On August 26th, 2008, history was made in the middle of the MLB season: Instant replay was added -- but only for home runs. This applied to whether there was fan interference on a home run, the ball was fair or foul, or the ball even cleared the fence.
No other call, however, could be reviewed.
According to ESPN, MLB commissioner Bud Selig views himself as "traditional," "old fashioned," and an admirer of the "human element" of baseball. USA TODAY stated that during a conference call with reporters early in July, Selig said that instant replay would not be expanded.
The limitations of the instant replay rules were seriously questioned after a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce at first base. The call singlehandedly stopped Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga from retiring all 27 batters he faced without giving up a walk or a hit: a perfect game. Galarraga had retired 26 batters in a row before Joyce's blunder.
But the protests have since died down. That is unfortunate, because it is time for instant replay to expand, specifically on calls at any of the bases (home, first, second, or third base). To make it simple, let's call those plays infield calls.
I understand why Bud Selig is adamantly against reviewing plays such as trapped balls. Page 76 of the August 2006 copy of Baseball Digest discussed the problem with changing a ruling on a trapped ball. It gives the example of Cincinnati Reds Adam Dunn, who hit a line drive that Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Chris Duffy trapped. Duffy showed the umpire the ball in his mitt, trying to sell that he caught the ball. And it worked. The Reds had runners on first and second with two outs. The umpires actually huddled together and reversed the call without instant replay. Now the umpires faced a problem: how to deal with the base runners, who stopped running once the umpire called Dunn out. Ultimately, they let the runner on second score while letting the runner on first advance to third base.
To me, this is utterly preposterous. What if Duffy threw to third base instead of home, anticipating that he had no shot at getting the runner going home out? There were so many different scenarios that could have played out that it was not fair to make an assumption, like the one made. This debacle and uncertainty would follow every single replay with a similar scenario.
There is a reason why the National Football League (NFL) does not allow challenges when a wide receiver is called out of bounds. The play is over. The whistle is blown. The players stop running. You cannot go back in time and reverse the call, assuming where the player would end up. It's the same for changing outfield calls.
You cannot make assumptions on an outfield ball in baseball, because there is no fair way to judge where a runner would advance. What if a ball was hit softly and the outfielder charged in? Then it's unlikely that the runner would advance more than one base anyway. If hit in the gap, the runners could have move ahead at least two bases. With each situation, the runners could react differently.
This only rings true, however, for calls in the outfield. And not only trapped balls being called out, but also for caught balls that declared trapped and for balls that are fair but called foul. The difference between these infield calls and outfield calls is simple: During the former, the play is ending, whether or not the runner is called out; during the latter, the play could just be developing. The ramifications for a blown call are minimal in the infield.
For infield calls, it is extremely unlikely (I don't feel comfortable saying impossible) that a runner will be taking an extra base. It would require an errant throw of some sort, but if the umpire makes the incorrect call, it's hard to imagine an errant throw in the play. And even if the runner is taking an extra base, he is not bound to the base on a call in the infield, unlike a fly ball to the outfield.
In the case of Armando Galarraga, it was a matter of whether his foot on the first base bag beat out the foot of the hustling Cleveland Indian, Jason Donald. And while in this case, the game was not altered because of that play, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which it does.
In July, the San Francisco Giants were playing the New York Mets. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants' Travis Ishikawa ran home on a chopper hit to Mets' third baseman David Wright. Wright threw it home. Ishikawa beat the tag, clearly, on replays. Home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi called Ishikawa out.
You have gotten the call wrong when the opposing team's catcher even admitted his team got the beneficiary call.
According to MLB.com, Mets catcher Henry Blanco said, "[Ishikawa] was safe all the way. Good for us."
So if Ishikawa were called safe by Cuzzi, the Giants would have won the game. Instead, the game continued. And guess what? Yes, the New York Mets won.
If the play were replayed, nothing would change in terms of the positioning of base runners. (They advanced from first and second to second and third. With the controversial call, there were only two outs.) The only adjustment would be in the score. That would be the case in all infield calls when there is only one out. When there are two outs and an infield call ends the inning, base runners could be in the middle of reaching another base. There is a simple rule that could avoid this problem. After advancing one base, the last base touched safely by the runner would be where he would return if a call were reversed. In baseball, it's safe to never make assumptions.
I used to play wiffle ball games on my tennis court with my two brothers and my dad. So that would be two-on-two. It's hard to imagine a functional two-on-two baseball game, but trust me, we made it work. How? By making assumptions. Playing on a tennis court, any ball that was hit into the net was an automatic out. If there were a force going to second, it was an automatic double play. Other runners would advance only when forced to. Since we only had two batters per team, in a case when the bases were loaded, we had an invisible runner, who would only move up one base further than the human runner behind him. I don't need to get into all the details of my family's modified version of wiffle ball, but the point is, we only used assumptions when necessary. There were no heads up plays by the invisible runners. No risks based on the game's situation. It would be a pain to determine whether a runner would tag up on a fly ball to center field, so we just avoided it altogether. And in the MLB, none of the assumptions my family was forced to implement are needed.
"But how can you embarrass the umpires by taking these calls out of their hands," some may ask. The thing is, replay has been expanding in major sports such as tennis. It already plays a major role in football. With a plethora of blown calls in this summer's World Cup, it might even add instant replay.
So if instant replay expanded, there would need to be some sort of limitation on reviews -- or else managers would be challenging everything.
The NFL has done a pretty good job with its limitations on its challenges: A team gets two challenges during regulation. If the team loses the challenge, then it forfeits a timeout. Within two minutes of each half ending and during overtime, calls can be reviewed only upon request of a replay assistant.
It's a solid blueprint for the MLB to follow. The teams could be allowed two challenges during regulation.
But in the MLB, teams do not have timeouts. Instead, perhaps the team forfeits a visit to the pitcher's mound. Usually, a team is allowed two mound visits per inning. The first can be to pull the pitcher or to discuss strategy -- anything. The second visit in an inning warrants a mandatory pitching substitution.
Another modification would be the number of challenges allowed when a game goes beyond the regulation nine innings. I think that one additional challenge for each team would be sufficient.
The challenge of instant replay expansion will be to do it in a thoughtful and reasonable manner. To sum up my modest proposal, adding infield calls to instant replay would increase the number of correct decisions. And while it is possible to expand replay to calls such as a ball being called fair, when in actuality, was foul, I think that it is important to introduce instant replay gradually. This is because the idea of further expanding it is already controversial.
So I understand that what I propose is not perfect. Calls will still be wrong.
In 2007, during a Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds game, the Pirates Humberto Cota hit a fly ball to right center field. Reds outfielders Norris Hopper and Ryan Freel both charged for it, neither realizing the other's presence. They crashed. You can see it here. Both players fell. Hopper completely disoriented when he got up, ran over to his fallen teammate. Hopper tried to get Freel's attention, but Freel was unconscious. What you cannot see in the video is Hopper placing the baseball in Freel's mitt. The ball was lying next to Freel. Replays show Hopper's mischievous act. Cota had rounded the bases when ultimately, he was called out. Norris Hopper took a home run away from Humberto Cota. Under my proposal, this would still be uncorrected.
But the goal is to improve the quality of the umpiring, while keeping the game real, not virtual or imaginary.