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Reviewing Baseball’s Replay Rules

Kill the Command Center!

Well, it doesn’t quite have the same feeling as “kill the umpire,” an old baseball phrase used when the arbiters made a call that someone didn’t like. The Replay Command Center in New York will be the place where contested plays will be decided under baseball’s expansion of instant replay.  Baseball Purists shouldn’t be offended because there is still plenty of room under the new rules for an old-fashioned argument with an umpire, since the number of manager challengers is limited. Fans watching at home won’t be frustrated when a call that is clearly wrong based on TV replays goes against them, assuming it can be challenged. Fans at the ballparks will be able to watch the same replays as everyone else, unlike the current system of reviewing home runs where baseball rudely blacked out the video for the paying customers.

Now, let’s review the rules:

* The new system is still very limited, so some questionable or clearly wrong calls are going to stand without review. The manager gets one certain review in the first six innings. If he’s upheld, he gets one more. But the limit is two challenges. From the seventh inning on, it is up to the umpires whether a play is reviewed. Once a manager uses up his challenges in the first six innings, you would expect that he would still come onto the field to beef about a call. After the sixth, it is likely the manager would come out to argue with the umpires if they didn’t review a play the manager felt went against his team. The only way baseball can prevent these traditional arguments is to bar the manager from coming onto the field, as is the case with football. I don’t think anybody wants to see that restriction enacted.

* How the manager decides when to challenge a call is a whole new ballgame. The manager will be in communication, apparently by phone, to a coach or some team representative who will be watching TV in the clubhouse or some designated location at the park. The manager himself will not see the replay, I assume, until he has already challenged it, when the ballpark can then show the play. No time limit for a manager’s decision has been stated, so will stalling for time become a new baseball ritual? For example, a batter can take a little more time adjusting those ill-fitting batting gloves, or going through other gyrations common for hitters today who take forever to get into the batter’s box. If the manager is on defense, he can stretch out the time to decide by having the second baseman come in for a quick chat with the pitcher, or he can send the pitching coach to the mound for a visit. I could imagine an explosive argument from the other manager if his counterpart uses stalling tactics.

* Who will teams use as their TV Replay Guy? This a critical position. Over a season, where a game or two might make the difference between a team reaching the post-season, a choice of when to challenge or if the challenge is a correct one can be a season-changer. Would a bench coach, for example, have to sprint to the clubhouse when there is a potential play to challenge? Would a team have an extra coach whose job would be to watch the game on TV? Would a former coach or player be hired for the task?

* Another reason a Baseball Purist shouldn’t be upset with the change is that the new system adds a fascinating layer of strategy on the manager. Even if it seems clear that an umpire missed a call in the first inning on a safe or out call at first base with no one on, the manager would likely not use a challenge. If a fair or foul call down the line resulted in a two-run double in the first inning, is it worth trying to take the runs off the board? Managers also might be reluctant to challenge controversial calls in the first or second inning, wishing to wait until the fifth or sixth to see how the game is going. But if there are no questionable calls in those innings, the manager risks having made no challenge to an earlier play that might have a major impact on the game.

* I didn’t see anything in the new rules about fights. It’s almost impossible for an umpire to sort out who did what during a brawl. Should baseball consider having the Command Center review a fight to see which players did something to warrant ejection?

* In an earlier post about instant replay, I took the position that I was OK with any changes as long as the fans in the stands could also see the replays. It’s not clear if the ballparks will show the disputed play until it is actually subject to review. Baseball should go one step further and show all close plays at the ballparks so the fans can see what the manager is contemplating. Not doing so will leave the paying fans at a disadvantage from those watching at home.

* It isn’t clear how many people will be making decisions at the Command Center. Big question: Can the Command Center handle multiple challenges? Let’s suppose just about every team is playing at night, and that almost every game is in progress. If there happened to be two or three challenges at the same time, is the Command Center prepared to handle all of them immediately, or would teams have to wait their turn for their play to be reviewed? Also, there is something about baseball having a Command Center that just doesn’t sound right. George Carlin would not have stood for it. His classic baseball-football bit would have Command Center as something that was used in football. How about: “Football has a Command Center, Baseball has a Mediation Room.” I’m also not sure why this can’t be handled at the parks by a fifth umpire. If the fifth ump has access to the same TV footage as the Command Center, it would just be less intrusive than this Big Brother operation on the East Coast deciding a game on the West Coast.

And then, if the fifth arbiter ruled against the home team, the fans could yell: “Kill the Fifth Umpire!”

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