In January, when baseball owners unanimously voted to expand the replay system, baseball lifer and former manager Tony La Russa unwittingly exposed a flaw in the very problem he was trying to fix. The architect of the new system, La Russa, was looking to prevent “the dramatic miss.”
What he meant was getting calls right that could ultimately determine the outcome of a game. He was talking about guys being called safe when really they were out, trapped balls in the outfield, plays at home where a catcher missed the tag or the runner missed the plate.
“The dramatic miss,” La Russa said he was targeting, “not all misses.”
The second part of that statement meant minor calls, such as balls and strikes or shortstops being in the area but failing to touch second base on clean double-play balls. The idea, it seemed, was to better officiate baseball and pacify traditionalists who didn’t want too much determined by technology.
It was to keep everybody happy. Really, though, it will eventually is keep nobody happy. There is no fail-proof way of getting it right every time, which has been proven many times and again in the first week of baseball season. And that’s my primary problem with using replay in sports.
Fundamentally, I’m against replay based on this simple argument: Sports are played by humans who make mistakes and therefore should be called by humans who make mistakes. The human element is part of the beauty of sports. Taking it away takes away from sports as a whole.
That said, it’s easy to understand that there are people who don’t care about the human side of sports. They see things black or white, right or wrong, a winner and a loser. In their minds, if there’s a way to correct wrong calls, any and all technology should be used to achieve that goal.
That’s fine, too.
In a strange black-or-white way, it must be one or the other, full replays in all situations or none at all. Do it right or don’t bother.
Replay isn’t 100 percent accurate, which is why leagues continue expanding guidelines every time you turn around. Every expansion of the system is confirmation the previous one didn’t work. Another precedent is set under the guise of improvement when, really, it’s getting worse.
Baseball managers who once charged to first base to argue a call are now stalling, as Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus did last week, to buy time for review with the idea he might have an argument. And while he took his time getting to the first-base umpire, he was contemplating whether to use one of his challenges.
“It’s a little awkward,” Ausmus told reporters after the game, “because I get out there, and I really don’t have much to say.”
Lost in the whole argument is the definition of “dramatic misses.”
Sure, it’s simple to dismiss certain calls as minor, such as a borderline strike, as not being as “dramatic” as a play at the plate. But as anyone with a shred of baseball knowledge would know, an entire game can be affected by a single pitch. And it doesn’t require taking the argument to the extreme.
Let’s take the borderline strike. If it’s called a ball, it changes the entire pitching sequence. Each pitch is created equally, but how they’re called can make a drastic difference. If the borderline pitch happens to be ball four, there’s a runner on first and everything changes.
It means the pitcher is now throwing from the stretch and making decisions based on the runner and the batter. It may mean throwing a fastball simply because there’s a runner on first. It may also take an off-speed pitch out of the equation to help prevent the runner from stealing second.
And if the batter is thinking “fastball” because there’s a runner on first, it enables him to take an aggressive approach at the plate. For him to think “fastball,” get one and drive it into the seats for a two-run homer is well within reason. Suddenly, that turns “not all misses” into a “dramatic miss.”
The Giants lost, 5-4, to the Diamondbacks last week after challenging a call at first, having the ruling go against them and leaving them unable to challenge a missed call at the plate involving the same runner because … they were out of challenges. But if it happened after the seventh inning, umpires would have gone upstairs.
You see similar problems and mistakes happen in other sports involving imperfect replay systems that compromise games and, therefore, the systems themselves. Certain calls can be challenged while others cannot. Certain aspects of the same play can be challenged while others cannot.
In the NFL, for example, coaches can challenge a play when the ball changes possession, but they cannot challenge the entire play. So if a defensive back interferes with a receiver and makes an interception, interference cannot be reviewed even though that was precisely the reason possessions changed.
Make sense? Of course not.
On Saturday night, in the NCAA tournament, Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson traveled before getting fouled on an attempted three-pointer with 15 seconds left in regulation against Kentucky. Officials made sure he was behind the three-point line, but they were unable to call the traveling violation. It was forgotten when Kentucky won in the final seconds.
Traveling calls are missed every other time down the court. They don’t fit under “dramatic miss,” as La Russa would say, until it happens in a dramatic moment. Over the course of a game, all the points count. All the calls count. What happens in the first two minutes ultimately can affect the outcome.
Granted, there are numerous examples in which the replays correctly overturn calls that were missed on the field. And there are examples in which replays fail to overturn calls that were missed on the field, two wrongs somehow making a right. Getting it right sometimes isn’t enough for me.
So do we examine every single play to make sure imperfect players play by perfect standards? Do we keep expanding replay until technology calls balls and strikes? Do we whistle every holding call in football and every traveling violation in basketball? Where does it end?
It ends when we go back to where we started, when the call on the field was the call that stood, when the games were much better.