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MLB replay plan: Don’t forget fan

Oakland slugger Jose Canseco might have lost some of his appeal to A’s fans by Aug. 31, 1992, following some off-field incidents and a controversy when he apparently upset teammates by leaving the clubhouse while the game was still going after coming out with an ailing back. Still, despite a year in which his numbers had fallen after a 44-home run outburst in 1991, few would do a concession run if he was coming up to bat. Canseco was in the lineup that night, and took his position in the outfield as the  crowd of 25,442 settled into their seats to watch their A’s, who held a comfortable 7-1/2 game lead over Minnesota. Canseco, batting third, was in the on-deck circle when manager Tony LaRussa called him back to the dugout on orders of general manger Sandy Alderson. The trade deadline was just hours away, and the A’s had closed a deal sending Canseco to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Ruben Sierra and three others. All of us who there that night looked on in bewilderment as suddenly pinch-hitter Lance Blankenship was walking up to home plate. We surmised that Canseco must have had some injury or perhaps the flu which caused him to be lifted. Three hours later, after we got into our car and turned on the post-game on the radio, we learned that Canseco had been traded. No announcement on the PA, no message on mis-named Message Board.

I thought of that incredible disrespect shown to the paying customers that night as I looked over reports recently about major league baseball planning to expand the use of instant replay to get the calls correct. I read how it is very important for MLB not to delay the game too much, But I didn’t read anything about showing all the replay angles to the paying customers up on the big screens that ballparks have these days. Nor did I hear that baseball was going to borrow a page out of the NFL replay protocol, and have the chief umpire announce to the fans specifically about the call on the field and what is being challenged. This will not always be obvious. Suppose a batter hits a line drive to center, and the centerfielder apparently traps the ball, and then throws home and the runner is called safe on a close play. The manager for the team in the field could challenge that the ball was actually caught or that the runner was out. If you are in the stands, how would know? Sure, fans in the stands have a better chance to check out replays these days than in 1992 because of mobile devices which might give them a TV feed. However, the fan who puts down all the money to be at the park should not face the possibility of missing out on perhaps the most crucial moment of the game. And what would be the rationale not to show the replays on the big board at the stadiums? Fear that fans would riot over a bad call? There have been plenty of examples of bad calls, and so far no riots.

My big question about the state of umpiring: Are today’s umpires making more bad calls than the ones in, let’s say, the 1960s? Or has umpiring simply gotten worse as TV camera work has gotten much more sophisticated. I remember growing up watching baseball umpired by legends such as Al Barlick and Augie Donatelli. But I can’t really say with conviction that either of them might have their bad calls exposed more often these days with the zoomed-in looks we get on TV. The bottom line is that some form of replay is needed in baseball, though the proposal might still have some holes.

First, Bud Selig needs to buy all the managers a TV for Christmas. We can’t expect a manager in a dugout to get a very clear view of any close play. Just think how many times you’ve seen a manager spring from the dugout toward the umpire absolutely sure about what he just saw, and while he’s screaming and kicking dirt, a TV replay confirms the umpire was clearly correct. It would be a joke to pit the manager, with his bad vantage point and his one potentially make-or-break challenge in the first six innings, vs. some umpiring panel surrounded by more state-of-the-art TVs than an appliance store showroom. This one challenge is far too important. If the whole idea is to get it right, give the manager the tools he needs to see a replay or two so can use his challenge wisely to achieve what the MLB says it is trying to achieve.

What happens if MLB bans dugout TV? Then the manager must add a new position to his staff. Call him the replay coach. He should be one of the fastest runners in the organization, with plenty of baseball savvy to boot. His job would be to watch the game on TV in the clubhouse. If there’s a play that looks like a winning challenge, the replay coach would need to sprint down the corridor to the dugout to advise the manager whether he should go for the reversal.

I still feel like baseball needs to go back into a room, and go over this one more time. If the goal is to get it right, why even involve the manager? Why not put these calls into the hands of the new elite umpire with all the replays right there? They could be hooked up to one of the on-the-field umps and buzz them if another look is warranted. The plate umpire could stall for time by taking out that little broom he carries, and dust off home plate like he does when he’s buying time for a catcher who gets winged by a foul tip.

I’m still bothered that whatever new replay system is put in place, it might end the baseball tradition of the rhubarb. “Rhubarb,” by the way, was one of the earliest baseball words I learned as a seven-year-old fan. It made me a better speller because I could see that the “h” seemed totally unnecessary, but alerted me that there were a whole batch of other words that did similar things to trick you. I’d miss the manager/player-umpire rhubarb. My favorite rhubarb came during a game at Candlestick Park in the early 1960s when Pittsburgh catcher Smoky Burgess, apparently still fuming over a call in the first game of a doubleheader, got tossed out of the second game before it even began. Since this tradition is so important, perhaps MLB should allow each team to have one representative in the room of the elite umpire crew with all the TVs, and if he disagreed with their interpretation of the replay, he could charge them and go jawbone to jawbone. And they could show it to the paying customer, as a way to make up for that insult to A’s fans on the infamous night when Jose Canseco mysteriously went MIA.

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