A Look at What Might Have Been – Technology, Instant Replay, and Beyond

There is a lot of debate on the MLB instant replay system. Arguments from depersonalization of the game to long delays mid-game have arisen. This sort of back-and-forth is pretty standard in sports. One thing is certain – everyone has an opinion. I think if most fans just put their heads and hearts into the way-back machine, they’ll realize that replay is here to stay, and that it’s a valuable addition to our favorite pastime. Consider these examples…

I’m going to ignore regular season play, and just look at a few moments in playoff history where, in all honesty, entire teams and fandoms got screwed, and men were honored that – had there been an instant replay available at the time – might not have been.

The 2007 NL Wild Card Tie-Breaker – San Diego Padres vs. Colorado Rockies

It was the bottom of the 13th inning. Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday was on third. The game was tied at eight. Second baseman Jamey Carroll hit a line drive to right center field, where it was nabbed by Brian Giles. Holliday tagged at third and headed home. Giles threw, and Holliday slid head-first for the plate.

The home-plate umpire was Tim McClelland, and he called Holliday safe. The Rockies won the game 9-8 and moved on to the playoffs and the NL Pennant. The problem is, Holliday never touched home. McClelland didn’t have a clear shot at the play, and what he missed was that catcher Michael Barrett had blocked Holliday successfully. Barrett dived over and tagged Holliday after the missed slide, but the call had already been made.

Since Holliday would have been out at the plate had there been replay to reverse the call, it’s conceivable that the entire face of the playoffs might have changed. Since the technology exists, and we know that it works, the argument in favor of umpire vs. the video camera falls pretty short. A very successful season by the San Diego Padres was snuffed out in one bad call.

1999 ALCS Game 4 – New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox

Red Sox first baseman Jose Offerman was running between first base and second base. Chuck Knoblauch, playing second base for the Yankees, reached to tag Offerman for the out, then made the spin and throw to first for the double play. The problem is – it was pretty clear to everyone watching (except that umpire) that Knoblauch missed the tag. It wasn’t even close. Offerman should have been safe. The play changed the face of that game.

The proper play would have put Offerman on second, in scoring position, with all-world shortstop Nomar Garciaparra coming to the plate. Instead this botched call resulted in an inning-ending double play. Would that out have changed the outcome of the game? We’ll never know. The Yankees went on to win a second consecutive World Series… but what if instant replay could have reversed that play?

One more to consider…

1985 World Series Game 6 – St. Louis Cardinals Vs. Kansas City Royals

The St. Louis Cardinals had a 3-2 lead in the series. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, they had a 1-0 lead. Royals designated hitter Jorge Orta hit a ground ball to Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark. Clark threw to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was covering first. Worrell beat Orta to the base cleanly, but first base umpire Don Denkinger called him safe. All replays clearly show that Orta was out by at least a step. Because of this really bad call, the Royals ended up scoring two in the ninth to win Game 6. They closed the Series out the next night for their first championship in team history.

But what if the call had not been botched? What if you were a St. Louis fan, and instead of angrily remembering the play for years to come, it had been corrected? Kansas City might still have won the game, and the World Series. They might not have – but if they did it would not be remembered for that one badly botched play call.

It’s time that baseball fans not only embrace the new technology, but realize that it’s not going to ruin their game experience, but enhance it. Who wants to win an important game on a bad call? It’s even better for umpires, who, realizing they may have seen something incorrectly, can now call for the replay themselves. Instant replay isn’t removing the human element of the game, it’s ensuring that the human element doesn’t cost hard-working, hard-playing athletes a fair break. I’ve worked in technology fields all of my adult life, and advances are so rapid and so game-changing, they can make the head spin. It shouldn’t stop us from accepting them.

In the 2015 season more than 1200 plays were reviewed by instant replay. Of those, a little more than 49 percent were overturned. Of the tens of thousands of plays in a year, only a very small number are reviewed, so the umpires are getting more of it right than you might think. Of the calls that were close enough to be questioned under the new system, they got more than half of those right too. The human element is alive and well, but more than 600 guys don’t have to remember a time when the game didn’t go the way it should have. That’s important, and for the last 40-plus years I’ve been hearing people complain about bad calls and blind umpires. Why would you now complain when MLB takes steps to fix the problem?

It’s not going to stop here. The time is just around the bend when the strike zone is going to become a real thing, and not a moving target. I don’t know if we’ll see an electronic device calling strikes, but what if we could have technology that enhanced and policed the men behind the masks? What if a bad day, or a bug in a guy’s eye – or even an emotional push against one team or one pitcher – wasn’t going to happen? Vertically, it’s a challenge – every batter is a different height, and every stance varies from the rest. One thing does not change. Home plate. Technology can police that zone. If the ball does, or does not, cross through that space – and it’s a three-dimensional box, not a flat plane – that question can be removed from the game.

Why would you not want that, if it’s possible? Why would you want a fallible set of eyes, with every fault inherent in a human being, to make a call like that if you had a better method? Isn’t it about the battle of pitcher vs. batter? The introduction of the on-screen strike zone has many fans up in arms, but the technology being used on network television is still quirky and prone to error. It’s not the only technology available, and there is no reason why a system can’t be developed that can at the very least enhance the ability of the umpire behind the plate to get it right. That’s what it’s supposed to be about, if you are a professional umpire – getting it right, whatever it takes.

I’ll be as nostalgic as the next guy if we lose the spittle-flying arguments between managers and umpires, the glares from batters and pitchers when a ball a foot outside is called a strike, or a swooping curve that catches the corner is ruled a ball. At the same time, I’ll be enjoying that game all the more because I’ll know the call is the best that could be made, verified in every way possible, and that the game is between nine guys on one side, and nine on the other, without the extra masked guy behind the plate becoming a factor.

Heck, what if they could have enhanced Google Glass visors that could track the ball and make it simple for that umpire? What if the umpire himself could ask for an assisted view, or a different angle, if necessary? The technology doesn’t exist yet – as described – but the pieces are available.

Baseball is a great game, and it’s steeped in tradition, but over the years a lot of changes have been made – some to make the rules better, some to keep the players safer. Technology isn’t going away. Instead of complaining about it, it’s time we embraced it and worked together to make sure that, whatever changes do come along, they are the best our world can offer.

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