As baseball's 2014 season gets underway, fans, players, managers and umpires are faced with the specter of the game becoming both faster and slower at one and the same time thanks to the new instant replay rules that have been put in effect for the first time this year.
During spring training I got to see baseball's new replay rules live and in person. While attending the Mets-Nationals pre-season game on Sunday, March 23 (a delightful 86-degree afternoon at the Mets' Tradition Field) I witnessed a successful challenge by Washington's manager on a call at second base. The umpire had ruled the runner "out" but on video review the call was overturned and the runner was deemed "safe." Because the Nationals' challenge was correct and successful, they got one more "bonus" challenge and they took advantage of this by challenging a photo-finish called out at first base a couple of innings later. This time, upon going to the video, the umpire's called "out" was upheld. You never saw a happier home plate umpire. First pumps and everything. You would have thought he'd scored a game-winning run.
As a fan in the stands I found the challenges disconcerting. I wasn't sure whether I was at a baseball game or a football game. Maybe baseball managers should be given challenge flags like their football counterparts. Aside from having a call overturned (which can be infuriating if you're on the wrong end of it) the process completely stalled the game for a few minutes which actually seemed like an eternity because of the uncertainty.
Instant replay is likely to create a new set of exacting accuracy metrics for umpires as the human eye and its connection to the brain and mouth will come under increasing scrutiny. An umpire's career trajectory may now be influenced by how often they've had their calls overturned. This has to effect the game in yet to be seen ways.
A prime example of a routine play to first that was called terribly wrong was the famous "Almost Perfect Game" on June 2, 2010 where the Detroit Tigers' Armando Galarraga was denied a no-hitter in what should have been the final out of the game when umpire Jim Joyce mistakenly (by his own later admission and by the video evidence) called Jason Donald of the Cleveland Indians safe at first -- when in fact he was out by at least a full step. These kinds of blown calls have bolstered the pro-replay advocates.
Baseball is not a game that in the past has lent itself to uncertainty. In fact, one of the heretofore great certitudes of American life has been the finality of the baseball umpire's call -- good, bad or ugly. There used to be a time when life in America was more black and white (television, newspapers, values) -- baseball was ensconced within the pantheon of rock solid things you could count on, like mom, apple pie, the almighty dollar, Chevrolet, doctors and lawyers always being right, the ice cream man, the milk man and candy bars for a nickel. America isn't like that anymore and often for the better.
So now baseball Luddites (like Internet Luddites, and there may be a significant overlap in this category) will have to reconcile themselves to a changed landscape in America's pastime. Just as fans have gotten used to $8 beers and $20 parking at ballparks, instant replay is now a part of the old ballgame. Purists will say baseball's not the same game anymore. But ever since the advent of the designated hitter in the American League and aluminum bats for amateur play, the game's been very different anyway.
Some of the salient features of the new Instant Replay rules are:
• The replays will be monitored at Major League Baseball's headquarters in New York by an eight-man crew of actual umpires who will rotate in and out between stadium work and the video gig. The on-site umpires won't be making calls based on the video, New York will.
• Only two manager challenges per team per game and the second challenge is only allowed if the manager prevails on his first challenge. If the first challenge takes place during the first six innings and is turned down, no new video reviews will take place until the seventh inning. Questionable home run calls are exempt from this.
• Challenges have to be made by the managers before both the hitter and pitcher are ready to go, whatever that means in terms of actual time. This may lead to some controversies and stalling by batters while managers decide on a doubtful call.
• The same 12 camera angles will be standardized in all 30 MLB ballparks so that the video is the same for all games. Every team will have a video specialist to look at potential challenges and communicate these to the managers in the dugout, but they'll have to call down there quick before the next batter steps into the box.
• Fans will finally get to see the replays of bad calls and challenges on the big screens in the ballparks (now it's only been available to TV viewers) which should increase emotions and drama for fans in the stands as perceived bad calls will be repeated several times for all to see again and again.
• In addition to calls on bases, ground rule doubles will now be able to be challenged as well as fan interference, foul calls, trap/catch balls in the outfield, hit-by-pitch calls, touching or missing stepping on a base, ball-strike counts and other minor issues, although I don't envision managers squandering a precious challenge on little stuff that won't have a meaningful impact on the possible outcome of a game.
So, as the umpires used to say and will still probably forever say irrespective of instant replay, "play ball!"