Once upon a time, baseball games had to be played in daylight. Pitchers didn’t know exactly how fast they threw because radar guns hadn’t been invented. Sabermetrics was unknown for the first century of the game.
But the march of technology brings inevitable changes even to the sport that best evokes our slow-paced, rural past. Modern fans expect nonstop entertainment from electronic scoreboards and sound systems. And starting next season, if Major League Baseball has its way, umpires will no longer be the last word on close plays. They will have to defer to instant replay.
You can’t blame baseball for wanting to get a call right when millions of viewers can see it’s wrong. Few things are more frustrating than seeing a blown call cost your team dearly. No fan can forget the night Detroit right-hander Armando Galarraga had a perfect game going as he faced his 27th batter — who reached first after the umpire called him safe, though he was clearly out.
So if the players and umpires unions agree, baseball will give managers the chance to challenge a few calls each game — those involving whether a ball is fair or foul, a runner is out or safe, the count on the hitter, and the number of outs. Balls and strikes, however, will not be review-able, and neither will application of rules.
All this will minimize the chance that an honest human mistake by an umpire who has a poor view — or who really, really needs a seeing-eye dog — will affect the outcome.
But there is a downside. One is that the process of reviewing calls, by officials looking at monitors, will slow down games, which already average close to three hours — an increase of more than half an hour since 1963.
It’s entirely possible, in fact, that some managers will use challenges merely to give relievers more time to warm up or to disrupt the rhythm of an opposing pitcher. Even if MLB hits its goal of keeping each one to a minute and 15 seconds, fans could be significantly delayed getting home.
Another drawback is that the change should largely eliminate one of the most entertaining parts of the ballpark experience — the arguments between managers and umpires. Earl Weaver, who piloted the Baltimore Orioles to four pennants, would be largely forgotten except for his legendary tantrums. Atlanta’s Bobby Cox will be in the Hall of Fame for his 2,504 victories, but he might have made it by setting the all-time record for ejections.
It’s impossible to think of former Cubs skipper Lou Piniella without recalling the time he protested a call by screaming, throwing his cap, kicking dirt on the offending official, kicking his cap, stomping around and kicking his cap again. Seattle fans associate his tenure there with the occasion when he expressed disagreement by snatching up first base and heaving it into the outfield, not once but twice.
Someday these spectacles — sometimes rousing, sometimes ludicrous — will be only a memory, like twi-night doubleheaders and bullpen cars. By using more instant replay, baseball comes a little closer to achieving perfect accuracy. But sometimes, imperfection is more fun.