The last outpost is under siege. The final vestiges of a completely organic game are going away. It’s all over but the robots.
No, the notion that baseball is exploring the addition of instant replay in certain situations doesn’t require that dramatic of a response. But the fact that the game is weighing the merits of sanctioned second-guessing a good five years after any other major sport (and more than two decades after it first appeared in the NFL) says something.
Compared to the NFL, NBA and NHL, baseball seems almost archaic at times in its reluctance to make changes. According to Thursday’s reports, MLB officials are considering the use of replay to review certain situations after a series of blown home run calls last week. It’s difficult to tell how much of the idea is serious and how much is a knee-jerk response (or the appearance of one) after the missed calls. That’s only part of the picture, however.
Instant replay in baseball certainly has its proponents — Nationals general manager Jim Bowden is one — and its detractors. But that might not matter. The more pertinent fact, as Washington manager Manny Acta pointed out, is that the technology is in place for replay. In all the other major sports leagues, that has been enough to bring it about.
“The type of age that we live now, it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens,” Acta said. “Obviously, you’ll take the human element out of the game, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Baseball might be slower to change than football, hockey or basketball, and it might value that human element a little more, but it’s hard to see the movement for instant replay in some form or fashion being stopped.
What has been talked about so far is the use of technology only in determining whether home run calls were correct. A similar threshold exists in the NBA, which uses replay to review plays right before the buzzer, and the NHL, in which referees consult video to review controversial goals. It’s nowhere near the replay-riddled culture of the NFL, in which enough situations are reviewable that coaches need a strategy to determine when they’re going to use it.
But then baseball always has embraced its quirks. The most basic aspect of the sport — balls and strikes — differs from umpire to umpire. So does the standard for a home run from one ballpark to the next. There’s no other sport in which disputed calls, argued over nose-to-nose confrontations between manager and umpire, are such a part of its fabric.
The game’s defining virtue always has been its everyman quality. Instant replay wouldn’t necessarily eliminate that, but there are bound to be more objections raised in baseball than there were in any other sport.
It’s not as if anyone’s talking about adding replay in the next few months; this week’s rumblings were about an experiment in the Arizona Fall League. And with the Major League Baseball Players Association likely to vote on any incarnation of replay, should it get that far, there could be several refinements of the current plan.
When this most old-fashioned of sports considers a major change, however, it usually happens: the DH, the wild card and interleague play, to name a few. Using that standard, the next sign of the times in baseball could well come through a replay screen.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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