Credit: USA Today Sports

A defense of MLB instant replay

Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.

-Niccolo Machiavelli

In the 21st century, things are changing constantly. The computer you buy today will be out of date in a month. The new iPhone will be the old iPhone is less than a year. Fifteen years ago, you could buy gasoline for less a dollar a gallon. Twenty years ago email was considered a fad and it was believed by many that regular mail would remain the status quo. In 1947, the resistance to Jackie Robinson playing a major league game was staggering.

Other than a couple rare changes (height of mound, designated hitter) baseball has basically remained the same since the turn of the century. However, the changes that were made from the very beginning of the game to 1900 are staggering to modern baseball fans. According to the rules set by Alexander Cartwright in 1845 and the amendments to these rules that emerged in the next fifty years, the game of baseball would be unrecognizable to today’s fan. Pitchers only threw underhanded (which nothing prohibits them from doing that today) and a batter could take as many pitches as he wanted before he swung until he saw a pitch he liked. Furthermore, a batter could request what kind of pitch and where the pitch would be thrown. That led to agonizingly long at-bats which led to the introduction of the “strike”.

Up until 1864, fielders were credited with a putout even if the ball bounced once before they caught it. Also to be issued a walk, nine balls had to be called, rather than four.

But once the basic rules were set the major changes were restricted to uniforms (helmets, gloves, etc), field dimensions (height of mound decreased following 1968), the designated hitter, and a livelier ball. One thing that remained throughout the entirety of baseball history was human umpires.

Ah yes, the umpire. A group of men who are completely ignored until they do something wrong. Never will you hear a player say to a man in blue, “I just got to tell you ump, you’re doing a great job today. Thanks for making what I do possible because of your service. By the way, do you have 20/5 vision? Because your eyesight is impeccable!”

Indeed, the umpire has been an enemy of players, coaches, owners, and fans since the beginning of professional sport. The NFL finally said, “Enough is enough. Let’s try instant replay in hopes that instead of refs occasionally deciding the outcomes of games, we can get the call right in the first place.” A novel idea and one that has paid off numerous times since it was instituted.

Other sports followed suit: basketball, hockey, NASCAR, even track and field. Yet baseball, the final link to America’s Past, the lone bastion of human endeavor and achievement, was stuck in the past. Indeed, baseball was turning into the “Luddite of professional sports.”

How could baseball install the toughest drug testing program in the all of sports and yet, be okay with games being decided by a blown call at first base or mistakenly grant a home run to a player when in fact a fan had reached over the fence and interfered with the fielder? Slowly, but surely baseball was coming around. In 2008, replay was finally used in relation to home run calls; i.e. fair or foul and fan interference.

However, the 2013 World Series turned into a mockery as controversial calls became the story rather than the actual play on the field. This winter the commissioner and owners agreed to introduce a full-blown instant replay system. No more would bad calls at first hinder a team from winning or a pitcher achieve a perfect game. No more would runner interference become a judgement call or a trapped ball in the outfield be ruled an out. Or so everyone thought.

Indeed, the first two weeks of instant replay in Major League Baseball has been far from glorious. There wasno honeymoon period. Even with the replays several calls have been wrong. The time spent reviewing the calls (done remotely in New York City) has been longer than expected. Rather than causing less stress and anguish, instant replay has caused more.

Baseball purists, outraged on the outside and sadistically rejoicing on the inside, loudly proclaim “See! We told you it wouldn’t work! It was better before!” Really? It was better before? How short are the memories of the close-minded.

Why are people still so resistant to this inevitable change? No, it hasn’t been perfect. But perfect is the enemy of good. Anyway, the previous question: what causes people to hate change even when it’s a good thing in the long-run?

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and their Center for Urban Transportation Studies (thrilling I know, and totally unrelated to our topic) has published a report exploring why certain people resist change. Several of their reasons are applicable to instant replay in MLB and why there is so much acrimony regarding its introduction.

1.)When the change threatens to modify established patterns of working relationships between people.

For our topic this can be translated: because the change goes against how things have been done for 150 years. The umpire’s job has always been controlling the events on the field and making sure rules were followed and that the game would progress in a timely matter. This role often led to confrontations with the other parties involved (players, coaches, fans) because umpires are not perfect. They make mistakes. Some more than others. Cheers Joe West!

But why change? It’s always been that way. It makes baseball, baseball. Try telling that to fans of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals.

2.)When the benefits and rewards for making the change are not seen as adequate for the trouble involved.

Opponents to instant replay in baseball are quick to point out that the new institution will cause games to take longer and games already take too long. Reviews have occasionally taken longer than advertised and it is puzzling why it takes so long to make a decision on plays that viewers at home can decipher the correct call after one view of the replay. This will inevitably improve. The replay officials back in New York will become more efficient and umpires will get better at quickly getting in contact with the officials.

However, the argument that replay takes too long reeks of hypocrisy. Before replay, managers would storm out of the dugout when they disagreed with a call and argue for 3-5 minutes with the umpire. This would never change the call on the field and five minutes were wasted. At least now, even if it takes 3 minutes, the correct call is probably going to be made.

The new rules state that if a manager comes out and argues a reviewed call they are automatically ejected. That seems fair. However, there was something magical about the manager-umpire showdowns. Earl Weaver must be rolling over in his grave.

3.)When the proposed users have not been consulted about the change, and it is offered to them as an accomplished fact.

Half of this doesn’t apply to our topic because teams were definitely consulted before this change was instituted. But many critics seems to think that the way the system works now is how it will work forever. In fact, the system that will emerge out of this season will likely be different in the future.This is version 1.0 and better things are on the way. This system is still better than before and perfection doesn’t happen in this life. Deal with it.

4.)When the change threatens jobs, power or status in an organization.

The Luddites were home artisans in Europe during the Industrial Revolution and they were very vocal about their displeasure with the emergence of technology that made manufacturing various goods cheaper and quicker. These developments directly affected these artisans and put most of them out of business.

This is not discussed much, but it’s worth noting: will instant replay eventually replace umpires completely? The purist will say they hope not. And sure, umpires are a part of baseball and there’s something therapeutic about the “Strike” call of Jim Joyce. However, the logical progression of technology and baseball is that someday umpires are unnecessary. This is not an argument for that outcome and it’s unrealistic to expect that to happen anytime in the next several decades.

The fact remains that getting allthe calls correct should be the most important part of this whole debate. If umpires can do it, (which they’ve proven they can’t) great. If instant replay can do it (which so far it doesn’t), great. However, it appears that we are on the right track . Change isn’t always the easiest thing to experience, but when “progress” accompanies change, that is when good things happen.

Tags: MLB MLB Instant Replay

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