Nobody in sports drags his feet more than baseball owners — except maybe receivers trying to stay in bounds. They put off drug testing until their sport was syringe-deep in scandal. They put off lowering the mound until an entire league hit .230 (the AL in '68). And they've put off instant replay despite its fruitful use in football, basketball, hockey and even tennis.
Indeed, for sheer stubbornness — of the mule variety — it's hard to top the Lords of Baseball. Heck, they're still congratulating themselves for opening the door to Jackie Robinson in 1947 ... even though the NFL tore down its color barrier a year earlier.
The instant replay issue raised its ugly head again Sunday night during a game at Yankee Stadium. The Mets' Carlos Delgado hit a ball off the bottom of the left-field foul pole — clearly a home run, as the TV cameras showed — but plate umpire Bob Davidson overruled the third base ump and called it foul. In typical baseball fashion, a foot-stomping, spittle-spewing argument ensued, during which a Mets coach was ejected for Arguing His Rightness Too Vehemently. Then Delgado returned to the batter's box and was forced to settle for an RBI single instead of a three-run homer.
Fortunately for the men in blue, the Mets won 11-2, so all their gaffe affected was the final bookkeeping, not the result. But one of these days, if baseball doesn't change its ways, a championship will be decided by one of these plays — and then it won't be so easy to shrug off.
In fact, the owners received fair warning 12 years ago, when a young Yankees fan leaned out the stands to take a fly ball away from an Oriole, turning an out into a game-tying home run by Derek Jeter in the first game of the ALCS. But baseball, slower than Cecil Fielder to change, paid it no mind. It was too busy, apparently, recovering from its latest strike.
Beginning in 2000, the Lords did grant umpires permission to mull a call among themselves — for the purpose of getting it "right." This must have been particularly galling because they had always prided themselves on being different from football, that Johnny-come-lately sport that merged, in the famous words of George Will, "the two worst things about America ... violence punctuated by committee meetings."
And yet here the owners were, authorizing the umps to hold meetings, to delay the game while they discussed and debated, gave and took. The horror. Especially because, as we saw in New York the other night, it doesn't always lead to a correct verdict. Three members of Davidson's crew were convinced Delgado's drive veered foul; only Mike Reilly, who made the original "fair" signal, disagreed. Such are the limits of majority rule.
But baseball is baseball. No sport glories in the human element — and its fallibility — as much as our erstwhile national pastime. Only recently did it try to address the vast discrepancies between umpires' strike zones, and it will probably take a Jeffrey Maier Moment in the World Series to get the Lords to adopt instant replay.
At this point, they haven't even experimented with it. Not that it doesn't have plenty of supporters in front offices around the country. In November, 25 of 30 general managers voted in favor of limited replay — confined, that is, to determining whether a ball is fair or foul, over the fence or off it, etc. But it was little more than a straw poll, a recommendation. The final decision rests with the owners (though the players and umpires unions will have their say).
It's silly, this feet-in-cement stance the game takes toward such matters — this "purist" mentality that, 35 years later, keeps the designated hitter out of the National League. I mean, you'd think most folks still listened to games on the radio — and didn't see countless clips of Delgado's opposite-field fly glancing off the pole. Attention Bud Selig: This is 2008. There are no more Homers in the Gloamin'. Baseball is played under the brightest of lights, and nothing escapes notice, certainly not in the media capital of the world.
Let's hope the Lords eventually figure it out, do the right thing and institute replay. The fans, at the prices they're paying, deserve no less. Besides, during the break in the action — to keep the crowd entertained — the Nationals can always run another heat of the Presidents Race. Or maybe they can stage a special match race between Teddy Roosevelt and, say, William Howard "The Fridge" Taft. TR would have to win that one, wouldn't he?