These are bad times for America's pastime. Umpire Jim Joyce ruined a perfect game last night by calling pitcher Armando Galarraga's final and 27th out "safe." Replays showed that Joyce was blatantly wrong. Today baseball faces the inevitable question: Is it time for more instant replay?
The Atlantic's Hampton Stevens, in a very well-written article, says no. I say yes. Instant replay should never determine balls or strikes. But for safe calls, tags, fair/foul rulings, and home runs, the game deserves the accuracy that a second look can provide.
The most immediate reason is that accuracy is good for the game. Is it really in the interest of baseball that ESPN run 48 hours of "look at this stupid call" clips? It cannot be. Is it in the interest of fans or players to have games or history possibly changed because umpires are imperfect and the caretakers of baseball find the idea of imperfection quaintly attractive? I hope not.
Stevens writes, "in baseball, you can do everything right and still have it all go wrong because of somebody else's mistake. Kind of like life." No argument there. But this is a sport, not a Chekhov play. We shouldn't evaluate it by its proximity to the human condition. In life, we would sometimes like to turn back time, and we can't. In sports, we would sometimes like to turn back time, and we can. So why not?
The argument that baseball is special because its imperfections make it just like life misunderstand the reason we watch. Sports combines human drama with something life flat out does not and cannot have: finality. Life is complicated, open-ended. Sports has winners. That's why we watch, and why we care. With instant reply, we have a technology that reinforces the uniquely conclusive nature of sports by giving fans a sense of finality on the field. It doesn't change the nature of sports. It reaffirms the reasons we love it.
Nobody watches baseball because we value the idea that the umpire might screw up. (That would be a strange reason to watch a sport!) In fact, everybody has a stake in making the umps as close to perfect as we can get them. That's why we have four umpires rather than one. It's why we only choose the best ones for the Majors and the super-duper best for the World Series. Nobody in baseball (least of all the umpires! Joyce was crying when he apologized for heaven's sake!) wants us to get safe calls and home runs and fair/foul rulings wrong. It's bad for the players, the umpires, the fans and the sport. If you disagree, please try explaining how yesterday's events make baseball stronger.
So how about this. Let's introduce a dash of instant replay, but let's leave it up to the umps to uphold the nature of the game. We could say the home plate umpire has discretion to call for an instant replay on any call made in the field, and that a conference of the other three umpires has discretion to call for instant reply on any call made at home plate. This leaves the game in human hands, but makes those humans a little more perfect. It's still their crew, their game, their heads on the line, and in their interest that the game be both speedy and accurate. It would introduce a little bit of corrective technology without taking control away from the umpires or turning baseball into a managers' bean bag war. That's a reasonable compromise sports fans should cheer.