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Sunday, May 12, 2013 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.
Blown calls bring glaring spotlight to need for comprehensive replay in MLB
By Larry Stone
Times baseball reporter
It's been a tough week for the men in blue. A tough year, really.
But one happy byproduct of all the consternation over the recent spate the umpiring miscues — particularly the home run that wasn't by Oakland's Adam Rosales on Wednesday — is that it is pushing the sport inexorably toward more extensive, and better managed, instant replay.
Well, at least theoretically. Because if there's one thing we've learned, it's that a few highly visible blown calls isn't quite enough to fast-track the widespread use of replay that baseball is begging for. Or does the name Armando Galarraga not ring a bell?
Sometimes, the machinery of Major League Baseball can move painfully slow. Bud Selig commissioned a three-member committee in March 2009 to study the Oakland Athletics' ballpark situation, and more than four years later, we're still waiting for some action.
And it was nearly two years ago that MLB announced its new labor deal, which included a provision, negotiated between players and management, for expanded use of replay to mitigate fair/foul and trap/catch disputes. The previous system only allows replay for use on home runs (fair or foul, over the fence or not, fan interference or not).
It was hoped that the expanded replay would occur in 2012, but it didn't happen. In July 2012, I was present at a meeting of the Baseball Writers Association of America during the All-Star week in Kansas City when Selig told us he believes "the appetite for more replay in the sport is very low."
Then, before Game 2 of the 2012 World Series, Selig changed his tune. When asked if the new system would be in use in 2013, he replied, "It better be."
But it wasn't, for reasons which have never been fully explained, but which seem to revolve around a lack of consensus over how to implement the system, and precisely which calls need to be examined. Apparently, there was an epiphany within the industry that just adding trap plays and fair/foul disputes was inadequate, and they needed to go full monty: safe or out calls on plays on the bases.
To which I say, hallelujah. This is the 21st century. It's absolutely ridiculous to have millions of people at home watch, in high-def clarity, a base runner's foot reach first base a step before the throw, and yet have no mechanism to overturn an umpire's out call. If such a system had been in place in 2010, umpire Jim Joyce would have been spared a lifetime of infamy for calling Jason Donald safe when he was clearly the 27th out of what would have been a perfect game by Galarraga.
The irony, of course, is that the one play on which replay is still used was so royally botched by crew chief Angel Hernandez on Wednesday. He ruled that Rosales' ninth-inning blast was a double off the fence, rather than a tying homer, and stuck with that decision even after examining a replay that clearly (to everyone but Hernandez) showed the ball went out the park.
A's manager Bob Melvin told reporters afterward: "I've never felt so helpless on a baseball field. So helpless and so wronged."
Melvin was ejected for arguing the play, bringing to mind a great quote from old-time umpire Bill Kinnamon: "When I first went into the American League, Johnny Rice told me that the toughest call an umpire has to make is not the half-swing. The toughest call is throwing a guy out of the game after you blew the hell out of the play."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia wasn't ejected on Thursday, when he incredulously argued Bo Porter's pitching change when the newly installed Houston reliever hadn't faced a single batter. But Scioscia no doubt felt just as helpless and wronged when Fieldin Culbreth's crew had amnesia about Rule 3.05(b), requiring that a reliever face at least one batter, even if it's a pinch-hitter.
It was absolutely staggering that Culbreth allowed the breach of such a well-known (and not particularly complicated rule), admitting later in a refreshing flash of honesty, "We got confused."
Culbreth was rightfully suspended (for two games), but this case is an anomaly, and shouldn't be used as some sort of manifesto about umpiring incompetence. Umpires, in fact, do an admirable job, much as fans don't want to acknowledge that fact. But just as in the NFL and NHL, replays are needed to rectify the glaring mistakes that are occasionally made via the ever-popular human element.
What the Hernandez miscue crystallizes is that all replay reviews need to be monitored by either a fifth umpire in every crew with access to all the camera angles, or by a special umpiring crew in a studio somewhere that has access to all the feeds of every game. That takes out all the elements that could cloud the decision of an umpire who has to overrule his own call.
I truly believe Hernandez made an honest mistake, but let's put into place a more sensible system. And, for the grace of God (which was the nickname of legendary umpire Doug Harvey), let's get the important calls right when we have the means to do so. From what I understand, the umpires want it as much as anyone. I don't think we're quite ready to take balls and strikes away from the men in blue, but when indisputable visual evidence is in play, to steal a phrase from the NFL — which has had instant replay for 27 years — then there's absolutely no reason to let a wrong call stand.
It's not going to happen this year, but if MLB doesn't have a system in place by next season, shame on them. Yes, there are some logistical issues to work out, such as the format of a possible challenge system by managers, the expansion of camera angles for every game, and how to place runners when a foul call is overruled.
But sensible people can figure those things out. Eventually.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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