In this week's New York Times PLAY newsletter, Will Leitch argues in favor of instant replay for baseball. He supports his position with glib analysis (Buzz Bissinger warned you about that, Will) and, stoking the fires of our nation's generational divide, he couches his argument in anti-baby boomer rhetoric, slinging snide insults (Buzz warned you about that too) at Bob Costas and George Will.
The crux of Letich's argument is fairly straightforward:
To state this clearly: Major League Baseball is seeking to use a video camera -- which captures events of a game and records them so that they might be watched later -- to make sure close plays are called correctly. We have the technology to do this; all you have to do is watch it and say, "O.K., that ball was fair. Home run." It's really that easy. You have an opportunity to make sure a call is correct; why wouldn't you use it?
Well, setting aside any value of the human element issues for the moment, how about as a practical matter, instant replay would slow down an already tortoise-like pace? Instant replay annoyingly slows down NFL games but at least there a team is penalized if they challenge a call that is proven correct. I do like the NFL rule that allows for the refs to replay close calls in the last two minutes of a game. Maybe, maybe if you could guarantee that in baseball games it would only be used in late innings but as we know, in baseball, game winning plays can be made at any stage.
As a matter of logic, particularly in baseball, the use of a technological umpire for any reason sends us perilously down a slippery slope. Why not call balls and strikes with instant replay? Because it's insane, that's why not. There'd be an instant replay every two minutes. But once you apply instant replay to other split second calls by human umpires, you'll hard time justifying why you shouldn't do it for all calls. Tennis uses the electronic eye to assure accuracy in calling 100mph-plus serves. How long before Leitch and his video-game addicted ilk will call for total electronic officiating?
But as you read on in his post, the real motivation for Leitch's argument becomes clearer. He's a sore loser.
In attacking George Will's fundamental, albeit romantic, notion that "human error is not a blemish to be expunged from sports, it is part of the drama," Leitch, a rabid St. Louis Cardinals fan, counters:
Well, yes: If you think Don Denkinger's call in the 1985 World Series that helped the Royals defeat the Cardinals was somehow a positive moment in baseball history -- to the teams involved, baseball itself, or even Mr. Denkinger -- then you can do backflips over the purity of blatant, mammoth mistakes. If you believe getting calls wrong is something that somehow "helps" the game of baseball, well, I suppose there's no arguing with you.
The fact is that umpires get the call right an incredibly high percentage of the time. You just never hear about it. Denkinger's famous missed call, the missed fan interference call in 1996 Yankee-Orioles playoff series and a few others (Was Bud Harrelson safe at the plate in the 1973 Mets-A's World Series? I think so. So does Willie Mays.) stick out because they happened in big games. But for a handful of botched calls there are countless correct calls on close plays. Baseball is not better off for missed calls but it is in far better shape in the umpire accuracy department than Mr. Leitch makes it out to be.
The umpire does indeed have a special place in the baseball drama -- more so than referees in other sports. That has nothing to do with the "wistful musings of baby boomers" (I came well after that generation). It's just me looking at something that ain't broke and don't need fixin'.
But while Leitch insists that "purists" are missing the obvious need for instant replay perhaps he ought too look at some gaping holes in his assessment of why baseball is so popular today, enjoying record attendance. According to Leitch,
The reasons for this success vary, but three recent changes -- the wild card, realignment and interleague play -- are among the biggest, and each of them caused purists like Costas to pull out their hair.
Hmmm. What about that sustained period of time, especially just after the MLB players 1994 work stoppage, called the "steroid era" when home runs flew out of the park in ridiculous numbers, giddy marketing campaigns told us that "chicks dig the long ball" and both baseball and television executives counted their clover as stadiums filled to watch Mark McGwire battle Sammy Sosa and then chase Roger Maris? Remember McGwire, Will? Oh that's right, you're a Cardinals fan.
But hey man, what do I know? I'm just a crazy purist.