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Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Instant replay not ending controversial calls

By David Schoenfield

We’re four days into expanded instant replay and I feel like I just ran into the brick wall at Wrigley Field before the ivy was planted.

My head hurts trying to understand some of the new rules and ramifications. We’re getting more calls correct -- and that’s admirable and necessary -- but we’re still seeing controversy and confusion. Trouble is, last year we could simply blame the umpires, and what’s more American than that? (Sorry, umps.) Who do we yell at now? The umpires? The umpires reviewing the plays in New York? The manager of your team for wasting his challenge on a correct call? The camera guys for not getting the exact perfect angle to review a play? Joe Torre? Alex Rodriguez?

Be careful what you wish for. We should have known from watching the NFL that instant replay wasn’t going to be a panacea. That doesn’t mean these first few days haven’t been frustrating.

On Wednesday, the Pirates led the Cubs 2-0 in the eighth inning as the Cubs loaded the bases with one out. Nate Schierholtz grounded to second baseman Neil Walker and the Pirates turned a 6-4-3 double play. Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon pumped his fist, believing he’d escaped the jam.

Except Walker’s throw to shortstop Jordy Mercer was wide of the second-base bag and replays clearly showed Mercer hadn’t touched the bag. Cubs manager Rick Renteria came out to question the call. The umpires went to the replay center and the call was overturned, giving the Cubs their first run of the game.

Simple enough, right? Not so fast. The instant replay rules state that the neighborhood play at second -- when an infielder may leave the bag a fraction of a second early in order to avoid getting drilled by the oncoming baserunner -- is not reviewable. On the other hand, a force play is reviewable. The two contradict each other since a neighborhood play is also a force play.

I would argue in this case that the umpires got the call correct. Mercer failed to touch the bag not because he was avoiding a runner but because Walker gave him a bad feed. That made it a force play, not a neighborhood play. The ruling ended up impacting the game as the Cubs scored a second run in the ninth to tie the game, sending it into extra innings (the Pirates eventually won in 16).

Torre, MLB’s executive vice president of Operations, would agree with that assessment. In an interview last week with ESPN he said, "There is a play at second base that is known as the neighborhood play, which is really a second baseman or shortstop getting the throw on a double play that may not touch the base at the same time that he has the ball. This is a negotiation with the players' association so a lot of the infielders don’t have to stay there and maybe get hurt on a slide in. So it’s not something where somebody is reaching for a ball. That would be replayed -- any kind of high throw that may have pulled him off the bag."

So overturning the call was definitely correct. Still, there was a minor feeding frenzy on Twitter about a neighborhood play being reviewed. There was also another controversy earlier in the day when White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton caught or dropped a routine fly ball while exchanging it to his throwing hand. The play was originally ruled a catch but changed to an error upon review, even though replays didn’t seem to provide irrefutable evidence that he never had control of the ball. Trevor Plouffe, the runner on first base, was awarded second base, even though he had returned to first base.

All this on top of the play at home plate from Tuesday’s Giants-Diamondbacks game when Bruce Bochy couldn’t challenge the call since he’d already challenged an earlier play, or the difficult-to-call bang-bang play at home plate, where runners can no longer lower their shoulder and plow through the catcher but catchers aren’t supposed to intentionally block the plate. Good luck trying to rule on some of those plays (although college baseball has managed to play seamlessly without allowing home-plate collisions).

So we’re learning that replay is not going to be a perfect system. The delays, while usually short, do seem to provide an unnatural pause to a game, but considering this is a sport in which Josh Beckett can take 30-plus seconds between pitches or batters can step up out of the batter’s box and recite Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” while adjusting their batting gloves, we shouldn’t complain too much.

I do, however, already miss managers yelling at the men in blue, even if that will soon seem like a relic of baseball’s past, like ivy-free walls at Wrigley.