Last fall, I wrote an article arguing that the time had come for Major League Baseball to expand its use of video replay to review incorrect calls. I pointed out that umpires had made three painfully obvious incorrect calls during last year’s postseason and that replay easily could have reversed these decisions. With high-definition technology at its disposal, I thought baseball had no choice but to embrace replay just as other sports had.
Almost one year later, I believe I was wrong.
When I sat down to write that column last November, I thought I was going to write a defense of why baseball should not expand replay – or at the very least caution those who wanted Commissioner Bud Selig to impose a very robust review system without taking the time to analyze its consequences. But when I began writing, with those bad calls fresh in my mind, I found it hard to justify not correcting critical calls in the most pivotal postseason games. As I wrote in the column, “The time has probably come for MLB to pursue a more comprehensive video replay system to allow for the review of . questionable calls.”
The NFL, NBA and NHL all currently use video replay to review disputed calls. In the NFL, coaches initiate reviews to challenge questionable calls until the two-minute warning of each half, when all replays are called by an official in the press box. Both the NBA and NHL also use replay, but reviews in those sports are initiated by the referees and office officials, respectively.
Even baseball introduced a limited replay system in August 2008 to allow umpires to review disputed home run calls, to see if fly balls actually cleared the fence and were not interfered with by fans.
Few would argue that these leagues should abandon their use of replay. Most reviews are quick, do not disrupt the flow of the game and, most importantly, get the calls right. I have no problem with replay in sports. So why, then, do I have such trouble with baseball flirting with more replay?
In a word: tradition.
Tradition is one of those fuzzy ideas that’s difficult to pin down – it has different meanings for different people in different settings – but it is an invaluable part of any culture, including our sports landscape. Traditions bring meaning to what we do, to allow us to mark certain times on the calendar or celebrate different moments in our collective experiences.
Here at Georgetown, we’ll kick off the men’s and women’s basketball seasons with Midnight Madness next week. Besides allowing students to meet the players, the pep band will play the fight song and Jack the Bulldog will excite the fans. Technically, none of these traditions are necessary to play the games and cheer on the Hoyas. But something about our experience would be different if they did not exist. Most likely, we’d feel cheated, as if we were missing something.
Baseball, to its credit, has embraced changing times in its past, albeit reluctantly, when it ushered in the integration of Negro League players, expanded the postseason and increased revenue-sharing for small market clubs. But more than any other sport, baseball places supreme importance on the traditions that made it the National Pastime a century ago, attempting to maintain a game that would be familiar to Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth. If the game were to be radically changed by a very robust video replay system – with frequent challenges, stoppages, and player and fan unrest – baseball would risk changing the nature of the game forever.
This is not to say that replay can never be used. Like in all sports these days, when fans have the ability to instantly view close calls, they will feel wronged if a blown call cannot be reversed. If world-class athletes performing at their best are not judged correctly, the umpires become the story, leaving players and fans alike to question the integrity of the game.
But what must be absolutely rejected are the sentiments of some who downplay the importance of tradition in baseball. Mike Pereira, the former vice president of Officiating for the NFL (Full disclosure: I met him while interning with the NFL this summer), wrote on FoxSports.com about replay in baseball: “Tradition . is overrated. Fans used to wear coats and ties to games. That is not exactly the case now. The modern-day player is quite different from players in other eras. Technology has become a part of everyday life.”
What has worked remarkably well for the NFL over the past dozen years may not necessarily translate in baseball. It would and should take time to develop a system that would become a seamless part of the game. Practical matters must be considered, but the intangibles and customs of the sport cannot be dismissed and must be taken into account.
If done correctly, hopefully the replay system would become like an omnipotent fifth umpire – not a draconian Big Brother – in crucial moments looking to correct obviously wrong calls.
Only then would baseball have a new tradition worth preserving.
Nick Macri is a senior in the College. THE BIG PICTURE appears every third issue of HOYA SPORTS.