Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Final Word on Instant Replay

In 1966, following a controversial call that cost his team a victory, Florida State football coach Bill Peterson remarked upon a novel idea: “With all the electronic devices we have in football, why don’t we have videotape or something like it to help officials?”

You see, just three years earlier CBS had aired the first replay ever.  CBS Director Tony Verna had almost single-handedly made it possible, outfitting a 1200-pound videotape machine for the job and pioneering a system that could efficiently track time on the recorded videotape.  During an Army-Navy football game on December 7, 1963, replay made its debut following an Army touchdown.  The concept was so shocking that broadcaster Lindsey Nelson needed to tell viewers that “Army did not score again!”  Tex Schramm, who hired Verna and would go on to become General Manager of the Dallas Cowboys, immediately grasped the historic impact, saying to Verna: “What you have done here will have such far-reaching implications, we can’t begin to imagine them.”

Almost half a century later, those implications have certainly been realized.  As Brad Willie, Vice President of Dixon Sports Consulting explains in regard to video replays: “We can control up to 16 cameras… We can show forward and backward slow-motion, frame-by-frame, and jogging.  If they want to see another another angle or the first angle again… we can do all of those motions with one operator.”  Every play of every professional sports game is filmed from multiple angles, and a close play never passes by on television without multiple replays.

And yet, in the 2009 Major League Baseball postseason, Joe Mauer was forced to continue batting after he had roped a ball into the left-field corner, seemingly for an obvious double, because the umpire called it foul.
And yet, in that same postseason, Robinson Cano was allowed to stay at third base after both he and Jorge Posada were seemingly tagged out by Mike Napoli while standing in the vicinity of the bag, because the umpire ruled him safe.

And yet, in June of 2010, Armando Galarraga got credit only for a one-hit shutout despite seemingly retiring 27 consecutive batters for the 20th perfect game in Major League history, because the umpire called the 27th batter of the game safe on a groundball to first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

You know what really happened, and every fan watching on television knew what had really happened within seconds: Mauer had, in fact, hit a double, Napoli had actually tagged out both Posada and Cano, and Galarraga did indeed complete a perfect game.  But umpires Phil Cuzzi, Tim McClelland, and Jim Joyce, respectively, saw the plays differently—that is to say, wrong—and there was no recourse in place to correct their mistakes.

Forty-five years after Bill Peterson first lobbied for some technical aid for officials, in Major League Baseball those officials are still not permitted look at a replay to see what truly occurs except in very specific circumstances.  While every fan across the world knew the proper calls immediately afterward, the umpires—the only people who could change the official result—were the only people not allowed to consult video replay to get a second look at the plays.

At this point, Major League Baseball is pretty much alone in that resepct.  Across the board, professional sports leagues have expanded instant replay to aid their officials.

The National Football League first experimented with replay in 1986.  After a trial period, it disappeared because of the league’s top-heavy voting policy, though 17 of 28 teams and the commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, were all in favor of continuing with it.  Said Jim Finks, then the owner of the New Orleans Saints, twenty years ago, “We’ll regret the day we voted it down.  This is a major step backward for the NFL.  This is stupidity on the part of our league.”  His words proved true when, eight years later, the NFL re-introduced instant replay, and has continued to use it extensively since then.

The National Basketball Association has been using instant replay since 2002, at first only to judge whether shots at the end of quarters were released in time.  Stu Jackson, the NBA’s Senior Vice President for Basketball Operations, explained: “Plays sometimes occur in which it is impossible for a human being to determine whether the play took place before time expired.”  It’s not exactly a revelation that human beings are fallible, but admitting it and working to make up for it is something every other sport has been willing to do.  The NBA is constantly looking to improve replay, with an instant replay committee featuring general managers and coaches approving additional replay opportunities both in 2008 and 2009.

The National Hockey League’s use of instant replay dates back to 1991, when officials were newly allowed to check close calls on goals and potential goals, and it streamlined the process in 2003 by giving the responsibility to off-ice officials.  With the initial inception of replay in 1991, NHL president John Ziegler pointed out: “We can at least…provide assistance to those people, who, under great pressure and at very difficult times, have to make these difficult decisions.”

NASCAR uses instant replay to determine if cars pass into pit road before a caution flag is raised.  Professional tennis, encompassing both the USTA and WTA, has taken on more extreme measures, using a computerized system termed HawkEye, rather than video replay, to judge if a ball lands in or out.  In defending the decision in 2006, USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian said: “We have to change with the times… We can’t stick our heads in the sand.”  In college football, multiple conferences have recently upgraded to High Definition replay in college football.

