No, this isn’t going to be a post on how replay is a bad idea and touting the "human element" — anyone familiar with my writing knows how I feel on that matter, but it’s a pointless argument to begin. It’s similar to engaging in a "pro life" vs. "pro choice" debate, where everyone feels strongly and no one is going to change their mind just because make a salient or well-reasoned point. (For the record, I am neither "pro life" nor "pro choice". I am strictly "anti baby".)
What I am here to argue is HOW replay is destroying the fabric of the game, and as exhibit A I offer you Matt Chapman’s zeroth major league hit, which went something like this: "...the throw to 1B, and Chapman is called safe! His first big league hit! Maybe. We’ll let you know in about 2 minutes...Nope...Now he’s out."
Worst of all, every fan knew it at the time and could not really celebrate in the moment. Nowadays, when there’s a bang-bang play at 2B, the passionate roar of the crowd is replaced, by those who understand the system, by a faintly hopeful "maybe!" What a letdown to have an umpire vigorously signal a runner out at the plate on a close play, and for a fan’s reaction to be reduced to, "I might be really happy in the next minute or two!!!"
The inability to unabashedly enjoy that spontaneous moment upon seeing an umpire’s call has robbed fans of an important piece of the game. To me, that alone is a tragedy (in the baseball sense, that is — I do have some perspective), though it is far from all that is wrong with replay.
Replay has caused baseball to get caught up in unnecessary technicalities. It used to be that if a throw beat a runner to the bag, often he was called out. One could argue this was unfair to runners who sometimes got a foot in a split second before a high tag — or you could accept that if you can’t beat the throw, and you can’t get in visibly ahead of the tag, you don’t have great cause for indignation if the umpire doesn’t see it your way. It’s the live, eyeball, equivalent of "call stands".
Ostensibly, replay has allowed umpires to get those calls right instead of wrong, and many perceive this as a good thing. What has actually happened, though, is that calls are hinging on a foot leaving the bag for an instant before the hand touches the base, or the question of whether the string that holds the glove together caused the uniform jersey to visibly change direction where the string might have clipped the jersey.
Did the batter’s foot hit first base before the ball that disappeared into the first baseman’s glove probably hit the pocket? We can slow it down and we can look at it 5 times, but ultimately it’s still in the subjective judgment of a human umpire whether or not it did, or how "clear and conclusive" it is. It’s just that now, the umpire is in New York and it takes a couple minutes, and the deflation of the fan moment, to give that subjective interpretation.
What is replay good for? I would argue that if you are going to have replay, instead of having better umpires who are more accountable for being competent and unbiased, where it makes the most sense is to limit it to, at the very most:
- homeruns and plays at home plate (where at least one run is always directly on the line).
- a short list of specific, rare, and hard to see live, plays such as "caught or trapped?" outfield fly balls or whether a ball right on the line landed fair or foul.
As for plays at 1B, close plays on the bases, foot on or off the bag? Just go to the human equivalent of replay’s "call stands," which is to say that if it was so close that the umpire didn’t have to see it your way then it’s "call stands" — and yes, if the throw beats you there’s a good chance that you’re going to be out, which is why it’s generally a good idea to beat throws by a "clear and convincing" margin.
But this current culture, where the most exciting moments are put on hold until the stadium is funereal instead of electric, where calls hinge on aspects of a play that are ancillary to the spirit of the play itself, where the game is slowed down yet more so that some umpire 3,000 miles away can give a subjective interpretation that offsets another umpire’s immediate subjective interpretation? This has not enhanced the game, but it has adulterated it something fierce.
I thought the very best era of umpiring was when there was no such thing as replay, but umpires were encouraged, when they knew they might have blown a call, to "ask for help" and see if any of the other umpires saw it clearly differently. That gave umpires the opportunity to avoid sticking with a bad call when they knew they didn’t have the best look, but only slowed the game down very occasionally over a call that a different umpire might have had a better angle to see — not close plays at 1B, or tags at 3B, but maybe a trapped fly ball or possible fan interference.
This era, in contrast, attempts to adjudicate baseball with the precision of a surgeon, yet all it has really done is to give the game all the excitement of watching a surgery. And not even a successful one at that.