Major League Baseball, Expanded Replay, And The National News Cycle


Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

With a hat tip to the show open of Tuesday’s SVP and Rusillo show on ESPN, there have really been three major sports stories this summer:

1. Johnny Manziel
2. Robert Griffin III
3. Alex Rodriguez and Biogenesis

One might want to also include the Aaron Hernandez murder investigation, the Heat winning the NBA title, and possibly the recent hot streak by the Los Angeles Dodgers to that list, but really, when you turn on Sportscenter or click on national sports talk on the radio there is a good chance one of those three items will be the topic of discussion.

The closer we get to the NFL season, the more NFL storylines will appear on that list. Had Tom Brady’s knee injury yesterday been serious, for example, it would have immediately jumped ahead of every other topic.

When it comes to football, especially the NFL, just about anything can be turned into fodder for the array of round tables, interviews, and debates that now make up the national sports news cycle. Reporting on scores and statistics and showing highlights are out of fashion; it’s all about finding topics, usually about the NFL, that will generate faux debates, encourage analysts and fans alike to HAVE A TAKE, and otherwise give figures like Stephen A. Smith and Colin Cowherd something to yell about.

We can bemoan the lack of substance in these shows, but considering their proliferation of all of our sports coverage, they must be successful in terms of ratings and generating interest.

As for Major League Baseball, it only sneaks its way into the national consciousness when things go wrong. There are plenty of great baseball stories this year: the Pittsburgh Pirates, the aforementioned Dodgers, and individual seasons being delivered by a cast of players from Max Scherzer to Matt Harvey to Mike Trout to Chris Davis to Miguel Cabrera. But in the current climate of sports coverage, none of these positive stories are salacious enough to hit the news wires.

Alex Rodriguez and his (alleged) PED use and his (alleged) attempt to cover it up are all worthy. Unfortunately that is the last story baseball fans want to focus on, even if it is the only hope we have for baseball to take away from the QB battle at Bills camp or how the 49ers wide receivers look.

So in between ARod and the second installment of the OLD SCHOOL vs. NEW SCHOOL debate when Miguel Cabrera wins another MVP award at season’s end, what can go wrong and get baseball in the lead slot in national coverage?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Instant replay, that’s what (or as of now, a lack thereof).

Last year’s MLB playoffs were hardly even a hitch in the NFL’s giddy-up, save for one thing: blown calls and a need to expand instant replay. The depth of the debate was pretty limited, frankly, but it was a chance to to remind ourselves that baseball gets buried in the fall and talk about one reason why.

We can hope for a Dodgers vs. Red Sox World Series match-up, but even then we know the best chance baseball has to hit the national radar is something controversial. The coverage of the Dodgers this season serves as a great example, actually . This latest winning streak is all fine and interesting, but Yasiel Puig‘s bat-flip got more run than any dramatic moment during said streak.

Does Yasiel Puig not respect the game? Do his teammates really support him? When will his opponents retaliate? Hit me up callers! HAVE A TAKE!

That serves as a good reminder that “most talked about” should not be confused with biggest or most interesting story.

Does any of this explain the sudden urgency from MLB to expand replay, possibly by this year’s playoffs? Or is it just a coincidence that this story is hitting the wires after ARod and before the NFL? The cries for replay are nothing new, of course, and it might be that nothing is implemented until the start of next season anyway.

Still, think of this: the 2013 MLB Playoffs start on Tuesday, October 1st, or smack in the middle of Week 5 of the NFL season. That Thursday, October 3rd, the Buffalo Bills play the Cleveland Browns. Even a terrible game like that one is guaranteed to dwarf the MLB ratings. That weekend the Houston Texans play the San Francisco 49ers in a headline Sunday Night Football match-up.

You think the divisional round pitching match-ups stand a chance against the events of that football game? Of course not. But how about a blown call that costs an MLB team a playoff game?

Baseball clearly needs to expand replay, take advantage of 2013 technology, and get calls right (whether or not this should include a “challenge system” is another topic for another day). What they don’t need is another unwelcome spot in the national sports cycle to point out as much in the days following a blown call in a meaningful moment (without a sufficient replay system to review or overturn the call).

Realistically there is no feel-good Major League Baseball event that can change this dynamic. I think we can all reasonably accept that is the case. But what baseball can do is make this necessary and overdue change so that they don’t hit the news cycle for another negative reason.

In coming years, the MLB playoffs will likely continue to play second fiddle. But if that means that baseball quits becoming a story because of its screw-ups or collective stupidity, I’ll happily sign off on that. When MLB makes this overdue and necessary update to the game, that lack of coverage will be an indirect but nevertheless positive outcome.