What has prevented instant replay from taking hold in baseball, when every other American professional and college sport with the means to use it does so extensively?  Why is it that the authorities in each of the aforementioned leagues have realized the benefits of instant replay, but MLB commissioner Bud Selig staunchly opposed its introduction and stubbornly continues to fight against any additions?  It boils down to his faulty reasoning, and the shrinking number of people who indulge each aspect of it.  Wall Street Journal contributor Jason Gay separates these people into three different groups: the romantics, the slippery slopers, and the laughably impatient.

New York Times writer George Vecsey exemplifies the romantics’ point of view: “Imperfect umpires are as much a part of this sport as imperfect fielders who muff a pop fly or imperfect runners who neglect to touch a base.”  They are traditionalists who think that umpiring errors are part of the game because, well, they always have been, and for that reason they must stay.  They fear that instant replay will remove the human element, and, as Selig described, “It’s been said for 150 years that you can’t remove the human element from baseball.”

That reasoning is both mistaken and misguided.  Humans will stay play the game, and humans will still umpire the game, but those umpires will just be able to use technology to help them make difficult calls.  Instant replay will only eliminate the human element insofar as the human element is synonymous with officiating mistakes.
Even more ridiculous is the notion that it is tradition for umpires to make incorrect calls, accidentally of course, and thus that they must be able to do so.  Do these people think that if, when baseball was first played in the mid-nineteenth century, players and coaches had had the option of using a replay system they would have balked at it?  As Vecsey points out, umpires in that era often asked passing spectators for help with calls.  At one point, that was tradition too, but baseball got rid of it because it correctly decided that it was not the best way to officiate games.  The only reason that, for 150 years, people have said you can’t remove the human element—again, the human element being equivalent to incorrect calls—from baseball is that for the first 140 years you couldn’t.  And we still can’t entirely eliminate it, but thanks to advanced video technology we can significantly limit its affect on the game.

Even in a sport that usually changes at a lurching pace, there are other examples of parting with tradition.  For instance, in January of 2009, a new rule was approved to get rid of “the traditional and historic practice of using coin flips to determine which team hosts a one-game playoff.”  This was a direct result of a one-game playoff the previous season in which Minnesota played Chicago for the American League Central title and a spot in the postseason.  The White Sox had won the coin-flip, forcing Minnesota to travel to Chicago for the game that they subsequently lost 1-0.  The Minnesota organization complained bitterly that, despite having won the season series, they had to play on the road for the play-in game.  Lo and behold, that was adopted as the new rule within months.  And the very next season, Minnesota again was in a one-game playoff for the division crown, but this time Detroit had to meet them in Minneapolis because of the rule change.

In 2010, the Twins again stirred controversy, as they managed a ninth-inning victory over Tampa Bay when an infield popup off the bat of Jason Kubel struck a catwalk close to the roof of Tropicana Field and dropped in for a game-winning single as a result.  This time, Major League Baseball didn’t even wait until the offseason to change the rule, stipulating that, starting with the 2010 postseason, any ball that hit a catwalk would result in a do-over.  Joe Garagiola Jr., Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, explained that the rule would “take an element of randomness out of the game.”

Both those rule changes were made in the attempt to create a fairer game with less randomness outside of the skill of the players involved, and ignored any sense of tradition that had kept them in place previously.  You know what else would achieve both of those goals?  Instant replay.  It would help eliminate randomness regarding whether a play was called correctly or not, and I think everyone will agree that would make the game fairer.

But, of course, those aforementioned rule changes were much simpler than instituting full-fledged instant replay.  That’s where the slippery slopers and the laughably impatient come in.  Not necessarily in favor of the errant calls made by umpires, as the romantics are, these two groups are concerned with the precedent more instant replay will set and with the delays it will cause.

Mike Scioscia, the current manager of the Los Angeles Angels, articulated the slippery slope argument perfectly: “It should be limited to a home run or fan interference [as it currently is].  There are so many things that you can question that it would be almost dysfunctional.”  Oftentimes, opponents of instant replay will carry that line of thinking to outrageous ends, wondering how soon it will be until robots replace umpires entirely and machines play the game instead of humans.

