Monday, March 3, 2014
Call it history in the making
By Jayson Stark
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Baseball history takes many forms, many sizes, many shapes. But at 3:09 p.m. Monday, in lovely Hammond Stadium, it took the form of two veteran umpires wriggling into a pair of headsets.
And waiting around for the next 2 minutes, 34 seconds.
So as electrifying historical milestones go, it's safe to say this one wasn't exactly Bobby Thomson's homer.
But it was history all the same. Replay history. And the words "upon further review" were never even uttered. Who knew that was actually possible?
Baseball's new, hopefully improved, replay era had to start somewhere. So let the record show it started in Fort Myers on a picturesque Monday afternoon, in a game being televised with exactly three cameras.
It started with a play in which the two players on the historic replay screen were a couple of soon-to-be household names who were thrilled to be immortalized (or whatever) -- Twins outfielder Chris Rahl and Blue Jays first baseman Jared Goedert.
And it started with a challenge by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, which was issued not by tossing a red flag, an old rosin bag or a broken fungo bat -- but with a jog out to first base to invite first-base ump Fieldin Culbreth to get those replay machines off and whirring.
"John came out, and, basically, he told me, 'I'm not too sure that you're not right here. But since we haven't done it before, let's go take a look,'" Culbreth reported afterward. "And I said, 'OK. That's what it's for.'"
So off went Culbreth and plate ump Bob Davidson to grab their headsets and wait for Brian O'Nora, who was serving as the replay umpire for the middle three innings, to make the call.
O'Nora then spent the next 2½ minutes reviewing a sixth-inning play in which Toronto shortstop Munenori Kawasaki pulled Goedert off first base with a high throw -- and Goedert took just enough time trying to find the bag when he came down that Rahl was called safe.
So while O'Nora watched the replays from a video truck outside the stadium, Rahl stood on the bag, thinking, "This could be kind of cool. I might get on ESPN or something." (Which he did, by the way, about 87,000 times).
And Goedert joined his fellow infielders on the mound, where they basically fidgeted around, trying to comprehend the "magic" of the moment.
"It was almost like it was a mound visit," he said later, "with no coach out there."
And so, as the crowd buzzed and both teams waited anxiously, O'Nora began peering at his screen, trying to make sense of what just happened.
Had this play occurred during the regular season, the man making this call wouldn't have been sitting in a video truck a few hundred yards away. He'd have been a replay ump, sitting in MLB's replay headquarters in New York.
And had this play occurred in a "real" game, the replay ump would have had a dozen camera angles to choose from, in ultra-high-def, not three Fox Sports North cameras that weren't quite that state of the art.
But, eventually, O'Nora was provided an angle that "definitely" showed, he said, that by the time Goedert located the bag, "the Twins runner's foot was already on the base." So he relayed that info to Culbreth, who then yanked off his headset and gave an emphatic "safe" sign. And the replay era was off and digitizing.
It turned out to be the first of two experimental replay extravaganzas on this day. And neither call was overturned. But it was a chance to finally see baseball's replay wheels turning, after a mere 138-season wait. So now that we've seen this system in action, what have we learned? Here’s what:
It took longer than advertised
Baseball officials have said they expect most calls to be reviewed -- zip, zip, zip -- in somewhere between a minute and 90 seconds. The two reviews in Monday's game took 2:34 and 2:03, respectively. But Culbreth was confident that time can be sliced during the season, when more camera angles and better technology can help umpires zero in on exactly what they're looking for more quickly.
"It will work itself out," he said. "I think time really isn't going to be an issue in the end. And if it is, it's about getting the play right in the end, anyhow."
It wasn't too long for the players
We've heard repeatedly that the players' biggest fear about replay was that it would take too much time and destroy the rhythm of the game. But even after two reviews that ate up more than two minutes each, there wasn't a complaint to be heard.
"I didn't think it slowed the game down or anything too much," said Twins infielder Doug Bernier, whose sprint down the first-base line inspired the second review of the day. "I thought it was fine. I think everyone just wants to make sure you get the call right, so they were able to do that."
Challenges can be optional
Maybe the most encouraging thing that happened all day was the second challenge -- because it happened in the eighth inning, when Gibbons was out of challenges. So in this case, he couldn't officially challenge a close call at first -- but he could "request" one. And the umpires never hesitated in heading right back to the headsets.
And that wasn't just because it was spring training and Day 1 in the replay lab and what the heck, either.
"I'm not separating spring training from the regular season," said Culbreth, who was in the replay booth for the second review. "I'm looking at this thing as this is the future of the game. And I'm going to treat these games here the same way that I'm going to treat them during the regular season. And if there's a reason for me to doubt what happened on the field, in the seventh inning and beyond, when it's the umpires' right to go look at it, if that's how I truly feel about it, I'm going to go take a look at it."
Let's all repeat together: Bravo.
Umpires want to test-drive this system, too
One wrinkle Monday that we didn't expect was three different umpires spending a three-inning stint in the replay booth, just to see how it went and to prepare themselves for their assignments to do this for real in replay headquarters in New York during the season. Asked how that rotation came about, Culbreth replied:
"I've umpired 25 years out there [on the field]. I've got as many minutes in the replay booth as you do. So we're all trying to familiarize ourselves with this thing. And the only way we can do it is get in there as much as we can while we can, let everybody have a taste of it, and that way, when we do go to New York [during the season], we're not stepping into totally virgin ground."
Replay can deliver anyone's 15 minutes of fame
Jared Goedert is a 28-year-old utility man who's about to embark on his ninth minor league season. He didn't start this game. He didn't even enter it until the bottom of the fifth inning. But he wound up in the middle of two plays that suddenly turned into the lead story on "SportsCenter." And how cool was that?
Asked what he'd tell his grandchildren about his historic day in Fort Myers, Goedert laughed.
"I'd probably tell them I was part of history -- and then tell them to guess why," he quipped. "And I'll bet they wouldn't guess that."