First appeared on Blogcritics.
In a breaking story regarding Major League Baseball, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that starting in 2014 instant replay challenges will be integral part of games. Managers will be allowed to challenge one umpire's call (except balls and strikes) during the first six innings. Managers will have two challenges at their disposal for the rest of the game (seventh through ninth inning or extra innings). Selig called this “a historic day” which was echoed by Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who said it was “an historic moment.” Scheurholz was head of the committee that came up with this idea, and while it is indeed history making, by all means this does not mean it is something good for the game. In fact, this could shake the very foundations of the game and lead to even greater changes in the future. So all of you MLB fans who longed for this moment, be careful what you wished for.
Selig, Schuerholz, Joe Torre (MLB vice president), and “advisor” Tony LaRussa (talk about a Gang of Four) presented this proposal to the 30 owners of baseball franchises at their meeting near “historic” Cooperstown. It seems incongruous that this occurred so close to the hallowed halls of the sacred place where fans come to honor the essence of the game and all those who played it with distinction. 75% of the owners will have to vote for this proposal for it too pass, but Selig indicated that the reaction was very positive. Could we expect anything less from the ruling Dukes and Duchesses of MLB who have always been looking for an edge for their teams?
Let us make something clear – being a MLB umpire is a thankless, difficult, and overwhelming job. Besides larger than life guys like the late Ron Luciano or Harry Wendelstedt, they are basically faceless fellows dressed like undertakers on their day off. They get less than necessary support from MLB after training in “umpire college,” and then they are scapegoats for everything wrong under the sun and stars that happens on the field. People forget that they are human and expect them to be robotic – perfect, flawless, yet having the “wisdom” to make the call in their favor. Who the heck would ever want to be an MLB umpire?
As a Mets fan, I have seen probably at least a thousand calls that went against my team over the years – sometimes in very detrimental ways. These incidents include playoff games and the World Series. Whether or not the call was fair (usually determined by instant replay) we have to understand that the umpire is standing closer to the play than we (or the TV camera) are. It is a split-second decision. Old sayings like “the tie goes to the runner” or “it’s a game of inches” always come to mind here, so whenever a play goes against our team we blame the man in black and gray.
What I fear is that we are gravitating away from the way the game of baseball has been played since the beginning. If three challenges are allowed now, doesn’t it seem likely that will be deemed insufficient down the road? Will we reach five challenges one day? Perhaps it will become a game where every play is challenged, or we will get to the place I think no one wants – where games are monitored electronically and every call is done remotely by some faceless Big Brother who deems “fair or foul,” “ball or strike,” and “safe or out.”
If you think I am exaggerating, the idea of “challenges” in baseball a decade ago would have been unthinkable, and look where we are now. Right now games are getting longer and longer. If I take my kids to Citi Field for an evening game, there is a good chance I am going to be getting them home after midnight. How will challenges impact the pace of games already as quick as a tortoise? Also, how will the concept of challenges affect the umpires themselves? Already these fellows are on edge all of the time, but now with the thought of the ominous presence of Big Brother Selig and his minions hovering over the field, what will that do to each and every call? More importantly, how will this affect the integrity of the game we know and love?
These questions are not easily answered, and I think more thought and discussion should be allowed before this is pushed forward. It was noted that the umpiring crew on the field will not make the decision based on the replay, rather it will be an umpiring crew and MLB official in the New York offices who will view the replay and make the call. Talk about Big Brother! This is taking the game out of the umpire’s hands and giving it to faceless bureaucrats to make decisions from far away. How can a crowd in Anaheim “boo” anyone they cannot see?
What has always made baseball America’s game is the human factor. Some humans become heroes because their greatness elevates them, and we honor their ability to do things we cannot do. Sometimes humans fail, and every player who has – from Shoeless Joe Jackson to Alex Rodriguez – has felt the wrath of those fans he has disappointed. Umpires are part of the complexity of the game and its human element. Yes, they miss calls, but they also get many of them right. Taking them slowly out of the game (and I fear eventually eliminating their on-field presence totally someday) will change the essence of the game in a significant and very nefarious way.
Commissioner Selig has wanted to get back to the real game – witness his war on steroid abusers. The idea has been, at least I have understood it to be, to get back to the true nature of the game. I always think of Robert Redford’s great baseball movie The Natural because the title says it all – his character Roy Hobbs was by human nature a “natural” superstar. He didn’t need to take pills or get shots in his buttocks to hit home runs. That is the game the way it is supposed to be played, and I felt Selig wanted to get back to that.
Every baseball fan wants the game to be played the right way, and we all want to know that the only thing shooting through the veins of our heroes besides blood is adrenaline – manifested from the love of the game and a desire to do the best job between the lines. Unfortunately, the game has changed over the years. The ball is livelier, the gloves and bats are better, the athletes more conditioned, and everything is under the scrutiny of the evil eye of the camera. We have pitch counts, radar guns, and the designated hitter. We have suffered through artificial turf, retractable domes, and a game that has become mostly played at night. Yes, the game has changed in these ways, but there has been a desire for more traditional approaches from fans and players alike.
These challenges will take away from the game, just as the DH has. If you watch National League games, you get more baseball purity. A manager makes different decisions with a pitcher batting; pitchers pitch differently because they are batting, and strategy is a more integral part of the game. How will challenges change managerial strategy? How will fans react if a manager does not use his challenges at times they believe that he should? How about a manager using up his challenges and then, at a pivotal moment, be left like a gunfighter in the middle of the street without any bullets, while the other manager draws and wins the fight?
I know many fans will like this proposal of expanded instant replay, thinking it will be a way to avoid all the past wrongs and injustices. Players will probably love it too (except those who lose base hits, homeruns, and no-hitters because of it). The problem is that this is like opening a hatch on a submarine; once it’s open, chances are the water will keep on coming in. I fear the change of the game will continue until it looks nothing like the game we know and love, and at that disgraceful moment the game will be ruined forevermore.
Photo credits: selig – AP, umpire robot – lukewarmssports.blogspot.com; umpire – Wikipedia.org