Our next Pinch Hitter is 31-year-old Robert Tusso, who grew up a diehard Yankees fan in Chatham, N.J., but spent the past nine years living in Flagstaff, AZ. Robert works as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He studies the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which means frequent raft trips lasting weeks at a time. “But thanks to satellite radio,” he wrote, “John & Suzyn are with me through every rapid.”
For his post, Robert considered the idea of expanded instant replay in baseball and what that might mean for a game that doesn’t always begin and end at convenient moments.
When baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement was announced in November, most news stories mentioned, in one sentence or less, that instant replay would be expanded to fair/foul calls and “trap” catches. It was almost like a Bridge-to-Nowhere rider on a larger congressional spending bill, snuck in with very little detail. This wasn’t done by accident; baseball is a very tricky game to apply instant replay to, and lots of problematic details need to be ironed out. While most fans would like to see its use expanded, I think that it’ll actually end up being quite limited.
The main problem with reversing calls in baseball is that a play often doesn’t end with an umpire’s ruling; it often continues with the actions taken by every player on the field chosen directly in response to that umpire’s split-second decision. Not every play ends as cleanly as when Jim Joyce denied Armando Galarraga a perfect game by erroneously calling the Indians’ batter safe at first base. Consider the following hypothetical situation from a world with instant replay:
Bottom of the ninth, one out, Granderson at bat with the Yankees down by two. Gardner is on third, Jeter on first. Granderson hits a soft, sinking liner to left. Ellsbury dives, and appears to have trapped it, but the umpire rules “catch.” Gardner tries to tag and score. He collides with Varitek just as the throw gets there. The ump calls “safe” because, from his angle, it didn’t look like Varitek got his glove on Gardner. With Varitek down in a heap, Jeter breaks for third. Varitek throws to Youkilis, who misses the swipe tag on Jeter but gets the call anyway because the ump was out of position. Ballgame over. Or is it?
Girardi bursts from the dugout, demanding a review of the play at third. He is granted one, and the video clearly shows that Jeter was safe. So he is granted third base with two outs. Then Francona bursts from the dugout and demands a review of the play at home. Turns out Varitek did in fact tag Gardner for the third out. Ballgame over. Or is it? Girardi bursts from the dugout and wants a review of Ellsbury’s catch in right field. The video shows it was clearly a trap.
So now what happens now? A provision would have to be in place for awarding runners bases on an overturned trap play (like on a grounds rule double), because not doing so would mean Jeter and Granderson both on first. Say it’s one base; does Gardner automatically score, even though there was an actual play resulting in him being out at home? The rule could be that only forced runners get to advance. But what if Gardner had actually been safe at home, and Girardi opted to not challenge the trap call? Could the Red Sox challenge it, taking an out off the board but pinning Gardner at third? What a mess.
If that situation seems too far-fetched, how about a different situation that actually happened (and prompted calls for instant replay): The play where Jeter “faked” getting hit by a pitch. The one critical (and largely unnoticed) part of that play is that the ball hit off the knob of his bat and went fair. So in taking away the hit by pitch, you couldn’t just rule it a foul ball (and a strike). It would have to be a hit or an out. But neither of those would be right, because the umpire called time before the ball was fielded. And you can’t call “do-over” as if the play never occurred. Sports that employ instant replay just don’t do that. A ruling on a certain play might get overturned, but the play always counts. Are there instances in sports where instant replay grants a “do-over?” I can’t think of any.
There is yet another negative effect of having replay for safe/out calls on the bases: It would mean the end of the “phantom double play.” Managers may abstain from challenging for a while, but eventually it’ll make the difference between a win or a loss, and it will be challenged. And going forward, umpires will have to call it straight. And injuries will skyrocket.
Sure these are oddball scenarios, but with 32 teams playing 162 games a year, crazy stuff is going to happen. And the rules need to be watertight. While the point of instant replay is to enhance the integrity of the game, there are situations where it could end up making the game a complete farce (like pretty much any time there are runners on base). We may have the technology to see if a call was correct or not, but because of the way baseball is played, we may not be able to make much use of it.
Instant replay may not quite be a Bridge-to-Nowhere, but I’m not sure we want to see where it could lead.
Associated Press photo