Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Calling It Like You See It

Been meaning to take a swing at last week's blown call by umpire Jim Joyce that cost Armando Galarraga (roll your rrrs) a perfect game, but haven't had a chance to step up to the plate until now. I've been amazed by much discussion the incident has generated and how hot a topic it continues to be.

For starters, when it comes to instant replay in baseball, I'm generally sympathetic to the views espoused by Atomizer on the matter. It's not that I'm a misty-eyed traditionalist worried that replay will somehow taint the glory (overrated as it may be) of the game. Baseball has already gone through a lot of changes over the years, some good and some bad. But the core appeal of the game remains largely intact to this day and if artificial turf, the DH, inter-league play, steroids, and the Toronto Blue Jays winning a couple of World Series didn't destroy America's past-time, than instant replay surely won't either.

My concerns are on a more practical level. Firstly, baseball already has instant replay for to determine whether home runs are fair or foul. This is something that's fairly objective to determine with the benefit of instant replay. It's also similar to what the NBA and the NHL use instant replay for. The NBA only uses replay to determine if there was enough time left on the clock for the shot to count or to determine whether a shooter was beyond the three-point line. Essentially, the NHL only uses replay to determine if the puck went in the net (crossing the line or hitting the back bar and coming out). Both sports leave all the subjective calls (penalties, off-sides, fouls, etc.) up to the discretion of the referees.

The sport that employs replay extensively is football. The NFL's use of replay has expanded over the years and it now covers a variety of calls made on the field. Some are of the more objective variety: did the receive get both feet in, did the runner step out of bounce, did the field goal go through the uprights. Most people watching at home can see what happened in slow motion and arrive at the same conclusion as the replay official. But the NFL also has puts a lot of subjective calls up for review: did the runner get a first down, was the quarterback's arm going forward when he dropped the ball, did the receive catch the ball or trap it. Anyone who's watched a fair amount of the NFL knows that the way these calls will be interpreted by the replay officials is notoriously difficult to predict. Just when you think you understand the rule or its most current interpretation, a situation comes up that proves you wrong. This often happens to the announcers and analysts too, the "experts who are supposed to know how these things should be decided. So now, instead of fans being ticked because we got screwed by the ref on the field, we're ticked because we got screwed by the guy in the booth. Replay is not a panacea.

The biggest problem with instant replay in baseball is that I don't think there are bright lines that you can draw around its use. Sure, everyone can now say it should have been used to overturn the blown call by Joyce because it would have been the last out of the game and the next batter got out. But what if that call happened in the third inning of a perfect game instead of the ninth? The same day that Galarraga (he's grrreattt!) got screwed by Joyce, the Twins were screwed by a bad call at second base on a force play. It was in the tenth inning with guys on first and second. The guy from second ended up scoring the winning run after the runner going from first to second was ruled safe. There were two outs in that situation too so overturning the call would have ended the inning and continued the game. But what if there were only one out? Does the runner from second not score then and have to go back to third? With runners in play on other bases, it isn't simply a matter of using replay to determine whether the ball beat the runner to first (or second, third, or home on force outs), you also have to decide how that reversal impacts the other runners. Talk about subjective.

And if you're going to use replay for plays at first and force outs, are you also going to use it for tag plays? If the ball reaches the base before the runner and the fielder handles it cleanly, the umpire will usually call the runner out. When you watch replays, it's not uncommon to see cases where it looks like runner got his foot or arm in before the tag. It looks like. But you can also watch these replays again and again from different angles and still not determine if the runner was safe or out. Do we really want this kind of subjective situation left to replay where the judgment of the off field official may be no better than the umpire who made the original call on the field? What about trapped balls in the outfield? Sometimes it's clear when watching the replay of a catch in the outfield that the ump either blew the call or nailed it. Sometimes.

My point is that I don't see how you're going to expand instant replay in baseball without either getting into a quagmire of making almost everything subject to it or limiting it to very specific situations that leave people demanding that it be expanded further. Neither outcome seems like a good one either for fans or baseball itself.

The one bright spot in this whole matter was the Commissioner Bud Selig did the right thing (never thought I'd say that) and refused to over the call post facto. I was shocked by how many people whose opinions I usually respect were dead wrong about wanting to see the call overturned. This has already been argued ad nasuem, but a couple of points bear repeating. First off, Galarraga's perfect game was an individual achievement that he was denied because of the blown call. And as much as baseball--more than other sports--is about individual stats and stories, the fact remains that it's a team game. The Tigers won the game. If you're ever going to overrule a call after the game--and open a big ol' can of worms in the process--it can't be because one guy lost out on a chance for personal success.

But the best thing about the correct decision not to overturn the call is that it may provide what JB likes to call a "teachable moment" (groan) for the kiddies out there. For in American society today the expectation that every mistake can be fixed, every injustice (real or imagined) can be rectified, every wrong made right is predominate.

Don't like the grade you received middle school, high school, or even college? Have your parents appeal to your teacher or professor. Don't like the suspension you got for breaking team rules? Have your parents sue the athletic association, school district, and anyone else tangentially involved.

The old adage is true: life is not fair. Sometimes through no fault of your own, you will end up on the short side of the stick because somebody else made a mistake. And neither you nor anyone else will be able to change it. That's life. Recognize it, accept it, and move on.

And while you're at it, get some perspective. Being punished for a crime you didn't commit is an injustice. As John Hinderaker pointed in a post at Power Line, losing a perfect game is not:

But what about the "injustice" (strange word to apply in this context to a sporting event, but one I heard several times this morning) to Galarraga? To be sure, he won't be on the list of official perfect games. However, his near-perfect game will be remembered long after most perfect games have been forgotton. For example, I've already forgotten who pitched the second perfect game of this season not long ago.

Finally, Galarranga experienced no more "injustice" by virtue of umpiring error than other pitchers experience when a fielding error spoils a perfect game. Of course, instant replay can correct umpire (but not player) error. I just don't think it's worth the damage such a change in the rules would inflict on the game.

There's more than enough real injustice in the world. Can we stop harping on faux injustices, creating victims who don't really exist, and righteously calling for redress in situations that neither merit nor require it? Remember that what Armando Galarrago was denied was a perfect game. A baseball game. And however noble and worthy the traditions of baseball may be, that's what it is and always will be. It's not life or death. It's just a game.