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Burke, Paine, and the Pains of Instant Replay

3:49 PM, Mar 31, 2014 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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Professional baseball has crafted a sparkling new infrastructure in its pursuit of perfection. But as perfect as the system is, it's not clear that it's fit for mere mortals who will implement it on the field. L.A. Angels beat writer Mike DiGiovanna summarizes the problem:

First, the manager, in what amounts to an on-field filibuster, must initiate a discussion with an umpire to give his video coordinator time to review the play to determine whether the call should be challenged.

This will take at least 30 seconds, though rules state a manager must request a replay before the pitcher steps on the rubber and the next batter steps into the box. If the call is challenged, it then must be reviewed by replay officials in New York City, adding to the delay.

Umpires will don headsets near the dugouts or backstop to communicate with the New York office. Once they get a ruling, it will take more time to inform the managers and jog back to their positions.

Commissioner Bud Selig had long opposed instant replay because he feared it would hamper the pace of the game. Well, guess what?

"There's no way it's not going to slow the game down," said Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick.

And, of course, these delays inevitably will become strategic tools: "Say a pitcher is throwing a shutout in the sixth inning and the opposing manager hasn't used his challenge. The manager, in an attempt to disrupt the pitcher's rhythm, could challenge a play even though it's clear the correct call was made."

Even setting these practical problems aside, there are problems even more fundamental. In the era of instant replay, what will come of baseball's unwritten rules? For example, there's the "neighborhood play": traditionally, a shortstop or second baseman turning a double-play isn't required to actually touch second base before throwing to first. As long as he's "in the neighborhood," the runner is called out--in order to save the fielder from getting his leg exploded by runner's a hard slide. The neighborhood rule has been with us, unwritten, for a long time--but how can it possibly survive now that instant replay can review force outs?

This isn't to say that the old system didn't have costs of it own. Obviously it did, as evident to anyone who saw umpire Jim Joyce accidentally rob pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game in the ninth inning of a 2010 game. And of course the same can be said for college basketball.

But in imposing ever more instant replay on these games, we both gain and lose. We gain at least a few calls that would otherwise have been blown. But we lose something broader--the excitement of the last few seconds of a college basketball game, tied with the shot clock turned off, no time outs left, and the crowd (at home and in the stands) going crazy. In baseball, we'll actually see slow games get even slower.

Thomas Paine would probably love this: seeing referees and umpires make mistakes on the court or the diamond, he would have the leagues move heaven and earth to solve that problem, at whatever cost. But I think Edmund Burke would urge caution: As we impose rationalistic new rules on the sport, it's not clear the gains will be worth the broader losses to games that have evolved over more than a century. There will be plenty of time to ponder this, as we watch huddled refs and umps ponder the latest replays.

 

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