That argument is pure fallacy.  Obviously, carrying any policy to its furthest extent will make it look absurd, and intimating that instant replay will be like a runaway train once it starts is doing just that.  As long as the rules regarding instant replay are carefully constructed, as just about everything in the Major League rulebook is, it will not degenerate into a system that looks at every play and turns umpires into powerless spectators.
Oh, but what about all the time it will waste, the laughably impatient argue.  This is a legitimate concern, as Major League Baseball is already attempting to implement strategies that will shorten games and prevent them from regularly pushing beyond three hours.  This group’s mistake, therefore, is not in worrying about time, but in thinking that instant replay will significantly lengthen games.  Instant replay will not be the drag on game pace that these folk think it would.

For a case study, consider the Little League World Series (LLWS), a set of baseball games played by 12-year olds for free, which has instituted extensive instant replay, allowing umpires a second look at force outs, tags, missed bases, and hit batters.  In the 30 games played during the 2010 LLWS prior to the final day of the tournament, sixteen calls were reviewed—eight of which were overturned—and the average delay was estimated at 52 seconds.  For the small price of approximately 30 extra seconds per game, the LLWS made significant strides toward eliminating all erroneous calls.

On top of that, there’s the fact that baseball often already experiences lengthy delays on controversial or missed calls, and thus there is the possibility that instant replay won’t truly add any time to games.  We’ve all seen a manager walk out of the dugout, despite knowing that nothing will be changed, to get in a shouting match with an umpire that winds up wasting multiple minutes while everyone else simply watches the spit fly from both of their mouths.  With instant replay, the umpire will instead spend that time making sure the correct ruling is made.  That sounds pretty good to me.

Then there’s the last type of person who advocates against instant replay, the Michael Hiestands of the world.  Like the USA Today writer, they are so misguided you realize there’s no hope of convincing them, and you just hope there aren’t enough of them out there to stand in the way.  In the process of denouncing replay, Hiestand writes the following: “Thanks to technology, we’re no longer allowed to get lost, ever be out of touch with the office or late with a check that’s, uh, in the mail.  Spellcheck, GPS, TiVo, red light cameras, and thermometers stuck in turkeys keep taking guesswork out of our lives.”

I understand the sentiment, but to suggest that the negative aspects of those technological advancements outweigh the positives is preposterous.  Yes, it’s harder to pretend we’ve gotten lost, but what about the times when we previously would have ended up driving in circles for hours and can now avoid it?  Yes, it’s harder to be out of touch with the office, but what about the ability to be in contact with friends and loved ones around the world that technology has afforded us?  Yes, it’s harder to dupe our credit card company, but what about possibility of paying that bill online on the last day since you forgot and otherwise would owe huge late fees?  And, yes, instant replay will mean sometimes we won’t get the benefit of a bad call, but Armando Galarraga won’t lose his place in baseball lore because of an umpiring mistake either.  Enjoy your guesswork, Mr. Hiestand—I’ll take the technology.

Considering the amount of time I just spent debunking the myths that opponents of instant replay use as arguments, it would seem that they are in the majority; that, however, is not the case.  Even back in 1986, when the technology was much more limited, 66 percent of fans thought the NFL’s replay system improved the game, compared to just 20 percent who thought it made the game worse.  As for baseball fans, after Galarraga was robbed of his perfect game in June of 2010, 78 percent came out in favor of instant replay.  Look at any survey you want, and they all send the same message.

So where does Selig draw his support from?  “Most baseball people are really against it.  There’s no question about it,” he explains.  I don’t doubt that some baseball people agree with the romantics, the slippery slopers, and the laughably impatient, but there are certainly plenty that have publicly embraced replay.  Managers such as the Rays’ Joe Maddon, the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, and Tony LaRussa (Cardinals) have all given their stamp of approval.  As La Russa put it, “There’s nothing wrong with using replay.  The number one priority for the umpire is to get the play right.”

Many umpires, long stubborn antagonists against replay, have also recently converted.  Don Denkinger, who made one of the most infamous blown calls in the history of the sport in the 1985 World Series, is among them: “I had 30 great years…and I had one call that’s all anybody ever wants to talk about. It’s not right.”  He continued, “Instant replay can clean things up… I didn’t feel that way in ’85, but I feel that way now.”  Tim McClelland, who missed one of the calls described in the introduction, has also had a change of heart: “I know I wasn’t for it.  But after watching what I went through in the playoffs last year and then what Jim [Joyce]’s going through, I think more and more umpires are coming around to it.”

