Instant Replay Gets a Second Look
11:33 AM, Apr 22, 2014 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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