing video and making the final calls. The reviews took an average of 1 minute 40 seconds.
The system will also be tested at certain spring training facilities; JetBlue Park, spring home of the Red Sox, is expected to be one of them. MLB wants the managers to practice making challenges so they don’t go into the season in a trial-and-error situation, though some of that is bound to happen.
“We made a gigantic move today,” said commissioner Bud Selig, who resisted this for a long time. “This is quite historic.”
It is quite historic. It’s a major, major change to the game of baseball, which just became far less human than it was.
Is it far-fetched to think that someday there will be robots calling balls and strikes?
Perhaps umpires will no longer be needed. There could be sensors on the basepaths to detect the thrown ball and they would be able to determine whether the ball or the runner’s foot got to the bag first. Green light safe. Red light out.
There is already talk about rules prohibiting catcher collisions in the interest of player safety. It’s one of the most exciting plays in baseball. It’s been around since the game was invented, and now even that may be a thing of the past because catchers are having concussions and lawyers are worried about future litigation.
Where does it end?
Change is always tough in a game based so much on tradition. Those of us who have resisted change will just have to adapt and hope the game resembles the one we fell in love with once upon a time.
We have no choice but to give it a chance, but we will miss what we are losing.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.