SBJ/October 22 - 28, 2007/Opinion

An indisputable need for replay

Can Major League Baseball adopt a replay system that enhances fairness without disrupting the distinctly human essence, flow and sentimental fallibility of baseball? Yes, and Commissioner Bud Selig should do so sooner than later.

Replay opponents steadfastly argue that baseball is a 162-game marathon, not a sprint, and therefore all its imperfections smooth themselves out over time. Such reasoning has merit and is consistent with our uniquely irreverent approach to baseball, its mischievous legacy, and even the game’s appropriately flawed personality.

Proponents of replay cite the absurdity of keeping a wrong call wrong and argue that crowning an illegitimate champion in the interest of stubborn complacency is an arbitrary self-indulgence. Baseball, they insist, should remain a game of inches and not of intractable umpires.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson. Baseball should move forward with a limited form of replay for at least four compelling reasons: technology driven by high-definition clarity, multiple cameras, slow motion, and fast turn-around; the nature of the modern playoff system; big stakes including big dollars; and evolving societal demands for fairness.

With team payroll dollars in the hundreds of millions, the results matter much more than the wistful sentiment of a baseball blunder. Moreover, America has become a Court TV nation that demands justice, fairness and “getting the call right.” This is the whole purpose of the Bill of Rights, civil rights, DNA evidence and that great bastion of national probity, NFL instant replay.

There is considerable merit to the 162-game argument, but it needs tweaking. Each of the 16 games in the NFL season is 10 times more significant than a single baseball game, so imagine one blown call costing not one but 10 baseball games at once. Yet with today’s multiple baseball playoff system, the one-game stakes are higher than ever. The Colorado Rockies had a spectacular September run made possible by the ebb and flow of a long campaign. How would it honor baseball posterity to abrogate that record string with a subsequent blown call in the playoffs? Ask the San Diego Padres, who have no games left to overcome an apparent missed call from their one-game playoff against those same Rockies.

Do not clutter the long, efficient regular season with replay. In the playoffs, however, no single game is insignificant. Blow one call in a five-game series and baseball history is changed. Blow it in the World Series and a slice of American history is altered.

Casey Stengel may have been right when he said, “Most ball games are lost, not won,” but those losses should be left to the players and managers, not the umpires. The missed calls that riddled the 1999 Red Sox-Yankees ALCS, where two umpires actually admitted mistakes, make up one of myriad such examples. Now the stakes are bigger than ever — careers, dollars, ratings and even history — while the ability to inject fairness is simple and easy: make judicious use of replay in the playoffs to enhance both the accuracy and integrity of the calls. In this modern age of relentless sports gambling, especially the recent NBA misadventure with official Tim Donaghy, the latter should be of no small concern.

Do not review everything, especially balls and strikes, but develop an intelligent but limited system to get the black-and-white threshold calls correct: missed tags, missed bases, home runs and long foul balls. And this should apply to “virtual playoff games,” too, like the Padres-Rockies game.

Baseball “purists” overlook a century of baseball innovation. Racism, steroids and legal spit balls have all been used at various times, the balls have been re-engineered more than once, the pitchers’ mound was lowered, and the strike zone has been reshaped and now is electronically monitored.

Today we have a chance to get both the calls and history right, so why not do so for games that count the most?

Eldon L. Ham is an adjunct professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

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