Anybody who saw Joyce’s tearful press conference after he ruined Armando Galarraga’s perfect game can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.  They know what he wanted most was to get that call right and to give Galarraga his place in history.  His fellow umpires have largely swallowed their pride, too, and admitted that, like every human on the planet, they are imperfect and could use the help.  They take such a beating for missing calls, if they are ready to embrace replay technology, who are we to deny them?

Despite Selig’s assurances, both the fans and enough baseball people are ready for expanded instant replay that it’s time for him to forget his personal feelings and start working on the logistics of it.  Lucky for him, it’s not that complicated, and there are improvements he can make to the existing system that will mitigate his concerns.

There is no doubt that the technology is there to make instant replay work on an extended basis.  ESPN uses 14 cameras when it broadcasts Sunday Night Baseball and 7 cameras for other baseball broadcasts, and Fox Sports, which broadcasts many local games, has 8 cameras at its disposal at most of its games.  As ESPN Vice President of Event Production Tim Scanlan reports, even with 7 cameras, ESPN is “able to provide a second or third look that the umpire doesn’t have.”  College football sometimes even uses replay in non-televised games by using 4 cameras for the sole purpose of replay reviews.

That’s one argument you will often hear regarding the logistics: if every single one of the 2,430 regular season games scheduled each year can’t have replay, then none should.  What’s the reasoning for that?  Essentially, because a handful of games aren’t televised each year, each game should be less fair?  Because in a few games each season teams are still subject to blatant officiating errors, teams should be subject to them in every game?  Having replay does not make the games without replay less fair, but preventing replay from being expanded in those games that can have it misses an opportunity to make those games more fair.

That being said, the current method of replay must be changed to allay Selig’s and fans’ legitimate worries about extending games.  Having the umpires leave the field is an unnecessary and costly measure in terms of the resultant delay.  Instead, as is done in the NHL and NCAA football among other sports, baseball can have the calls reviewed by off-field personnel.  They can put an umpire in the press box, or anywhere in the stadium with access to replay, and allow him to communicate with the crew chief on the field via a microphone.  If he sees a close play, he takes a look and tells the umpire he is doing so.  By the time Josh Beckett has taken his average 45 seconds between pitches, he’s already made up his mind about what is to be done.  If the play is close enough that he can’t make up his mind within a reasonable amount of time, he sticks with what was called on the field.

Obviously this would necessitate adding an extra umpire for each game, but I think that small cost is definitely worth it.  Besides, we’ve seen it happen before.  You probably aren’t aware, but in 1977 the Atlanta Braves put an umpire in the press box to determine if replays were too controversial to show on the stadium video board.  That practice didn’t catch on, but, instead of using him in an attempt to prevent fans from knowing the truth, couldn’t they use him to help the umpires know the truth and change the call?  Now that would keep the fans’ anger with the umpires at bay.

Here’s one example of how it would work which I happened to witness in an Angels-Twins game while writing this.  Erick Aybar was leading off the bottom of the first inning against Minnesota’s Carl Pavano in a game on September 2.  He grounded a ball to first baseman Luke Hughes, who made a diving stop, and then was forced to race Aybar to the bag since Pavano was slow off the mound.  On a bang-bang play, Aybar was called out by the first base umpire.  As the TV broadcast showed a replay definitively confirming the original call within 10 seconds, Mike Scioscia left the dugout and spent between 30 and 40 seconds discussing the call with the umpire.

It seems so simple.  In that case, replay would have actually saved time.  In fact, if it worked ideally, you wouldn’t even know the play was reviewed, as the normal time in between batters would have been more than the time used to review the play.  And, if it had been overturned, it wouldn’t have taken much more than the 30 or 40 seconds to do so, even including the time to get Aybar out of the dugout and on first base.

When baseball finally does expand instant replay, which it will eventually, it will not be the most unprecedented use of replay in baseball history.  And the initial inception of replay for home run calls wasn’t either.  No, that was in a 1999 game when umpire Frank Pulli went to a camera in the Florida Marlins’ dugout to review a home run call.  Long before there was any rule stipulating for replay, Pulli decided it was in the game’s best interest that he get the call right, tradition be damned.  Upon reviewing it, he saw conclusive evidence that Florida’s Cliff Floyd’s hit did not clear the wall, and changed the ruling from a home run to a double.

Why did Frank Pulli feel the need to consult a video replay?  “At that moment, I thought it was the proper thing to do.”  You can say that again.

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