Yes, it was just two weeks ago that baseball's owners voted to rocket themselves into the 21st century by approving funding for expanded instant replay to fix missed umpires' calls of just about every size and shape. I'm sure you heard all about it.
I just have one question:
What exactly did they approve?
And the answer is: They're not even sure themselves.
"Everybody approved it -- without knowing how it will work," said an official of one club.
"We know it will be a manager-challenge system," said an executive of another club. "And we know everything will get reviewed in a central location. Other than that, nothing else has been agreed to. And I mean nothing."
Wait. Nothing? Is that what he said? Nothing?
How many challenges will each manager get? One? Two? Eighteen? Forget what you've read. Nobody knows yet.
How much time will a manager get to initiate a challenge? A minute? A minute and a half? An hour and a half? Yep. Nobody knows yet.
Who will review these calls? Umpires? Ex-umpires? The occupants of the Fan Cave? Your cousin Vinny with the fancy remote? Right you are. Nobody knows yet.
You can ask pretty much any question you want about how this will work. Same answer. Nobody knows yet.
Anyone else out there find this fascinating? Sure you do.
By my calculations, we're 77 days away from pitchers and catchers. We're 121 days away from Opening Day in North America. Most importantly, we're 48 days away from the January owners meeting where the entire system is supposed to be voted upon.
And nobody knows yet. About pretty much everything.
So how can this be, you ask? Sensational question.
But it's also a question that's highly tinged with irony, of course, since, for years, we've heard our favorite commissioner, Bud Selig, say stuff like: "We have to be very careful about how we proceed."
Well, he's right, obviously. They do. But to be this late in this game and have only what MLB's COO, Rob Manfred, called "the contours," but virtually no details, of this system ironed out? Hard to comprehend.
Now the good news, all this uncertainty aside, is: This is going to happen. Period. We're no longer going to have to watch games decided by a blown call at the plate and hear about the beauty of the human element. 'Bout time.
And the other good news is: This project is in the hands of three of the smartest people in baseball -- Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Braves president John Schuerholz. So if those three guys can't make a bunch of intelligent decisions on this front, there's no hope for the future of humankind.
But here's what those men found after they'd finished rolling out the "details" of their proposed system last August:
Upon further review, um … the whole system needed further review.
So nearly every one of those "details" suddenly went back on the table. And that's where they remain, even after a week of experimentation with replay at the Arizona Fall League.
OK, what are the big hang-ups? Thanks for asking. Here they are:
Who reviews the calls?
It's been pretty clear, for months now, what umpires wanted to see. They wanted baseball to hire a fifth ump for every crew, so there would be a replay umpire in every ballpark, locked in on every call. That would mean hiring 17 new umpires.
And that's not happening.
It may be an excellent idea. It may be the system that managers and fans like best. But MLB has long seen that option as too expensive and unnecessary. So … not happening.
And if it's not, the umpires' second choice, it appears, was to have baseball add two extra crews -- meaning, a total of eight new umpires. Then each crew would make a few trips per season to the central replay operation as part of their regular rotation.
Again, that's a totally logical plan. It's been on the drawing board for over a year. And it's an idea players seem to be in favor of. But it doesn't sound as if that one's happening, either.
Instead, what MLB appears to be considering is a system where non-umpires will sit in front of monitors at the new Replay Command Center in New York (and, possibly, a second center on the West Coast), where they would watch and wait for calls that need to be reviewed.
So what happens when those calls arise? Then a replay official -- or possibly several -- would zone in on the replays, make a call and relay it to the umpires on the field.
But would those replay officials be actual umpires? Good question.
After the owners' vote at the November owners meeting, Manfred said the replay officials were "most likely to be active or former" umpires. But officials of several teams say they were told it's possible the replay room could also be populated by some non-umpires -- who could be anyone from video experts to former players.
Well, here's my take: If that's what the powers that be have in mind, look out. They could be igniting an umpire rebellion.
Umpires are going to want fellow umpires to help them get these calls right. If they get the impression there's even a chance that people they consider to be non-umpires are going to be second-guessing calls from the replay booth, that's going to be about as popular as F-bombs from the dugout.
Remember, all of this has to be negotiated with the umpires' union. So stay tuned.
How will the challenge system work?
Back in August, this was the plan that was announced to the world:
Each manager would get three challenges per game -- one over the first six innings, two over the final three innings.
More than three months later, here's the new plan:
About the only thing that's been settled on is that there's going to be some sort of system where managers get to challenge calls. It could be one challenge per game. It could be two. It's also possible, but unlikely, it could be more complicated than that.
Beyond that, MLB would like to give umpires the option to ask for a limited number of replays on their own, without a challenge. And anyone who has imagined the nightmare of a blown call in the ninth inning, that goes against a team that had used up its challenges, knows that's a great idea.
But how exactly would that work? You know that answer: We'll get back to you later (after it's all been negotiated with the players and umpires' unions).
One thing that has been cleared up? Managers will not have to throw flags, resin bags, fungo bats, emergency flares or Gatorade coolers to challenge a play. They'll handle that with actual human communication tools. What a concept.
• Technology: Teams are reporting that MLB is hard at work upgrading video technology at all 30 parks, so A) everyone is using state-of-the-art digital equipment and B) a game in a market like Kansas City will have the same camera angles covered as a game in a market like New York or L.A. No big controversies on this front, best we can tell.
• Time of game: Everybody's big concern is keeping the game flowing. Which means replay reviews need to zip along at a snappy pace. That worked fabulously in the Arizona Fall League, where most reviews took less than a minute and a half. But in the big leagues, where there's slightly more at stake, time limits and rules against stalling are going to be tough to enforce. Let's just say the first time, say, Angel Hernandez tells Buck Showalter he was five seconds late challenging a call, there might be a little "SportsCenter" coverage.
• Eyes below the sky: You know how NFL teams have coaches up in the booth, looking out for calls to challenge? You can't tell baseball teams they can't station somebody in the clubhouse video room, or even in the tunnel next to the dugout, to alert managers about potential challenges. So apparently, that's going to be legal. The issue now is making sure the home and visiting teams have the same feeds, same equipment and same ease of quickly contacting the dugout. Let's hope that happens -- or there could be some yelling and screaming.
Now obviously, this isn't all there is to deal with, because this is a new frontier.
How much leeway will managers be allowed to "question" the reasoning behind a call -- as opposed to "arguing" a call (which supposedly would result in an automatic challenge)?
What happens when the replay umps have to review calls in three different parks at once?
And how and when will everybody be trained before Opening Day roars around?
It's all, as I might have mentioned, quite the work in progress. But clubs have already been warned: Whatever gets decided on, whatever system gets rolled out Opening Day, it won't be perfect.
There are going to be issues. There are going to be flaws. There are going to be features that evolve, change dramatically or maybe even disappear entirely.
If it's broke, they'll just try to fix it. That's all. And if everyone in baseball is honest about that from Day 1, that's a good thing. It's actually refreshing. As an executive of one team put it, "I haven't heard that approach much in this sport."
But what are they worried about most? What's most likely to change? What's most likely to work?
Yup. You've got it. Nobody knows yet. But replay is coming. So gentlemen, start your video feeds.