The Way We Watch

There has been debate for years about whether baseball should have instant replay.  Football has its red challenge flags (which, frankly, has always seemed a little hokey to me), and basketball reviews “buzzer” plays at the end of each quarter, and hockey reviews questionable goals.  Baseball, however, to this point has resisted this technological advent.  Instant replay may be on its way, however, as Major League Baseball’s General Managers voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of instant replay in regards to home runs, specifically in relation to issues of fan interference and “fair or foul”. 

Baseball has held out largely by the force of will of so-called “traditionalists”.  The argument of these traditionalists has been “human error has always been part of the game”.  I think this is insane.  Tradition, solely for its own sake, I think, is crazy.  Other things that were “tradition” (at least, in the sense that they’ve been around for most of baseball history): no free agency; segregation; only day games.  Hell, why don’t we just bar the Chicago Cubs from making the playoffs, because “the Cubs losing has always been part of the game”. 

The secondary argument by the traditionalists, which is less crazy, is that instant replay will slow down the games.  This, however, shows a lack of common sense.  When a player comes up, turns on an inside fastball, and BOOM! there goes the ball flying, hooking down the right field line (our hypothetical batter is probably Chase Utley), this is what seems to generally happen, assuming the ball is very, very close to the foul pole.  The first base umpire rules the ball fair, and Utley circles the bases, having hit a home run.  Some grumpy manager thinks the ball was foul, though, and so he rushes out as quickly as his advancing age and expanding waistline (our hypothetical manager is probably Bobby Cox) will allow, and tells the umpire (our hypothetical umpire is probably CB Buckner) that, among other things, he got the call wrong. 

The two of them argue for a bit, and our blockheaded announcer (our hypothetical color man is Tim McCarver) will explain that Bobby Cox is inspiring his team, or something.  Eventually, Cox gets his point across, and so CB and the rest of the umpires get together on the infield grass, roughly 2/5th of the way between first base and the pitcher’s mound.  They all saw American Gangster(separately) over the weekend (our hypothetical situation is probably anachronistic), and two of them are complaining that, on the Giant Screen upon which the movie played, they were able to see the boom mic for most of the movie, and, boy golly, was it irritating.  Ump number three didn’t see the mic at his theater, and thought the scenes between Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe at the end were forced and unnecessary.  Ump number four explains that the boom mic isn’t the fault of director Ridley Scott, but rather that the theater in question was playing a small screen version of the movie on a really big screen, and this was causing editing problems.  Oh, and those scenes at the end were totally lame. 

Anyway, after they chat up American Gangster, having compared it the canon of overly long gangster movies (Scarface, Godfather I and II, Goodfellas, Casino, and Heat), they turn around, head for their positions, and one of them indicates that the call stands.  It’s now the bottom of the second inning of a game that started at 7:05PM EST on a Tuesday, and now it’s Thursday morning.  With instant replay, the umpires wait until commerical breaks to have Cinema Time, and there’s no Bobby Cox arguments.  The call goes immediately up to the booth, and the disembodied voice declares the ball fair, and the game moves on at approximately the same rate. 

Needless to say, I’ve never been a part of the anti-instant replay crowd.  Naturally, however, Joe Posnanski has provided the first argument against instant replay that I really buy into:

But I still despise [instant replay]. Nothing is real. Instant replay gives us asterisk feelings. An amazing play happens — a quarterback throws a bomb, a receiver dives and catches it — the referee signals touchdown and … and what do you feel? You feel thrilled*

*Pending further review.

Then you see the replay and, oh oh, he may have not caught the ball. It may have hit the ground. Now there’s a red flag thrown. How do you feel? You feel worried*

*Especially because the announcers are saying they’re going to overturn it.

Then they show another replay on TV from another angle and this time, you know what? Yeah, it looks like he DID catch the ball, maybe. It looks like he may have had an finger under the ball so that it never hit the ground. Maybe. You feel hopeful*

*Because while we’re still not sure he caught the ball, it does look like there may not be enough visual evidence to OVERTURN the play.

Then, finally, the official comes out and he says, “After further review, the play stands as called.” Now how do you feel? You feel relieved*

*Which means in about 90 seconds of watching the same play over and over again, you went from thrilled to relieved, which isn’t the way you’re supposed to watch sports.

That last part is the point that sticks with me.  Utley hits his home run, and Phillies fans should be giddy and dancing in the stands and whatnot.  We shouldn’t be waiting to see if the Phils just took the lead, or dreading that the ball is foul.  The calls should be made on the field, to happen instantly, so that the results seem like a product of the action on the field, and not some distant, emotionless Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down sign of approval. 

Of course, the calls should be correct, too.  As a fan, watching at home or in the stands, of any game, I want things to move as quickly as possible.  My emotional investment in a team or a game is stronger over about 2-3 hours than it is over 3-5 hours.  Generally.  I like to see hits and steals and diving catches and all that stuff, and I like to know what I’m seeing as I’m seeing it.  But I want my catches to be catches and not trapped balls, and I want my home runs to be fair, and, really, I want my strikes to be over the plate.  And, of course, I’ll tolerate the time it takes to get the call right a lot better when the right call goes in the favor of the team for whom I am rooting. 

This is part of a somewhat larger problem in baseball,  I think.  Mostly, the problem is that the things that, in baseball, are most fun to watch, are not the same thing that create winning teams.  I call the Bobby Abreu Hypothesis.  Bobby, of course, was a long-time Phillie right fielder.  He worked long counts constantly (I believe he led the NL in pitches seen for three or four straight seasons before heading to the Yankees), walked a ton, and hit with moderate power.  Mostly, he was a really good baseball player for the Phillies.  He was not a beloved Phillie, however, because walks and long counts are really damn boring to watch.  If they got people excited, Adam Dunn would get a lot more love in Cincinnati.  Wilson Betemit probably wouldn’t have lost his job with the Dodgers. 

I’m not really sure what could be done about this.  To get the calls a correct as possible, the fan experience has to suffer.  To field the best possible team, organizations have to field fairly boring teams that walk a lot whose games against similarly good teams take 4 or more hours to get through 9 innings. 

The powers that be have decided to give helmets to third base coaches.  Honestly, this doesn’t seem like even a modestly important issue for baseball.  The different between exciting and good ought to be priority number one.

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