Believe it or not, expanded replay coming

The moment I saw Adrian Johnson rule foul ball on Carlos Beltran's ground ball over the third-base bag Friday night, my first thought was: "Uh-oh."

Why? Not just because it spray-painted an asterisk on Johan Santana's magical Mets no-hitter. It was also because this was an umpire's blown call that wasn't supposed to happen. Not anymore.

There's an invention that could have corrected that call, an invention known as replay machines. And this sport was supposed to be using them already, starting THIS season.

It's right there in the new Basic Agreement. I just read it again with my own eyeballs. The players and owners negotiated it this past fall -- an expansion of replay to include fair/foul and trap/catch calls. And let me remind you once more:

It was all supposed to kick in THIS YEAR.

But it didn't. Obviously. It didn't because baseball had to get the umpires' union to sign off on it, too. And guess what? That never happened. Imagine that.

One reason it never happened is that MLB is pushing to change the entire replay system -- for the better. It's time to say adios to the always-entertaining sight of umps jogging off the field to check the monitor. Instead, calls would -- and should -- be reviewed almost instantaneously by a separate crew of replay umpires. And that's the plan when replay expands.

Excellent idea. Too bad the umpires haven't bought into it yet.

There's another umpire hang-up, though, which specifically has to do with issues raised by THIS play, by which we mean:

The umpire on the field rules foul ball. ... The guy watching the replay says, "Huh? That ball was fair." ... Call changed. ... But then what happens to Carlos Beltran?

If he'd known that was a fair ball, would he have reached second base? Third base? Would he have played it safe and pulled up at first? And how, in truth, would we ever know?

Any time you're asking an umpire to decide what could have, would have or should have happened, we all know that's a nightmare ready to unfold -- not to mention about an 11-minute rhubarb waiting to unfold.

So how should situations like that be handled when fair/foul and trap/catch calls get added to the replay agenda? There's no good answer.

"That's always been a problem for umpires -- placing runners -- because nobody ever accepts where you place the runners," says Jim McKean, a longtime big league umpire and supervisor who now works with ESPN as an umpiring consultant.

And what happens in this sport when managers get unhappy? They spit. They turn purple. They kick dirt. They throw bases. And although I haven't done a scientific study, I'm going to hazard a guess that dirt-kicking and purple-turning tends to slow the game down a tad -- which seems like it defeats the purpose of changing the replay system to speed it up.

But there IS a way, McKean says, to avoid all that.

"If you're going to look at the replay and tell the teams, 'We're placing the runners and that's it [with no arguing],' that's one thing," he says. "But if not, you're asking for trouble, because, for some reason, nobody's ever happy with how you place the runners."

So that's one rule that HAS to be attached to whatever replay expansion comes along: The decision of the replay poobahs is final. No yelling. No screaming. No appeals -- to umps on the field, Supreme Court justices or anybody else.

But although that cleans up the aftermath, it doesn't address the big problem here: having umpires venture into What-If Land and determine what would have happened if they'd gotten the call right in the first place.

In football, which now replays everything but the coin toss, officials are told not to blow their whistle too quickly after fumbles, right? So in baseball, why couldn't umpires be instructed: "When in doubt on a fair/foul call, rule the ball fair and THEN go to the replay?"

That way, the runners can run. The fielders can react. And whatever happens is a lot easier to undo if the replay shows the ball was foul than if it's the other way around.

So that seems like the way to go. But McKean says it's easier to say than do.

"Could that work? I doubt it very much," he says. "As an umpire, you can't do that mentally. You've got to call what you see right in front of you. You might want to do that, but it would be nearly impossible to do. You've got to make a decision, and I think you've got to make the decision you think is right."

As tricky as this issue might be, though, we need to remember something important:
Umpires actually have to make these very decisions NOW. So it's not like this is revolutionary stuff.

When a long fly ball is ruled a home run and then the replays show it hit the top of the fence, what happens? The umpires have to decide where the hitter and runners would have ended up. Of course they do.

And when there's fan interference on a fair ball down the lines, what happens? The umpires have to decide where the hitter and runners would have ended up. Of course they do.

So if they have to do that on fair/foul calls, what's the difference?

"It's not exactly the same thing," McKean says. "But it's pretty much the same thing."

So face it: This might complicate the umpires' world some -- and we apologize to Joe West for that inconvenience now -- but it's NOT a deal-breaker.

And in the end, it won't be -- because more replay is coming. It's almost certainly coming next year. And sources say fair/foul and trap/catch are just the beginning.

Once baseball gets the new replay system up and running smoothly -- with actual umpires reviewing these calls in MLB World Replay Headquarters -- the next wave of replay almost certainly will come shortly thereafter.

Commissioner Bud Selig might have his reservations, but there are plans in the works for reviews of plays at the plate, certain calls on the bases and maybe more. Would Tigers manager Jim Leyland's appeal for justice on last week's strike-three foul tip have been reviewable if that next wave had kicked in? Too soon to say. But it's not impossible.

"They're definitely leaning toward expanding replay," McKean says. "It's going to happen, and the sooner the better."

And to that, let's all sing a loud and long: "Amen." The last thing this sport needs is any more no-hitters -- or near no-hitters -- with an asterisk that says:

* -- Oops. Too bad we couldn't use the replay machines.