The Myth of the Perfect Call

Tonight was the night I finally tired of the seemingly inexhaustible argument in favor of adding instant replay to baseball.
Perhaps I won't convince you, but I'll take my shot right here.
The argument in favor of instant replay (as opposed to the argument against not adding instant replay, which is different) is that MLB should make the effort to ensure that as many calls as possible are called correctly. Sadly, that's a crock.

For example, try to imagine MLB, or even most fans, agreeing to the premise of that argument if it implied either of the following:

  • We have to ensure as many calls as possible are accurate, even if it means nine inning games take seven hours to play.
  • We have to ensure as many calls as possible are accurate, even if it means we go back and change the outcome of already played innings or games once we discover an error.

Now some folks will accuse me of exaggerating the philosophical point, which is that, in games of high enough magnitude, easily detectable errors shouldn't be tolerated. To which my response is two-fold:

  1. If we're going to put our foot down on the topic of preventing easily detectable errors, professional sports seems a very odd place to start.
  2. Do me a favor and define 'high enough magnitude' and 'easily detectable'.

People in favor of instant replay seem to like to point to the NFL system as a way of at least moving in the right direction, but I have some problems with that, too. For starters, the NFL system isn't about getting as many calls as possible correct, regardless of what the league office says. As it stands, outside of the final two minutes of the first half and the final five minutes of the game*, a maximum of two 'bad' calls can be reviewed.

* - It's been pointed out to me that there are other, somewhat arcane rules about when the booth can call down to the field to review a play outside the 'seven minute window', but that only serves to underscore my point -- it's not any play the booth thinks is wrong that can be reviewed, only plays within a specifically-defined set of plays, which most fans can't even describe.

More to the point, though, the NFL replay system should have pointed out to us that, in many cases, even though we think a call is bad, we don't really have the evidence to prove it one way of the other. That's why the NFL rules allow a challenged call to stand if the evidence is 'inconclusive'; in other words, if there's no clear way to tell if the call was made correctly or not. Baseball isn't really any different than football in this; it's just that right now, the people who decide which replays you see are the guys in the broadcast booth, and they're less interested in showing inconclusive replays (which don't give the announcers much to talk about except 'dang, that was a tough call') than in showing replays where there seems to be a clear error. Just remember all the attention lavished on the 'umpire's blown call costs pitcher perfect game' story from earlier this year; the networks aren't about getting the calls right, either, bur are rather about getting people talking about the game.

So what do we lose when we go down this route? Those who mock the anti-replay crowd like to point out the seeming absurdity in the phrase 'human element', as if the ideal MLB contest would be a virtual replay of an early-season game by the Bad News Bears. (Now who's exaggerating?) But consider this:

It wasn't all that long ago that, in football, if you saw your punt returner break a long run for a touchdown, that the only thing you had to worry about, once the runner got past the punter, was to check and see if a flag had been thrown. If there's no yellow flag, go nuts, because you just witnessed a great play. But now, if you see your return man go all the way, you can't just go nuts, because you're guaranteed to see a challenge flag come down, assuming the play isn't inside the magic seven minutes where the booth can review the call. So now, if you cheer after the replay booth comes back with the touchdown call, what are you cheering? The play, which ended three or four minutes ago? Or the replay booth, for not taking away your touchdown? And if you think you're not cheering the replay booth for not taking the TD away, then what are you booing if they do reverse the TD call?

I miss the days when I could cheer for a punt return by just checking the field for yellow flags. I'll miss the days when I could cheer for a home-run without waiting for the obligatory sixty-second review of whether the hitter's back foot was still in the batter's box.

What I'm really going to miss are the days when sports was about the action taking place right in front of you.

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