Baseball is a game of mistakes. Mistakes made by pitchers lead to most home runs in the major leagues; mistakes made by fielders (such as Bill Buckner’s infamous gaffe in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series) can give new life to whoever’s at the plate.
But the worst of all are mistakes made by umpires.
Sports are built around the ideal of fair competition, but when an official calls a play incorrectly, the game doesn’t meet this standard.
Luckily, most sports now use instant replay to ensure that officials have made the right call. These sports responsibly recognize that referees are only human, employing a backup plan to account for that in important situations.
The list of such sports goes on and on–both the NFL and the US Tennis Association use challenge systems; NBA refs can check whether shots got off in time, or whether a shooter’s foot is on the three-point line; the NHL even has a war-room set up in Toronto where every goal scored in the league is reviewed.
But that list has one conspicuous absence–baseball.
Though the MLB allows for instant replay on home-run calls, closer plays in the infield are left entirely up to the umpires.
And they don’t always get it right, either. Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga lost his perfect game with two outs in the ninth on June 2 when umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call at first, while the San Francisco Giants lost on July 18 after umpire Phil Cuzzi missed a call on a play at the plate.
Does it make any sense to reward the team that should lose when there are viable instant replay systems out there, just waiting to be used?
The MLB did take a positive step forward by instituting home run review in 2008. Instant replay was used on home run calls six times in just the first month and a half under the rule.
Yet instant replay in baseball still doesn’t extend far enough. While the difference between a home run and a double (in the case of fan interference) is significant, the difference between scoring and being thrown out at the plate is just as important.
Opponents of instant replay in baseball fear that it will make games longer and more drawn out than they already are. If we’ve learned anything from home run reviews, however, it’s this: the painless, five-minute sacrifices for these relatively rare occurrences are well worth it.
Although close plays in the infield are much more common than controversial home runs, they shouldn’t take much time to review, either. These plays will be even quicker to verify with instant replay, as camera angles near the outfield fences are much poorer than those in the infield.
In the end, instant replay could even save time in many cases, as it would prevent managers from throwing a 10-minute tirade every time a crucial call went the other way. (With Lou Piniella retiring after this season, though, the time improvement might not be noticeable.)
Despite the ease of a single infield review, the time that multiple stoppages take could add up in a game. This means that the best way to conduct reviews in baseball would be a challenge system similar to that used for football. In the NFL, each team is given two challenges, and a sometimes a conditional third one if both of the other challenges are won, while any controversial calls in the final two minutes of a half are automatically reviewed by the officials.
In baseball, this system would set a reasonable limit on managers, preventing games from going long while ensuring justice in the all-important ninth inning. Some adjustments would have to be made–a manager with an extra review could use it to delay while a new pitcher warms up–but a feasible framework for instant replay is already in the hands of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.
Whatever impact instant replay may have on the length of games, at its core the issue is one of fairness. And if the MLB doesn’t want to make baseball fair, there’s only one other way the sport can be.