Get replay right for baseball's sake
Speed up the process and don't limit the number of challenges managers receive
There's a simple rule that goes along with Major League Baseball's new replay system: Never, ever suggest it's not worth moving heaven and earth to get it right. Those are the only three words you need to know if you want to understand the dire importance of baseball's new system for reviewing questionable calls.
Nothing else matters. It doesn't matter if get it right comes with an unexpected pork-barrel project -- a bizarre and dramatic reinterpretation of what it means to actually catch a baseball. It doesn't matter if get it right means not only encouraging but demanding that managers saunter onto the field and stand around stupidly for a few minutes as they wait for someone in the clubhouse to relay information to the dugout to tell them whether to challenge a call or to slink back like chastened dogs. It doesn't matter that get it right doesn't always ensure that a disputed call will actually be, in the end, gotten right.
After all, who can argue with get it right? Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell, for one. He will go down in history as the first manager to be ejected for arguing after a replay review, which means he was -- in a broad sense -- arguing the inarguable. Over the course of the past week, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams and Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington have expressed their displeasure and disgust with head-scratching replay-related issues.
Through it all, baseball is treated like the slow kid in class who shoulders absolutely zero burden of expectation. Whenever it does something that carries even the faintest whiff of innovation, everyone rushes to congratulate it. Baseball took so long to embrace technology -- even when it meets technology a quarter of the way -- that it gets points just for trying. Baseball is seen as so backward -- a turgid game that alienates the young and impatient -- that even a horribly flawed implementation of a half-system gets the benefit of the doubt.
Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz says it will take three years to get it right, and everybody just nods along like it's the wisest thing anybody's ever said. But why three years? Three years is a long time, and it's just not that hard. Every broadcaster repeats the same mantra: They're ironing out the kinks. The repetition is so rampant and so rote it feels government-sponsored.
MLB commissioner Bud Selig says the system is remarkable, and that's open for any and all interpretation. This much is true: The central replay headquarters in New York seems like a good idea. A group of people devoted to watching every game from every angle and deciding close calls is a sound idea, but the current parameters leave its potential profoundly untapped.
When you watch a game, you can tell within seconds whether a call is correct. It doesn't take two umpires and two headsets and an official review to figure out whether the runner's foot hit the bag before the ball is caught. Four- or five-minute delays -- and that's once the managers have pawed the dirt long enough to get the thumbs up from the dugout -- are completely unnecessary.
As soon as a manager leaves the dugout to stall for time, the folks in New York could have their call ready. If a challenge ensues, the crew chief puts on the headset and gets the answer immediately.
So the first rule of replay should be this: Speed it up.
Secondly, a manager should not lose a challenge if he chooses to review a call that goes unchanged; the penalty system might work in football, in which timeouts are an easy punishment, but baseball isn't built that way. If the object is to get it right, then get them all right, not just the calls that are blown when a manager has the means to challenge them.
(I keep resisting the urge to turn this into an irrational, street-corner rant on the transfer rule. But leave it at this, Selig should announce the following: From this point forward, plays other than trap/catch in the outfield are no longer part of the challenge system. In other words, the definition of a catch will revert to the one that has served the game well since the mid-19th century.)
There are people who will tell you that anything is better than nothing, that baseball should be given credit for implementing a system -- any system -- that pushes the game closer to achieving some umpiring nirvana, in which every call is correct and every game is untouched by controversy. (Providing the controversy doesn't include balls and strikes, check swings, the neighborhood play at second base, catcher's interference or any number of other judgment calls.)
To this point, roughly one-third of the challenged calls have been overturned, and the numbers so far back up MLB's contention that a call is blown roughly once every 6.4 games. That ratio, incidentally, pales in comparison to the rate at which managers are taking the field just in case -- roughly once every three innings, anecdotally speaking.
And judging by the number of times managers are walking back to the dugout after seeing a thumbs down, you could easily make the case that the replay system carries an unexpected consequence: Maybe baseball doesn't really need a replay system. At the very least, it's pretty clear it deserves one that's better than the one it has.