As I noted a few weeks ago, the introduction of widespread instant replay into major league baseball threatened to do serious damage to how the game is played and enjoyed. That damage arrives in ways that replay's proponents simply failed—or refused—to countenance.
Baseball is a game of rules both written and unwritten. And even written rules have been shaped and influenced (as all written rules are) by the real world that they're intended to govern. For example: most baseball fans probably haven't spent much time pondering, "what is a catch?" At least, they surely did not stop and consider it at the level of detail long set forth in Major League Baseball's official rules:
A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.
Rule 2.00 (Catch) Comment: A catch is legal if the ball is finally held by any fielder, even though juggled, or held by another fielder before it touches the ground. Runners may leave their bases the instant the first fielder touches the ball. A fielder may reach over a fence, railing, rope or other line of demarcation to make a catch. He may jump on top of a railing, or canvas that may be in foul ground. No interference should be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk.
If a fielder, attempting a catch at the edge of the dugout, is “held up” and kept from an apparent fall by a player or players of either team and the catch is made, it shall be allowed.
Perhaps you skipped that long, tedious explanation—and for good reason. By and large, a catch in baseball was like Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of obscenity: "I know it when I see it."
That is not to say that a "catch" is completely undefined, but rather that in real-life, with players in motion—especially in lightning quick double plays—the umpires, the players, and the fans were comfortable with a basic sense of what a catch looks like.
And even more importantly, the umpires, players and fans had to be comfortable relying on that basic sense, because umpires had to call baserunners "out" or "safe" based on their best judgment of fast-moving plays, on the spot.
At least that's how umpires used to make their calls. But now, thanks to instant replay and high-definition cameras, these plays are now being adjudicated after the fact, in microscopic detail.
Which means that when an umpire tries to evaluate whether a player, in the words of the official rule, "secured possession" of the ball in flight and "firmly held it," demonstrating "complete control of the ball" until "voluntarily and intentionally" releasing the ball, a lot of plays that seemed like (and thus were called) "catches" in the pre-replay era are now the subject of intense discussion and debate ...
In the middle of games.
As umpires stand around with headphones on, waiting for the official instant replay decision from a headquarters in New York.
And while the players stand around on the field.
To its credit, Major League Baseball anticipated that the introduction of replay could cause these sorts of fundamental problems, and so league officials formulated new guidance to try to help define a "catch' more objectively, so that umpires could call runners out or safe in real time.
But this guidance has not alleviated the basic fact that a "catch" today isn't what it used to be, exasperating players and fans alike.
ESPN's Buster Olney, one of the best baseball reporters of our time, captured the basic roots of this problem perfectly in this morning's column:
a play that was called by umpires in real time for more than a century seems to have become a muddle because the actions are being seen and dissected in slow motion and high definition for the first time. Before each movement was shot in thousands of frames per second, the question of when a catch became a catch was never really asked in the way that it is being asked in 2014.
Quite simply, by changing the way that the game is watched and governed, instant replay changes the way it is played and enjoyed. This is the greatest cost of replay. And that troubling fact was captured best in an essay last week by sportswriter Joe Posnanski:
As you can see, this rule -– like more or less every rule in every sport –- seems to have been written by a precocious 13-year-old with a thesaurus. It reads like a book report someone writes after not reading the book. Look: On the one hand you have to hold the ball long enough to prove that you have complete control or else it’s NOT a catch. On the other hand, if you drop the ball in the act of making a throw, it IS a catch. So how long do you have to hold it in order for it to count as a catch? No idea. How can you prove you have control? Get affidavits from witnesses? Where does the catch end? Where does the act of making a throw begin?
And now we are getting to the heart of what replays cost.
We are now arguing about the very meaning of what it means to catch a baseball.
Nobody EVER wondered about what constituted a catch in baseball before all this legal wrangling. We all just knew. It was in our blood as baseball fans. We were all in the same sports time zone; we all worked off more or less the same internal spectator clock. But now, with replay, the catch is an abstract concept, like justice or infinity or what it is to be a Kardashian.
And THAT is the cost of replay because this sort of ambiguity pops up again and again in our games. Stuff that was always blindingly obvious to us now comes down to intensive review. Every moment in every game, it seems, is played back and forth, back and forth, like the Zapruder Film. Every moment in every game is argued about like it’s the Dreyfus Affair. Nothing is real anymore.
What is perhaps most troubling, however, is that the most vocal proponents for instant replay seem the least interested in grappling with the full costs of their new system. Perhaps none more so than ESPN's Buster Olney.
Olney has reiterated, over and over again, that instant replay should serve a single guiding principle: to "get as many calls right as you possibly can." And to the extent that he sees problems with instant replay so far, his problem is that there's not enough instant replay in the games.
In his repeated defenses of instant replay, he has never grappled seriously with the concerns voiced by Posnanski and others that the costs of perfect replay might not be worth the benefits. Even when (as in the quote above from this morning's column) he recognizes that replay is affecting how the game is played, he never allows for the possibility that those changes—not to mention further changes yet to come—are affirmatively harming baseball.
Indeed, rather than taking the new "catch" controversy as an opportunity to reconsider his own position, he appears much more interested in shouting down critics who saw these problems coming from the very beginning:
But at this point, that's like someone in a lifeboat saying out loud to fellow survivors, "We should've packed more flares and food, and water.” That's the guy you want to punch in the mouth.
It really doesn't matter anymore how Major League Baseball got here. What matters is how it reacts, how it adapts, how it deals with what seems like a daily squall of controversy stemming from some of the implemented changes.
... How we got here is irrelevant now. As one basketball coach noted about dealing with adversity, what matters is the NBA: next best action.
Olney and like-minded replay proponents could not be more wrong. Let me offer a different sailing analogy: Perhaps replay's skeptics were the ones who told the ship's captain, "don't steer into those icebergs." Now the ship's hit ice, and it's taking on a little water. And the captain is more than a little embarrassed by his mistake. But it would be a mistake for him to ignore—let alone shout down—those same critics when they tell him, "Captain, you're still steering toward more icebergs. Stop now, or at least slow down, before you really wreck this ship."
Yes, baseball needs to move forward and "deal with" the problems arising from replay. But the first step toward solving these problems is to acknowledge the recent choices that are causing these problems, not to willfully ignore them.
Or, as Santayana warned: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That's a familiar rule, and a simple one. Which means it's probably right.