For the third straight baseball postseason, umpires have been making critical, high-profile mistakes in game after game, and there’s a growing drumbeat among media and fans that Major League Baseball has to do something about it. And not just any something, but one specific something: instant replay.
The entire conversation about umpiring has been predicated on the assumption that the only solution to the problem is a technological one, which is fascinating — and maybe just a little troubling — because everyone in the conversation knows two things: There are acres of room for improvement that has nothing to do with technology, and the technology itself is far from perfect.
We know from other sports, especially NFL football, that video replay is hardly perfect. Putting aside the unnecessarily long delays that accompany video replay in the NFL, it’s a simple fact about video that it does not always provide conclusive evidence of what happened. Camera angles can be as deceptive as the naked eye.
And more important, the NFL’s replay system is a laboratory of unintended consequences. Introduced for the same reason many people want to introduce replay to baseball — to put an end to egregious officiating mistakes — it has become the lord of officials. It has changed the way officials call games. Refs now err on the side of the reviewable call, or make no call at all so replay can be possible. They have changed the way they call fumbles and completions. Watch an old NFL game from before replay and you’ll be struck at the difference in officiating and rules interpretation.
People will argue over the specifics of those last two paragraphs, but there’s no one familiar with replay who doesn’t know that replay is far from perfect, that despite — I would say because of — replay being entrenched in the NFL for years, officiating is still such a problem that a huge number of fans can convince themselves that a recent Super Bowl was fixed by the refs.
Yet the only anti-replay argument that ever sees the light of day is the Luddite one: Instant replay would rob baseball, that most human of games, of an essential human element.
That’s a valid argument, but it’s a religious one. No one is ever going to be argued off of it, and if you don’t buy it, you’re not going to be talked into it.
But it’s interesting that the argument against it goes like this: Instant replay might not be perfect, but it’s better than what we have now, so we should use it. That argument ignores a vital question. Is instant replay better than some other solution?
If you’ve been around as long as most of the people who are in the most public part of this argument — media figures and baseball officials — technology has been a series of miracles in your life. You can carry a supercomputer in your pocket that connects you to anywhere in the world all the time? Are you kidding? I’m not even 50 and I remember when it was a big deal that someone could leave you a taped message when they called your house — the only place you could have a phone — and you weren’t there.
Got a problem? Technology can probably fix it, and if not, just wait a little. It’s coming. Marvelous times.
But I think we sometimes forget that technology isn’t the only fix, and it isn’t always the best one, and not just for squishy reasons having to do with idealizing human error. Human error is a bad thing, and technology is often fantastic at doing away with it. But it can also do away with some good human things, like judgment and holistic problem solving.
Think about law enforcement for a moment — and sports officiating is essentially law enforcement. Which is more effective at fighting crime, an elaborate system of video surveillance or a program of job training, substance abuse education and treatment, community investment and so on? Or if that’s too liberal-sounding for you, focus in tighter. If you’re a parent, which is more effective at getting your kids to behave like solid citizens, spy cams around the house or engaged, loving parenting?
If you wanted to design a system that would result in poor umpiring, you would design Major League Baseball’s system. It’s positively medieval. Umpires essentially have lifetime tenure. They are sequestered from the media and answer only to a review system that is as secretive as it is pointless, since it hardly ever results in umpires losing their jobs. Instant replay won’t change that lack of accountability.
“We never know why or when they are fined, or reprimanded or held accountable,” Oakland A’s pitcher Brad Ziegler told ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson last week. “Any time a player is punished, suspended or sent down to the minors, the public knows about it. It would be a lot easier to communicate with umpires if everyone was held to similar standards. Our statistics as players are a lot more quantifiable than the umpires’.”
I am something of a Luddite when it comes to instant replay, not because I’m anti-technology — I have a long-distance line to New York in my pocket, and the call is free? Score! — but because I think baseball has been smart about being slow to change over the last century-plus. Replay would suddenly, irreversibly alter a game that has a pretty good history of solving its problems without radical, game-altering solutions.
I don’t believe baseball should absolutely avoid instant replay because instant replay is evil. I believe it should try to tackle the organizational problems that are leading to the poor umpiring rather than slap an electronic band-aid on them.
Nelson’s ESPN story is about a planned winter meeting between the grumbling players association, baseball officials and the umpires. Nelson describes such a meeting as “rare,” which is a problem right there. Shouldn’t the three parties involved in this major issue for Major League Baseball talk to each other more than rarely?
Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida