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Pon de (Instant) Replay

In Baseball on April 26, 2012 at 12:25 pm

The limits of MLB’s instant replay program were center stage at Tuesday’s Cardinals-Cubs game.

It’s fitting that a relic from baseball’s dead-ball era contributed another chapter to one of the game’s major 21st century issues. Wrigley Field is the second-oldest stadium in Major League Baseball. Some hail it for its preservation of baseball tradition. Some malign it for its turn-of-the-century anachronisms like obstructed-view seats, cramped arrangements and trough-equipped bathrooms. Opinions on Wrigley come down to traditionalist versus modernist. The same goes for instant replay, and the outcome of Tuesday’s game reignited that debate.

The Chicago Cubs defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 3-2 Tuesday night. It took 10 innings for the Cubs to top the Cardinals. More than a few people think it should have taken at least one inning more. With one out in the bottom of the 10th, Chicago centerfielder Tony Campana broke for second base. St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina threw a strike to Tyler Greene in a bang-bang play. Umpire Bill Welke called Campana safe.

There was just one problem — Campana was out. For viewers at home, instant replays showed that Greene’s foot blocked Campana’s hand from reaching the bag before he was tagged. Campana accepted his gift. Greene was astonished. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was irate and earned the first ejection of his managerial career. Three batters later, Campana scored the winning run off a single from Alfonso Soriano.

Baseball was the last of the Big Four sports in the country to incorporate instant replay, but it’s also the one that uses it the least. Only home runs are eligible for review under MLB’s current rules, but that’s really the least useful application of replay. A disputed home run doesn’t become an out after a replay call. More often than not, the batter is credited with a ground rule double. Now, that can potentially deduct two runs from a team’s total, but it’s unlikely to change the course of a game — the number of outs remains the same, and the team at bat has at least one runner in scoring position. If it’s going to use instant replay, baseball needs to apply it to calls on the field. Calling a batter out on the base paths when he was actually safe at the very least cheats a team out of an out, and at the most can potentially kill a rally and change the momentum of a game. Correcting the call on Campana’s stealing attempt sends Tuesday’s game into the 11th. Both teams still get three outs to score a run, and neither side is penalized.

Baseball purists espouse the traditions of the game. For debates on replay, this often comes down to arguments over the “human element.” With no replay, there is a certain margin for error in each game for balls and strikes, fair or foul and safe or out, and that that somehow makes the games more interesting. That margin for error certainly makes baseball unique, but it doesn’t make it better. Baseball doesn’t have umpires to make the games more interesting. It has them to get the calls right. And if the technology exists for viewers at home or (heaven forbid) Al Hrabosky in the booth to make more accurate calls than the umpires on the field, baseball should incorporate it. In hindsight, I’m sure Jim Joyce, Don Denkinger and Rich Garcia would have welcomed a second opinion.

When an umpire blows a call, everyone loses (unless the call went your way, of course). The Cardinals lost a chance to win the game in the 11th inning — Campana’s steal was followed by a Starlin Castro strikeout, which would have been the third out with the right call. Bill Welke lost some respect from players who now don’t think he can make the basic calls. And the fans missed out on another inning of one of the greatest rivalries in baseball. Matheny himself put it best: “It’s a shame is all.”

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