Next season, very likely, there will be another possibility: a challenge by the manager. Major League Baseball announced on Thursday that it planned to greatly expand instant replay, starting inwith managers having the option to challenge calls they believe the umpire missed. The field umpires, for instance, would still have the final call on balls and strikes, hit batters and checked swings. Home run calls by umpires have been reviewable sincebut even with the addition of that wrinkle, baseball, until now, remained a sport in which mistakes by umpires were generally accepted as a regrettable, but human, part of the game. Inthe umpire Jim Joyce cost the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game by blowing a call at first base on what would have been the final out.
At the time, there had been just twenty such games in more than a hundred and thirty years of professional baseball. But then Jason Donald, the twenty-seventh Indians batter of the game, hit an innocent ground ball to the first baseman, who threw to the covering Galarraga for the final out. The crowd in Detroit let out a brief cheer, until they saw that the first-base umpire, Jim Joyce, had called the runner safe, and the perfect game was spoiled.
Replays showed that Joyce had gotten it very wrong. The proposed system, which was announced by baseball commissioner Bud Selig on Thursday, would give managers the power to challenge many more rulings—including safe-or-out and fair-or-foul calls, but, not, notably, balls and strikes, which remain at the full discretion of umpires.
Like the National Football League, managers will be allotted a certain number of challenges each game. And like the National Hockey League, reviews for most of the challenged calls will be evaluated by a crew of officials monitoring games remotely at the league headquarters.
Early reaction to the news has been positive, which is unsurprising. Players and managers have been clamoring for more replay for years.
And umpires, under more pressure than ever in the HD-age, have also supported the idea of an expanded replay system. Fans, meanwhile, are likely to be satisfied as well: Americans, tolerant of massive injustice everywhere else in society, cannot stomach a moment of unfairness on their sporting fields.
At least when it goes against their team, that is.
If getting a call right is the ultimate objective, and the league thinks that replays can make that happen, why not review all obviously close or disputed calls, rather than capping the number with a set number of manager challenges?
One reason is possible obstructionism by managers, who could use reviews to delay the game to their advantage, buying them time to warm up relievers or break up the rhythm of an opposing pitcher.
But the main reason is efficiency: baseball games are already slow-moving affairs, and adding new delays might put viewers to sleep. Fear of longer games and mounting boredom explains not only the limits on challenges, but the centralization of reviews—fans are spared the sight of an umpire lumbering into a dugout to watch replays on the screen and then huddling with his colleagues to reach a final decision.
Now, that will happen swiftly, and out of sight—freeing television stations to show their own replays, or to pack in a few more commercials. John Schuerholz, the president of the Atlanta Braves and a member of the replay committee, said that a review under the new system would take just over a minute.
But maybe baseball officials are looking at this the wrong way.
What if instant replay makes the games more fun to watch? When the N. Instead, the football replay is not simply tolerated, but has become its own minor genre of theatre within the larger game.
Did the ball cross the goal line? Did the receiver get two feet down inbounds while maintaining control of the ball and genuflecting in the general direction of Roger Goodell?
Not every sport has benefited from replay, however. The imagery does little to inspire confidence: What can they really see, hunched over a little screen, with players, coaches, and spectators breathing down their necks?
More troubling, the most common call in question—which player knocked the ball out of bounds? Who can really be said to have caused it to go out of bounds if both were touching it? They became, in effect, timeouts that no one had to call.
So, will baseball replays be thrilling little narratives or clunky, burdensome interruptions?
That question may come down to another one: Is baseball more like football or basketball? People complain about the dozens of interruptions that happen at the end of a typical basketball game—fouls, timeouts, more fouls.
But until the torturous endgame, basketball is a fluid contest, in which possession constantly passes back and forth between teams, and no single trip down the court seems especially important, given that each team has the ball a hundred times a game.
Unlike in football or baseball, in which a series of things have to come together in order for a team to earn points, scoring in basketball is frequent and relatively easy.
Pausing the action to deliberate about who knocked the ball out of bounds or if a scorer had his foot on the three-point line is intrusive—there is no natural pause in the action to accommodate it. The replay rigmarole has become just another stoppage, albeit one that happens to be exciting.
Baseball is also a game filled with pauses—way too many, claim the people who find it interminable and boring. Like in football, a moment of decisive action comes only after periods of stillness and futility, and so those moments and the questions they raise—catch-or-drop, safe-or-out?
This is all a matter of perception: precision matters in basketball, too, but there are typically more chances for a basketball game, with its endless possessions, to self-correct for a missed call.
A touchdown ruled incorrectly, or the wrong call at home plate, can be a fatal mistake. What might a decisive and dramatic baseball replay scene look like? The Tigers, assuming they had a challenge left, would have appealed.
And the crew in the league office would have reviewed it and issued the right call. Imagine the minute and a half as the players and fans awaited the ruling: Galarraga nervously pacing the mound, infielders huddled; fans chewing their fingers in the stands; announcers mulling over the different replay angles, issuing their verdicts; Tigers bench players on the first step of the dugout, ready to celebrate.
Then the word comes in from H. The players charge from all corners to mob Galarraga. And Jim Joyce, the umpire, walks off the field, relieved.