Rejoice, baseball fans: The replay system that you’ve been wanting forever will be in place next season. So long as owners approve the plan this November, managers will be allowed to challenge one call in the first six innings of each game and two from then on. (If your challenges are successful, you get them back, meaning you can theoretically challenge until your challenging arm falls off.) The plays will be reviewed by humans with perfect vision at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York City, a city known for its impeccable accuracy. Balls and strikes and hit-by-pitches will reportedly be among the few calls that won’t be reviewable, which means managers will have very few excuses to kick dirt.
Though I’m glad MLB had the good manners to unveil this new approach to umpiring after Earl Weaver died, this is all good news. The expansion of instant replay should make it a lot more likely that the next Armando Galarraga gets the perfect game he deserves, the next Jeffrey Maier can’t manufacture a home run out of thin air, and the next Don Denkinger is remembered as a well-intentioned chap who got it wrong for a brief moment before he was gently corrected and all the people on the field shrugged their shoulders amusedly.
There’s no good reason, however, why baseball’s replay system couldn’t have been much, much better. The problem is the “challenge” concept itself, a review framework that has taken hold in pro football, tennis, and cricket, among other sports. Sports leagues appear to be suffering from a simultaneous mass delusion. They all seem to agree that it makes sense to set up an all-seeing eye but to keep it shut unless a middle-aged fellow who does not have access to an HDTV believes that maybe somebody got it wrong. This is crazy, and there’s only one reason that MLB and everyone else has adopted an anti-omniscience platform: They fear that the robots will take over.
Their fears are well-placed. Now that we have the technology to determine the accuracy of a call, there’s no way fans will ever be satisfied with an objectively incorrect decision. Nor should they be. These challenge systems are half-measures designed to preserve a “human element” that ultra-high-resolution cameras have long since eradicated.
While it will now be a lot less likely that a Denkinger-esque figure will foul up the World Series, the replay-sometimes method ensures it’s at least possible. NFL obsessives surely know that a game-changing screw-up can still happen if a coach or manager is out of challenges, if he decides not to challenge because he doesn’t realize the call on the field was wrong, if he decides not to challenge because he wants to preserve his challenges for later, or if he doesn’t follow proper challenging protocol.
These are all very bad reasons not to overturn a call that’s obviously wrong. As commentator Mary Carillo has noted many times with regard to tennis’ Hawkeye system, it is cruel villainy to concoct a replay scheme that leaves so many scenarios in which an easily fixable mistake can’t be fixed.
The solution is not to give coaches or players unlimited challenges. Rather, it’s to kill the challenge entirely. Tennis’ Hawkeye—which adjudicates line calls in a matter of seconds and will surely only get faster—should overrule every incorrect call with no intervention from the players required. In a sport like baseball, where the interactions are more complicated than ball-meets-line, the replay officials at MLB’s NYC headquarters should be empowered to buzz the umps on the field and take an extra look whenever a call seems iffy. That’s how it works in college football, which also allows coaches to make one challenge per game as a safety net in case the guy in the replay booth falls asleep.
Though commissioner Bud Selig has said he’s worried that excessive replays would slow down the game, I think that’s a wrongheaded concern. How many people will be satisfied with a slightly faster game that’s larded with more bad calls? (My team got screwed, but at least I got home by 11!) This is where baseball’s extraordinary slowness—I mean, its lyrical pace—works to its advantage. I doubt fans will even notice the occasional stoppage for a brief review. They’ll just assume that the guy in the on-deck circle wanted to scratch himself a few seconds longer this time.
To be sure, even the best replay system devised by man won’t get every last call correct. (Just ask cricket fans. Or NFL fans. Or anyone who’s watched any sport ever.) A challenge-based approach, though, actively encourages fallibility. For that reason, every sport will surely dump the challenge at some point. The only question is whether always-on replay will come sooner, as a consequence of some horrific call that doesn’t get overturned, or later, when we arrive in an age where it takes two seconds for a robot to shout “HUMAN ERROR” and shoot the mistake-making ump in the chest with a paintball gun. Rather than preserve the old-timey quaintness of human umpiring, the only things that replay challenges ensure is that umps will look bad and incorrect calls will get made for no reason. Have a heart, Major League Baseball: It’s about time we saved the umps from themselves.
Update, Aug. 16, 10:20 a.m.: Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reports that “one source at the World Umpires Association said they plan to ask for—and expect to be granted—what amounts to a doomsday trigger: If a manager is out of challenges and an imperative call is close, they can request a replay themselves.” If such a trigger exists, that would help ensure that a bad call won’t determine the outcome of a game. This safeguard, though, reveals an understandable lack of confidence in the challenge system before it’s even been implemented. If the umps can pull the doomsday trigger sometimes, why not let them review whatever they want whenever they want? In a world without challenges, there’s no need for a doomsday trigger at all.