Saturday, August 24, 2013

Looking Over Their Shoulder

Pity the poor baseball umpire. For years his word was law. Strikes/balls, fair/foul, safe/out: the call was his. In a snap, the decision was made, and the ump lived with the consequences. Sure, fans might call him names, and managers might kick dirt onto his pants. But the bottom line was that it didn't matter. Even if the outcome of the game hung in the balance, when it came to the individual call itself, umpires, right or wrong, were like the pope: infallible and unchallengeable.

Then, with the advent of multiple camera angles and high definition video, even the casual watcher could see what they couldn't. Maybe you didn't have the training and instincts to see if the runner beat the throw, or if the ball landed this side or that of the line. But given the benefit of all that technology, 20-20 hindsight became 20-10. Viewers and commentators could scrutinize any call, followed by an accusatory close-up of the offending official. How could you not see that, ump?  Don't your eyes have a 76-times zoom lens and super slo-mo like mine?

Officials saw that the veracity of the game was in question, and so followed other major sports in instituting instant replay. In 2008, they allowed a limited version, whereby managers could question a home run call. In that instance, the officials left the field, huddled together to watch the tapes, after which they came out and informed the crowd of their decision. Perhaps the papal analogy was still apt: they conducted their deliberations in a secret room, then emerged with nary a word but the white or black smoke of a once-around-the-bases sign signifying a score.

Now they have taken the next step. Assuming it's approved, starting in 2014 managers will be able to appeal a large variety of calls. And they can do so by going over the facemasks of the offending crew. Allowed one challenge in the first 6 innings, and 2 in the remaining frames, managers will be able to say, "I dunno about that." They will then tell local officials, who will pick up a "secure phone" to call a SWAT team in New York that is just sitting there waiting. They will jump up, watch the tapes, issue a ruling and call down from the mountain, and all the folks standing around on the field will be allowed to go on about their business.

Couple of things.

First, the obvious mechanics. Football coaches throw out a red challenge flag. What will baseball mangers do, try and bean the ump with a red ball? What if they do hit him? Isn't that a penalty by itself? And what about that committee in New York? What if they're working on a ruling for a game in Detroit, and a call from Baltimore comes in. Do you tell Baltimore, "Guys go out for coffee, we're working here!" Or do they say, "Detroit, we'll get back to you. Why don't you guys take a bathroom break." And what if the guys in New York just ordered a pizza and one guy is downstairs getting it. After all, they'll be sitting around a lot doing nothing, and a guy's gotta eat. Do they start? Do they wait? Do you keep a whole ballpark hanging because Charlie is trying to figure out what to tip for an extra large with pepperoni and a six pack of Diet Cokes?  

Finally, how do you think the fans will react, when a ruling comes down from those New Yorkers as to how their game should be scored? Just wait till the word goes out in Fenway that the guys in Manhattan just disallowed the third out that would have ended a Yankees-Bo Sox game with the Sox ahead. It'll make Egypt look like a picnic.

As much as perfection is a laudable goal, maybe things are better left as is. Sure, replays by a committee of wise men back at headquarters might right a few wrongs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you could say that about almost anything: stock trades, first dates, having children. But there's something to be said for living in the moment, making a call and accepting the consequences, whatever they are. After all, who really knows what the right call is? Or as Yogi put it best, "In baseball, you don't know nothing."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to watch the occasional game, but doesn't care who wins. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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