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Inching toward collision ban, more replay

1/15/2014

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A few months ago, even a few weeks ago, it looked as though the final details of baseball's bold new replay world were going to be dropped into place at the January owners meetings.

Uh, not so fast.

One slight problem: MLB still hasn't cut a deal with either the players' or umpires' unions. Not on replay. Not on changes in the rules regarding collisions at home plate.

So while owners will be briefed at Thursday's meeting on both of these seismic changes in their sport, it still isn't clear whether they will vote formally -- or what they would actually vote on if they vote at all.

Two prominent members of the committee in charge of both issues -- Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz and MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, Joe Torre -- both assured ESPN.com on Wednesday that they were "confident" the sport was moving toward agreements with the players and umpires.

But nobody ever promised them this would be easy. Or quick. Or perfect. And it's a good thing -- because every time they try to put one piece of the new replay system in place, it seems to throw another piece out of whack, kind of like a Rubik's Cube.

"Oh, it's not quite Rubik's Cube," said Schuerholz, who has overseen the grand replay experiment over the past few months. "More like half of Rubik's Cube."

Hmmm. If there are any geometry whizzes out there who can explain whether it's possible to construct half a cube, let us know. But the point is: Replay is complicated, OK? And even though these men think they can see the finish line (or is it the starting line?) and spring training is just four weeks away, it never gets less complicated.

So the smartest thing Schuerholz, Torre and their partner in replay crime, Tony La Russa, have done as they put this puzzle together is to admit, right up front, that whatever system they roll out in the next few weeks, it won't be the ultimate finished product.

"This is, as we've said from the very beginning, a three-year rollout," Schuerholz said. "We understand that. And the reason we made it a three-year thing, and not one year, and not two years, is that we expect, as we get into this first year, that we'll see some things that worked great … and we'll see some things that need tightening up, and some things that need to be altered. And by the end of the second year, we'll be ready to have a plan that, if it's not foolproof, is at least close to it."

But that tells us, of course, that the plan that will get rolled out for this season has a chance to get messy at times.

Which is a great thing for those of us looking for more juicy "SportsCenter" topics. But it might not be such a great thing for teams and players who wind up on the wrong end of a replay decision that runs amok.

So players, naturally, have voiced their concerns. About how much time teams will have to challenge a play. About what could be done to keep the other team from stalling while it figures out whether to challenge. And about what is being done to upgrade technology in all 30 parks so that a game in Milwaukee has the same number of replay angles available as a game in Dodger Stadium.

And managers have also fired out their concerns. They're not exactly ecstatic, obviously, over all their new opportunities to get second-guessed, over all the calls they decide not to challenge, or the calls they challenge incorrectly. But their bigger worry is about other teams having access to live video feeds during games, and instant communication with the dugout, which could lead to all sorts of subterfuge.

"We've put everyone on notice about that," Schuerholz said. "And we expect them to honor the integrity not only of our system but of our game."

Meanwhile, as you might expect, umpires have their own set of issues, starting with this one:

Whoever winds up reviewing these replays and changing calls had better be somebody whom umpires regard as being on their side, not somebody who's there to second-guess them.

"There's no question," Torre said, "that when we were putting this together … we knew that when somebody gets on a headset and has somebody else telling him, 'You have to overturn this,' that has to be somebody they trust. So that certainly was something that was first and foremost in our minds. You can't jam something like this down somebody's throats."

Maybe they would have felt that way no matter what the circumstances. But the fact that they also have to negotiate every detail with the umpires' union has forced them to make sure the umpires are on board before this moves forward.

There have been rumblings that an agreement with the umpires' union has been tougher to hammer out than a deal with the players' association. But Torre said Wednesday, of negotiations with the umpires: "We're confident that they're comfortable with that process."

Owners have been told that negotiations with both unions have made headway. And Torre said MLB was "hopeful" that deals with both could be completed shortly.

"Am I saying that every 'I' is dotted? No. Not necessarily," he said. "But I think we're pretty much all in agreement on where we're going to wind up."

All sides are currently keeping the latest replay details under wraps. But it will be fascinating to see the final version -- because, from all accounts, those details have been spun through the Cuisinart many times since the initial plan was laid out, tentatively, six months ago.

Agreement on the home-plate-collision rules, on the other hand, appears to be at least a couple of weeks away, as players and umpires try to get a feel for how they're supposed to react to situations that have never presented themselves before.

But while there are certainly questions, and there are certainly skeptics, and there are even players out there who are adamantly opposed to banning these sorts of collisions at all, so many people are convinced this has to happen, it's inconceivable now that it won't -- eventually.

"The players are bigger and stronger now, and some of these collisions are lethal," Torre said. "So you had to listen. The toughest part was trying to put it into words, into writing."

And even now, they continue to wrestle with those words and whether these new rules could create NFL-type issues, where runners wind up being called out for collisions that are more inadvertent than intentional.

But despite all those reservations and complications, "I think on this one, because of the importance of it, we're pretty confident we're going to get it done," Torre said.

"We're still in the process of [tweaking] the language," he went on. "But I think we're all pretty much in agreement that there has to be a lane for the runners. And there are going to be [unforeseen] situations. You'd like to make it just cut and dried, that you can't interfere with this guy going here. But … the whole thing about it is just to change the whole mentality of the baserunner going in, and the catcher."

But in the end, it's now clear this has to get done -- because what matters, more than any single concern about what might happen or what's always happened in the past, is "the health of our players," Torre said.

So on Thursday, owners will be reminded of that. And they will be updated, for the thousandth time, on what the latest replay details look like. But will they actually finalize any of it?

It no longer looks like it. But as the spring training countdown clock ticks, the end for both of these sagas has to be near.