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Friday, January 25, 2013
Former umps chief on replay: 'Let's go'

Can we get a replay on that instant-replay debate?

It was just last week that I wrote a column laying out baseball's glacier-esque progress on every sports fan's favorite use of modern technology -- instant replay.

If you missed it -- and that's inexcusable, but I'll try to forgive you -- here's the essence of what I reported:

• There's pretty much zero chance now that we'll see any expanded instant replay in baseball in the 2013 season.

• It's almost certain, on the other hand, that we'll see vastly expanded replay after that, probably as soon as 2014.

• And what baseball appears to be discussing heavily is a system that would allow managers to make one or two challenges per game of all sorts of calls -- including calls on the bases -- during the first seven or eight innings. And after that, a replay umpire would have the authority to look at any key call if it falls under the category of "reviewable."

Well, I got humongous response to that column, naturally, because instant replay is one of those special lightning-rod issues in sports that us media geniuses depend on, because everybody on the planet has an opinion on it. But one person who checked in -- via seven different emails -- really, really, really got my attention.

That would be Mike Port. The same Mike Port who spent six years (2005-11) as baseball's vice president of umpiring after a long career as a general manager and executive for the Angels, Red Sox and Padres.

And his response to yet another year's delay in utilizing a technology the NFL first tapped into 27 years ago could be summed up in two words:

"Let's go."

Why, he wondered, did baseball spend massive amounts of money over the past two years studying ways to review calls that almost never happen -- fair/foul and trap/catch? Excellent question.

"Any CLUB employee could give one an estimate as to how many times (in a season) they had seen an incorrect call on fair/foul or an incorrect call on a trap/catch," Port wrote. "The answer: DAMN FEW. Out of about 22,000 regular-season innings generally played, there might be 3-6 such occurrences annually LEAGUE-WIDE. So what does baseball do? Negotiates expanding replay to cover such plays."

Port said he'd written the commish, Bud Selig, personally on this topic. So Bud won't be shocked to read it here now.

In his emails, Port made many, many tremendous points about baseball's use of replay -- or lack thereof. But one question he raised is the biggest of all:

A challenge system? Why?

"What is the point of replay," he wondered, pointedly, "if not to get all calls correct?"

If baseball transitions, as expected, to a system that uses replay umpires, and if it successfully addresses certain technological issues, it would have the capacity to fix virtually every incorrect call. But if it goes to a challenge system instead, Port sees lots of potential issues.

"I think a challenge system would lead to unbelievable confusion and would miss the point of instituting replay," he wrote. "You would be amazed how many managers, coaches, and players are not conversant with the rules."

He worries, he said, about teams "eternally" challenging calls that wouldn't be challengeable. Which would be a mess unto itself. He also worries -- with reason -- about managers running out of challenges early and having a game decided by a missed call later, after the challenge well had run dry.

"As a basic premise," he wrote, "if the purpose of replay is to get calls correct … then let's try to get ALL correct within certain categories."

And what are those categories? That's not as complicated as baseball has made it look, either, Port said.

"Evaluate the most frequently missed calls and establish what REALLY needs to be subject to replay," he wrote. "Focus on those MOST FREQUENTLY missed. Not something that happens once every 1,000 innings. Make those frequently missed calls subject to automatic review by a replay official stationed in a club's video room. For example, could those that occur most often be:

"Plays at the plate?

"Tags on steal plays?

"Swipe tag plays?

"Force plays on the bases?

"(Okay) fair/foul and trap catches (if that makes someone happy)?

"Perhaps Hit-by-Pitch?"

Yep. That sounds about right. And MLB already has an evaluation system in place, Port said, that reviews umpires' calls -- both correct and incorrect. So it "shouldn't be a large problem" to figure out fairly quickly which plays are worth honing in on.

And once the powers that be have settled on those plays? Then …

"Let's go," Mike Port wrote. "Baseball moves at Neanderthal speed in too in many of its undertakings."

Hey, ya think? Once, not so long ago, Port said, he was opposed to replay in baseball, too. But he has spent the past few years studying the NFL and come to a simple conclusion: They get it. Baseball, on the other hand? Not so much, he has decided.

So …

"It's time," he said, "for baseball to move into the 19th century and show some responsiveness to its fans."

Can we get an "amen" on that? All of that? As soon as possible? It makes way too much sense. But as always, the word from our favorite sport on this is: "Hold on. We're getting there."

And they are. So all we can hope is that when they finally do get there, they get this right. Please.