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.'

By , Staff writer

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    A major-league baseball player throws a ball at a game in St. Petersburg, Florida, Friday.
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Baseball has long been a game of spit-flying arguments.

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.

Recommended: Major League Baseball: You’re the umpire. How well do you know the rules?

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.

Currently, MLB instant replay only helps determine where, or whether, a ball leaves the field of play, or whether a fan has interfered. Only the umpire crew chief can decide whether there’s a review, and if he does, he uses a special off-field console to watch the replays. The umpire can reverse the call if he sees “clear and convincing evidence” the call was botched.

Yet even here, umps can botch their calls again, and a host of managers have been ejected for arguing the reversals of replay review.

The new proposal – which must be approved by 75 percent of the owners, as well as both the players’ association and umpires ­– allows the manager to challenge a call, much like the red flags coaches throw in football now. A manager would be allowed one challenge in the first six innings and two more from the 7th inning on. If the play is overturned, the manager can keep his challenge.

"This is a historic moment for baseball," Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, a member of the replay committee, said in Cooperstown, N.Y., Thursday. "We have moved forward with a plan that would give our managers an opportunity to help control the calls that are made that impact their team, give them a better opportunity to see to it that they have an opportunity to win the game. It's the first time in the history of baseball that managers have been empowered with this capability."

Call it the empowerment of greater perfection in umpire’s calls. And yet, take what may be the most gut-wrenching blown call of the last decade. On June 2, 2010, Venezuelan journeyman Armando Galarraga, a pitcher with the Detroit Tigers at the time, pitched a perfect game into the ninth inning, retiring every batter he faced with one to go.

Now, in 135 years of MLB history – more than 300,000 games played – only 23 players have ever pitched a perfect game. That’s an average of less than 0.00008, or 8 thousandths of 1 percent of the time. And no one has ever done it twice.

On the cusp of baseball immortality, Galarraga induced a ground ball to the 1st baseman and, covering the bag, beat the runner for an out – a perfect game. But umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, and Galarraga had to settle for a mere-mortal one-hit shutout.

But what happened afterwards astounded most baseball observers.

Not only was Galarraga gracious, saying after the game, and without irony, “Nobody’s perfect.” But Joyce’s tearful apology was deep and heartfelt as well. And the next day, Galarraga brought the lineup card to Joyce before the game – a gesture of forgiveness and support.

The grace and sportsmanship each demonstrated that moment may have been more poignant than the rare thrill of a perfect game. (Galarraga has mostly languished in the minor leagues since then.)

Thinkers in the past used to call this kind of poignancy “felix culpa,” a Latin phrase meaning “lucky fault,” or in theological terms, “fortunate fall.” It means that sometimes our faults and our flaws allow us to experience a deeper understanding of “the human element.”  

It’s why there’s something mystical about baseball. No one would ever mistake the bombs and blitzes and trenches of football for a “field of dreams.” Baseball is a sport about going home. 

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