Take heart, baseball fans. Expanded instant replay is on its way, though it may not be the game changer the sport needs.
Not when there are umpires who don’t know the rules, and others who ignore what they see in front of them.
Incompetence, meet sheer arrogance.
The glaring mistakes of the past week didn’t go unnoticed by Major League Baseball, which suspended one umpire for two games and fined three others after they botched a rule on pitching changes in Houston that most fans sitting at home watching on television could have gotten right. Why four umpires who are supposed to know even the most arcane rules couldn’t figure it out is a mystery, though suspended plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth said he takes “all the responsibility’” for what happened.
More troubling than basic ignorance of a rule, though, was what happened in Cleveland a day earlier. There, three umpires went to a video review and upheld an original call that a ball didn’t clear the fence even when the video evidence showed clearly that it was a game-tying home run by Adam Rosales of the Oakland A’s.
That got Oakland manager Bob Melvin ejected for arguing, and it quite possibly cost his team a game. It also brought Randy Marsh, MLB’s director of umpires, to the game the next night to speak to umpires and make sure the replay equipment was functioning properly.
It turns out it was working properly, which makes the decision not to overturn the original call even more perplexing. Even with the use of high-definition technology, the umpiring crew was either too proud — or simply too arrogant — to change their minds over what MLB executive vice president Joe Torre said was a blown call.
Remember that when Bud Selig stands before cameras sometime later this year and announces that instant replay — now confined mostly to trying to get home runs right — will be expanded next season to include fair-or foul calls down the line, trapped balls and maybe even close plays on basepaths.
Baseball purists won’t like it, but it’s inevitable. The way technology and camera angles have improved, it’s hard to make an argument any longer that the game is better off without the benefit of the best set of eyes around.
Other sports have long since figured that out. The NFL led the way and still reviews more than any other sport, but instant replay is also used in the NHL, NBA, college football and Grand Slam tennis.
Imagine, if you will, had it been in place in the American League playoffs in 2009, when Joe Mauer’s 11th inning fly ball down the left field line landed clearly fair just a few feet away from umpire Phil Cuzzi, who called it foul.
The Yankees ended up beating the Twins in that game and going on to win the World Series, but the result could have been different had the call been correct.
The problem with instant replay in baseball is that umpires are still resistant to anything that takes away their absolute authority or exposes them as human. That seems to have been the case in Cleveland, where three umpires couldn’t bring themselves to change a call despite irrefutable evidence on the screen in front of them that it was a home run.
Umpires around the league were on their best behavior, though, in the wake of the debacle.
In New York on Friday night they huddled and watched video of a ball hit by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Garrett Jones that caromed back on the field and then reversed their call to give him a three-run home run.
And there was a review the same night of a double off the top of the center field wall at Dodger Stadium by Miami’s Chris Coghlan that showed the umpires got it right.
The argument that replay slows down the game is nonsense to anyone who has watched Josh Beckett pitch or any number of hitters take walks around home plate between pitches. Games are bloated now mostly because umpires don’t enforce rules that are in place to keep the game moving, and an occasional few minutes spent looking at a video replay isn’t going to make a big difference.
Umpires, though, are going to be proven wrong at times, and they’d better get used to it. It happens every week in the NFL, and yet somehow officials there have managed not to let games careen out of control.
It’s been a tough year so far for umpires, who have been in the spotlight in unflattering ways, including Tom Hallion’s verbal spat with Tampa Bay pitcher David Price last month that got him fined. Like that incident, the missteps this past week could have been avoided by umpires with a little clear thinking.
Things are going to get tougher on the umps, though, when replays start forcing them to do something else, something they hate most.
Admitting when they’re wrong.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.