As baseball lumbers toward instant replay, will something be lost?
Baseball, a pastoral sport long resistant to change, is now embracing instant replay, pitting what critics call the ever-encroaching dominance of technology against the game's 'human element.'
Baseball has long been a game of spit-flying arguments.Skip to next paragraph
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And among these, none are more fun than those about an umpire’s call. Think of Lou Piniella’s tomato-red-faced tirades, or Earl Weaver’s conniptions on the field. Look in the stands: everyone’s laughing and cheering (or in conniptions of their own.)
Of course, disputed calls are part of baseball lore. Jackie Robinson’s successful steal of home in Game One of the 1955 World Series still prompts arm-flailing debates, and Cardinal fans still flare shades of red when discussing Don Denkinger’s blown call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, with the Cardinals 3 outs away from being champs. They lost Game 7, and the series.
But the pastoral sport, long resistant to technology and change, is now embracing instant replay with open gloves.
Calling it a historic moment, Commissioner Bud Selig announced Thursday that Major League Baseball will revamp its modest replay rules next year, expanding the number of plays subject to review and, for the first time, giving managers the ability to challenge umpire’s calls.
“It’s not rocket science – get it right,” Mr. Denkinger told Time magazine from his home in Waterloo, Iowa. “It’s not going to change the momentum of the game. If it’s set up properly, it will be the greatest thing to happen to Major League Baseball.”
It may not be rocket science, but baseball’s slow emergence from its luddite impulses – it hasn’t even entered the iron age as it still insists on wooden bats – says as much about the deep tensions and ambivalences in modern life as it does about wanting to get a call right.
Critics of instant replay call it the clash between the ever-encroaching dominance of technology and what is vaguely called “the human element” of the game. On the one side are objectively gathered data: clean, precise, and ostensibly reliable and true. On the other side are the wild and unreliable vicissitudes of human passions.
“If you think there is a problem with brakes, do you make the airbags stronger or do you get the brakes fixed?” Tweeted Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond Thursday. “To make it clear, I love the game the way it is right now. If people want a ‘perfect’ game, it's never going to happen in this sport.”
But baseball is hoping to eliminate botched calls and approach perfection with high definition images so precise and pure a viewer can practically smell the scene. It’s a human quest going back to when Galileo put a spyglass on steroids and made a telescope – an enhancement of human perception that made us understand the difference between what is true and what we wished were true.