Column: Think carefully before adding replay to MLB
Originally Published: July 11, 2008 6:22 p.m.
Instant replay is coming to Major League Baseball as surely as players spit, scratch and chew.The discussion concerning the use of instant replay in MLB has been going on for a number of years. And this past November at their annual meeting, general managers voted 25-5 to ask MLB to explore the use of instant replay on so-called "boundary calls" - whether balls clear fences, leave the playing field, hit foul poles, or are affected by fan interference. That request was ignored by Commissioner Bud Selig, who has long been a proponent of allowing the umpires to make calls, and infrequently, mistakes.But that all changed in the month of May, after umpires blew three home run calls in a span of less than a week. MLB announced that instant replay would be tried in the Arizona Fall League, the World Baseball Classic next year and spring training. A final decision would then be made on implementing instant replay in games that count.Then word leaked that MLB was negotiating with the umpires union to speed up the process, perhaps implementing replay as early as Aug. 1. While that date is merely tentative, the goal, apparently, is to have instant replay up and running prior to this year's playoffs. Some believe that a repeat of May's botched calls during the World Series, especially if it cost a team a game, would be embarrassing to the sport.But what's more embarrassing is that we are on the precipice of instant replay for all the wrong reasons, namely, public opinion and the potential for negative publicity. What should be foremost in the minds of decision makers is what's good for the game. And instant replay may not be.Many sports have instant replay, from cricket to tennis to the NFL, and those sports have survived the technological intrusion. But baseball is different. Arguing about umpire calls has been an integral part of the game since the 19th century. Will that be lost if instant replay is implemented?And more importantly, once instant replay becomes a fait accompli, where will it end? Will it be used to determine safe or out calls on the bases? To call balls and strikes? It's easy to say it will only be used on boundary calls, but once the technology becomes a part of the game, there will almost assuredly be calls to expand its application.There are 54 outs in a nine-inning game. During an average game, the home plate umpire sees 300-400 pitches. Is every call correct? Hardly. Umpires aren't perfect, even the good ones, but most are exceptional at what they do. The human element should remain a part of the game.But once instant replay becomes a reality, the first time TV replays show an umpire blowing a call on the bases, or ringing up a batter on a pitch six inches off the plate, you can count on the inevitable hue and cry to expand instant replay. How will MLB react then?Of course, MLB could retain the human element and insure that boundary calls are being made correctly by adding two additional umpires to each crew, one down each foul line. Six umpires are currently used in the All-Star Game and postseason play. But don't hold your breath. Adding 30 more umpires would cost money, perhaps as much as $10 million per year. Even in a sport that generates more than $6 billion in annual revenue, that option isn't on the table.As long as instant replay is inevitable, let's hope MLB gets the format right. The best system would be similar to the NHL's, a "war room" at league headquarters with direct communication to each umpiring crew involved in that day's games. Only the crew chief could request a review, not team personnel as is possible in the NFL.The general public already seems to be on board. A recent USA Today poll shows over two-thirds of more than 4,000 respondents are in favor of some type of replay. But before we rush headlong into something from which there is no turning back, a voice inside my head cautions, "Be careful what you wish for."(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com)