Better safe than sorry

Think it's time baseball embraces instant replay? Be careful what you wish for.

Originally Published: November 2, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Bryant IllustrationMark Smith for ESPN The MagazineEven if MLB gets the system right, it must be wary of consequences, says Bryant.

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WHEN THE REAL NFL referees took the field and the replacements went back to the Lingerie League, officiating did not -- as we all hoped -- return to its rightful place in the backdrop of sports. Instead, prompted by a bizarre infield fly rule call in the Braves-Cardinals wild-card game and followed by an egregious missed tag in the Yankees-Tigers AL championship series, alarms were sounded for instant replay in the one sport that somehow has managed to keep it largely at bay.

As the World Series gives way to the offseason, the burning question isn't where Josh Hamilton will wind up or what Ozzie Guillen will do or say next but whether it's inevitable MLB will introduce some form of a replay challenge system -- sooner than later. However Bud Selig ends up resolving that question, it's clear he must confront a radical shift in baseball's culture. "Before the playoffs, you probably would have guessed instant replay was 12th or 13th on the list of priorities when we meet in the offseason," says Tony La Russa, the former Cardinals manager who now works in the commissioner's office. "But after some of the calls we've seen in the playoffs, it's probably moved up to 2 or 3."

Numerous forces have made replay one of sports' fault lines. There's the clash of sensibilities between old-guard executives and the newer, younger generation that grew up with reviews and challenges. There's the explosion of social media and talk radio, which constantly inflates and elongates each blown-call controversy into a weeklong epidemic. Most important, however, is the technology. Fans now view games on 50-inch televisions with high-definition resolution and DVR capabilities -- their own instant replay booths. Meanwhile, networks rewind and review plays forensically with superzoom-lens angles. Technology has exposed officiating to an unprecedented level of scrutiny.

Baseball has fought the tide by employing two arguments. First, it has clung to the notion that the human element is part of the game. Selig likes to remind critics that the game survived Don Denkinger's infamously bad call in the 1985 World Series. The sun came up the next day. The game didn't collapse. The Republic survived. But with millions of people now watching replays of a blown call in hi-def, this stance is becoming indefensible, for it can be seen as condoning, out of pure stubbornness, errors that are readily identifiable and correctable.

Baseball's second argument, that the sport has too many moving parts to implement replay effectively, is more compelling. Compute the scenario: Nats-Braves, runners on second and third, one out. Rightfielder Jayson Werth makes a diving stab that's ruled a trap on the field. Both runners score. Storming from the dugout, Davey Johnson uses a challenge. Turns out Werth caught the ball. How is the successful challenge remedied? Is the runner from third allowed to score? (He might have tagged up if the original call had been a catch.) Is the runner from second out? (He might have been doubled off.) You can't redo the pitch. Unlike football, where hundreds of plays a year never happened (penalties offset, replay the down), MLB doesn't have a culture of do-overs.

Certainly, baseball could, like other sports, determine which plays can and cannot be challenged. Already, discussion is under way to limit replay to noncontinuous plays, such as stolen bases. But even if MLB gets its system right, it must be wary of unintended consequences. In 2006, tennis introduced its replay system, which allows players to challenge calls. One result? Some umpires have grown more reluctant to overrule their line judges, out of fear that they, in turn, will be corrected by a challenge. Instead, they increasingly leave it up to a player to flag any close calls. That places an unfair burden on the player to both compete and do the umpire's job. It's not hard to imagine a similar chilling effect on baseball umpires. "The last thing we want," says Joe Torre, who also works in the commissioner's office, "is for umpires to feel they are being discouraged from having a voice, from doing their jobs."

This is why baseball finds itself in an impossible spot. Because as tough as it is to witness a bad call, hearing the words "Mr. Bochy is challenging the play" might actually be the greater of two evils.

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