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Innovation and the American Pastime: Instant Replay's as Inevitable as the Designated Hitter

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Baseball, America's National Pastime, has long been infatuated with its long, illustrious history. Box scores are largely unchanged since their invention by cricket enthusiast Henry Chadwick in 1863. The Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves are in their third centuries and 139th seasons as continually operating ballclubs; they are five years older than Wimbledon, seven years older than Manchester United, and eighteen years older than the Eiffel Tower. Small wonder that it's been hard to get them to accept changes to the game. But baseball's fan base has two major complaints, and if baseball doesn't want to continue to lose young fans, it will need to address the frequent refrains that 1) the game is boring, and 2) the game is unfair. And atavists will need to accept the changes, because once they are made, they will have all the permanence of a century's worth of history.

Games have been getting longer because of television and specialization. The more roster changes, the more commercial breaks, the longer fans have to sit and wait for action. (If you want to shorten the length of games, limiting pitching changes is an excellent place to start.) And now the game threatens to get even longer: following an exceptional flurry this spring of controversial and frequently incorrect rulings on home runs -- the most important, game-changing events that can occur in a baseball match -- the clamor to bring instant replay from the armchair to the field, as has been done in football and hockey, has reached deafening pitch.

Instant replay may make the games longer, but continuing to ignore it is even worse. Umpires get the vast majority of calls on the vast majority of situations correct, but controversial home runs are a rare enough occurrence that mistaking them on the margins has a real effect, one unlikely to balance out. Letting the effects of bad home run calls stand in the won-loss column is patently unfair. This is why instant replay is likely headed into the game, over the protestations of George Will and others.

Fairness is biggest reason for the controversy over performance-enhancing drugs, which add offense and make the game more exciting at the cost of an uneven playing field. Slightly less urgent but related is the controversy surrounding the designated hitter, a piddling 1973 addition to baseball's rulebook that provides that teams in Major League Baseball's American League may designate a hitter to bat instead of their pitcher. Because pitchers are poor hitters, this increases offense in games and leads to higher scores, which many fans prefer.

The oddity of baseball's two leagues playing under two different rulebooks has simply been accepted as a necessary abnormality, and that's where it'll probably stay, unless Hank Steinbrenner has his say. He doesn't think it's fair that pitchers have to hit and run the bases in the National League, where Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang managed to get injured during inter-league play. Steinbrenner calls the very notion of pitchers hitting for themselves "a rule from the 1800s."

While I completely disagree with him -- his logic appears to be that it's unfair for his multimillionaire athlete employees to face the risk of injury by actually playing the game he pays them for -- he is correct that interleague play (and the World Series) are unfair, because two teams must face each other despite having been constructed to play according to different rules. Many fans feel the DH makes the game less boring, and it's so popular within its league it isn't going anywhere. And the National League won't give up on seeing pitchers hit any time soon. So while the incongruity in the rules is unfair, it's not going to change.

Baseball has a lot of rules from the 1800s. That's what makes it so special, and what makes it so infuriatingly resistant to change, even to scrutiny, which allowed the steroid scandal to boil for as long as it did. That's what makes its sportswriters, pundits, and scribes so suspicious of the statistical revolution in baseball, the notion that there can be new ways to evaluate such a traditional old game. But baseball's stubbornness is not confined only to rules from the 1800s: once something enters baseball, from playing baseball at night to paying players $20 million a year, it is almost impossible to get rid of it. Both instant replay and the DH will be hard to unseat once they enter baseball. We're just going to have to get used to the change.