First off, I don't like replay in football. I don't like it because of the way it interrupts the flow and pace of the game. And, no, I'm not talking about the time it takes to make a call. I don't care about the time it takes. For me, the thing with replay around is that everything in football feels theoretical. A receiver for your team makes an impossible touchdown catch in the final seconds ... Do you cheer? Do you go crazy? Do you throw your popcorn and drop your beer and kiss the person next to you and go berserk?
No. You put your cheers into the waiting chamber. You wait for the referee to go behind the curtain -- like he's going to take a black-and-white photograph of Old Hoss Radbourn* -- and then you wait for him to run back out on the field, and you wait for him to turn on his microphone, and you listen carefully to his first few words to see if you can figure out what he's about to say. It's like going on a first date ... you study his body language, the tone of his voice -- will he overturn? Won't he overturn?
*If you are not, you should follow OldHossRadbourn on Twitter. Not sure how Old Hoss has Twitter access considering he died in 1897, but the reach of the Internet is astounding. A typical Tweet: "So T. Hunter flipped his bat. Do that to me and I wouldn't just bean you: I'd take the bat, kill you, and poison your pet cat."
And suddenly your moment -- the moment when the receiver caught the game-winning touchdown -- has turned into the end of an episode of Judge Judy. If he does overturn the touchdown, then the moment never happened, it was all a mirage. And if he says the ruling on the field stands, then suddenly you are not cheering the breath-taking moment but instead you are cheering a middle-aged man wearing black and white stripes and a wireless microphone.
Of course, that sounds preposterously fogeyish and anyway I'm not OPPOSED to football replay. I do want the calls to be right, and if replay is the price we pay then that is the price we play. I only begin here because I'm about to talk about the inevitability of replay in baseball, and it would be wrong to say I come from a pro-replay background. I see replay in football as necessary but tiresome. It has given us the right calls more often, which makes it worthwhile. But I do think there is a cost. I think it has taken some of the joy out of the game.
My feeling about umpiring in baseball is that it's a lot easier than being a football official. The rules of baseball are much more concrete -- a ball is fair or foul, safe or out, tagged or not tagged. Balls and strikes can be tricky, but the umpire is stationary and in the best position make the call. Plus the game moves at a slower pace. I'm not saying it's easy to be an umpire. But I think it's easier than being a football official. It's much more black-and-white.
And because of that, I never really thought much about baseball replay. Every so often, there's a passing thought. But before replay EVERY football game had three or four or five very questionable calls. Baseball isn't like that. Umpires miss calls, sure, but it never seemed like an epidemic to me. It always seemed like they would get the vast majority of them right. I'm estimating, of course, but I would bet that for every time I have seen umpire make a bad call, I have seen four or five really good calls, the kind of calls that make me think, "Wow, he got that right. That's really good."
So, replay ... maybe two or three times a year I would have a fleeting thought about whether replay belonged in baseball and I quickly then moved on to something else, like how many players since World War II have had 20 or more triples but fewer than 20 stolen bases*. I just never thought about it much.
*Three. Stan Musial in 1946 (20 triples, 7 SBs), Dale Mitchell in 1949 (23 triples, 10 stolen bases) and George Brett in 1979 (20 triples, 17 stolen bases).
But, of course, baseball replay is inescapable now because these playoffs have been an umpiring disaster. I don't know if it's a trend -- it probably isn't a trend. It's probably just a bad run of high-profile missed calls. But it has felt like an epidemic, and it was topped off by the almost-impossible-to-believe missed call on Joe Mauer's sure-double against the Yankees on Friday night -- that ball was fair by a foot. Trend or not, this is the sort of thing that gets people talking, and the talk now is replay.
And here's the thing I've only just noticed: The arguments against replay don't make a whole lot of sense. We all know the argument for replay. It would help get the calls right, which seems like the most important thing. The arguments against, meanwhile, sound pretty shallow. I think these are the three most common arguments against replay:
1. Tony La Russa: "You know, part of the game is umpires making their best calls."
2. Joe Torre: "I think that the games are a little long now, and I have a sense they'd be interminable (if you started checking replay on safe/out calls)."
3. La Russa: "I mean, you watch us play, you watch me manage, nobody is perfect."
Torre: "I mean, they're human."
So to sum up the arguments as I understand them:
1. Bad calls are part of the fabric of the game.
2. Replay would make the games too long.
3. Players aren't perfect, umpires aren't perfect.
I'm sure there are other arguments, but these are the three I hear most. And, to be brutally honest, these three arguments are pretty sad. If these are really the reasons against replay, they should install cameras and give managers red flags tomorrow.
Think about these individually for a moment.
• The idea that bad calls are part of the game is plain ridiculous. Of course they are part of the game ... because for years and years there wasn't a better way. Do you think that if in 1900, there were umpiring robots who could make perfect calls every time that baseball would not have used them? You think they would have said: "No, human error is an important part of our concept of umpiring?" I don't think so.
And anyway -- just because something is part of the fabric of the game makes it good? The shameful exclusion of African Americans and dark-skinned Latins is part of the game, too. The 1919 Black Sox are part of the game. The fact that teams have to get rid of good players because they can't afford the salaries is part of the game. Now we're supposed to get romantic about BAD CALLS? What? I think of the line from The Fabulous Baker Boys -- "Have you been eating [bleep] for so long, that you're actually starting to like it?" Bad calls are BAD. They even have the word BAD in the title.
• Replay could make the games a touch longer -- depending on how it's used -- and nobody really wants that. But didn't we pass that exit a long time ago? If they're willing to make the delay between innings longer to make extra bucks on commercials, can't they add a couple of minutes to game time to get calls right?
• And then there's the third one -- the bit about umpires being human just like players. I've always just sort of lazily accepted this one in the past.
But when La Russa and Torre said it on Saturday before the Dodgers-Cardinals game, it suddenly hit me as completely off-key, because it totally misses the point. Of course umpires are human. But umpires are not like players or managers. They have totally different jobs. Players and managers are trying to win a game. They will make mistakes in the process, of course, and this is part of what makes the game entertaining and frustrating and interesting. Their mistakes, in many ways, create the tension of baseball.
Not so with umpires. Their job is to balance the game. That's all. They are not the entertainment division of baseball. They are in oversight. And the job is to get it right. Period. Seems to me that the comparison is flawed because we are not looking for humanity from our umpires. We are looking for accuracy. We want the most accurate weather forecasts, the most accurate traffic reports, the most accurate stock advice, the most accurate putters and the most accurate NFL injury reports. Get it right. And baseball should always be looking for more accuracy and a better way.
Is there a better way in baseball? Well, to be honest, it doesn't matter now: The way they do things is unsustainable. There are too many camera angles. Baseball has had a 100-year-fight against illegitimacy -- whether it's gambling, racism, steroids or the disparity of big markets and small. Bad calls are a threat, too. Baseball has to do something. Maybe it's a challenge system. Maybe it's an eye in the booth like in college football. Whatever, something has to give. And something will, probably as soon as this offseason. There is too much money and interest and technology around today to allow an umpire to call a fair ball foul in the playoffs.