Foul! Baseball’s Unfortunate Forray Into Replay

Red flag
Today Major League Baseball announced that instant replay will come to a major league stadium near you starting Thursday.  Replay will be limited to the review of disputed home run calls to determine if the ball is fair vs. foul, if the ball went over the wall or remained in play, or if a fan interfered with the ball.  Disputed plays at the bases, balls and strikes, and other types of plays – though more common and arguably more important than disputed home run calls – will not be subject to instant replay review.

The implementation of this rule is flawed by at least two factors.  First, they are introducing this new rule 132 games into a 161-game season.  I do not like the idea of playing 132 games under one set of rules, and the remaining 29 games under a different set of rules.  In a season that endures for 161 games, a loss in April counts the same as a loss in September.  Why apply a different set of rules for the final month of the season that didn't apply for the first five months?

Secondly, the use of instant replay depends on the availability of television broadcast feeds for review.  However, not every team broadcasts every game, thus leaving some games without reviewable television broadcast feeds.  A rule that is being introduced with 29 games remaining in the season will only apply to those games with television feeds.  Most games have feeds, but not all.  What kind of sport implements a rule that depends on the television broadcasting arrangements the teams have made?  Woe to you, O Kansas City!

But more, the rule itself is flawed because it introduces technology into a game that doesn't even need a clock (see my rant about sports with clocks here).  The human element in baseball is not only part of the game as it has been played for over one hundred years, but it is also emblematic of a game that has blessedly avoided arcane and overly technical rules (save for the balk rule).  Baseball players play against each other – not a clock – and the game is officiated by humans, not technology.  The human element in baseball is terribly imperfect – from home run sluggers who strike out, to umpires who miss a call – but it is part of the game nonetheless.  Imposing a strict perfection in one aspect of the game threatens to irreparably move the game into a new, overly-technical experience.

If our new, tiny ballparks make it hard for umpires to rule on home runs, then perhaps MLB should require stricter standards for outfield walls (I'm pretty sure we don't need flower gardens along those outfield walls!).  But using instant replay is not the answer.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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4 Responses to Foul! Baseball’s Unfortunate Forray Into Replay

  1. Matt says:

    I agree with each of your points, but not your final conclusion. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I still harbor a grudge against Jeffery Maier and umpire Rich Garcia for the blown home run call in game one of the 1996 ALCS. When fans have a better view of the game than umpires, nobody ends up happy. As a fan, I understand that officiating is not “perfect”. It has a decidedly human element to it, and that is a good thing. However, since I as a fan have the ability for instant replay, it makes it very hard for moments that are “decisive” in games to allow blown calls to decide the game. Although I think it unfair to compare baseball to other sports in general, I would also point out that every other major sport has gone to instant replay in some limited capacity. Football obviously has the most far-reaching policy. NCAA basketball for shots at the end of a period. Hockey will review questionable goals (all reviewed in a central location, not at the individual ice rink which is interesting).
    I would suggest a possible compromise. A change in the rules and field for a home run. 1) Foul “poles” could be made MUCH wider. Obviously, in the direction of foul territory. Make them light up when hit by a ball, so it is obvious to everyone what happened. If they were wider, it would be more obvious which side the ball passes on. 2) As you suggest, rework the home run walls to be slightly more uniform. 3) Put a chip in the ball. Use electronic “home run” detection to light up when the ball crosses over the top of the fence.
    What if instant replay usage was limited solely to the playoffs?

  2. Bill says:

    Instant Replay or not, you’re right about the changing of the rules mid-season. Here we have more evidence that MLB has completely lost its way.
    I do, however, note that you allude to your “rant about sports with clocks” and then outright say it. C’mon Chris, one or the other.
    But more seriously, you’re still wrong. Technology pervades the game of baseball. How do you think they make strength enhancers? And how do the wealthy teams afford the tremendously large payrolls and the “Luxury Tax”? In a game where some players individually earn the equivalent of the entire payroll of the smaller market teams, a game where records need to be marked with asterisks and other devices to limit their distinction, I really don’t think reviewing whether a home run goes fair or foul makes a difference.

  3. PS says:

    Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two home runs overturned by the umpires. The commentators stated that the baseline umpire has to watch the ball in flight then quickly turn and see where the ball travels and lands, an easy thing to lose track of.
    Home runs either are home runs or they aren’t. Perhaps some changes to the foul poles could also be implemented.
    They aren’t as subjective as balls and strikes, which probably even out in the long run when there are judgment errors, although this doesn’t help the man expected to be the game’s hero when he gets a called third strike that was really outside.
    Yes, it does seem strange to implement this in the 3/4 point in the season, yet the players and owners supposedly agreed to the implementation.

  4. It seems like the majority of people I’ve spoken to prefer instant replay to eliminate the “human error” factor, but I like the human error factor. It’s what makes it a sport.

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