Expanded MLB Replay Has Stellar Opening Day Debut

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2014

First base umpire Bob Davidson, right, and home plate umpire John Hirschbeck, left, talk over headsets as a play at first base is being reviewed in the fifth inning during the opening day baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs on Monday, March 31, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria requested a replay on an out call. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)
Gene Puskar

Major League Baseball officially entered the 21st century on March 31, 2014 with the debut of an expanded replay system that allowed managers to challenge calls in games. 

Yes, there were three regular-season games played before Monday, but there were no challenges in those games. 

Commissioner Bud Selig had been reluctant to use expanded replay in games, saying in 2012 that there was no need to bring it up because "I've had very, very little pressure from people who want to do more."

Selig finally bit the bullet in January, when all 30 MLB teams unanimously voted to an expanded-replay system that gave managers at least one challenge per game, instead of the old system when umpires just looked at home runs and boundary calls. 

MLB unveiled its replay headquarters located at the MLB.com offices, which is nothing short of spectacular, as you can see in the picture below. 

Richard Drew

The Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates started the day at 1:05 p.m. ET, and it was about two hours into the game when fans got a taste of how the expanded-replay process would work. 

In the top of the fifth inning, Chicago's Jeff Samardzija was batting with two runners on base and nobody out against Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano. Samardzija bunted the ball back to Liriano, who turned a double play to third baseman Pedro Alvarez to first baseman Travis Ishikawa. 

Or did they?

Samardzija was called out at first base, but it was a very close play that could have gone either way. Cubs manager Rick Renteria came out of the dugout to challenge the call, which was confirmed. 

See, for all the guff that umpires get about making wrong calls, here is an instance where they got it right and were able to confirm it. 

More important than that, though, is the speed at which the call was made. As you can see in the video, Renteria comes out of the dugout around the 50-second mark. The umpires got to the headphones to get the final call from the replay official in New York and it's called at the two-minute, 28-second mark. 

That's 98 seconds in real time for the manager to challenge the call, the umpires to get the headphones and the final call to be made. It's probably no different than the length of time it takes a player to hit a home run, round the bases, get back in the dugout and the next batter to step in the box. 

That would not be the only replay challenge used Monday, as there were a total of four in the early games, including another one in the Cubs-Pirates game that we will get to shortly. 

In a back-and-forth contest between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, the umpires were tested once again. This time Danny Espinosa was the culprit, as he hit a little dribbler up the third-base line that David Wright made a nice play on. 

Wright's throw pulled first baseman Lucas Duda off the bag, but the umpire called him out. Nationals manager Matt Williams ran out of the dugout to give the crew a chance to look at it again, which confirmed what was originally called. 

It was not a perfect day for the umpires, which was to be expected and why MLB adopted this new replay system in the first place. 

The first overturned call of the day came in a game between the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. Ryan Braun hit a chopper to third base and was called safe on a very close play at first, leading to Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez challenging the call. 

The second overturned call of the day may have indirectly led to a victory for the home team. It was in the Cubs-Pirates game on a pickoff play at first base. Emilio Bonifacio was leaning too far off first base when Pirates pitcher Bryan Morris threw over and the umpire initially called Bonifacio safe. 

After Clint Hurdle challenged the call, which was overturned for the second out of the inning, Neil Walker led off the bottom of the 10th inning and hit a walk-off homer to right field. 

Who knows if the Cubs would have scored in the top half of the 10th inning. They were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on base, so the odds weren't in their favor, but that one pickoff play could have changed the entire complexion of that inning. 

If the Cubs score, Jose Veras comes in to pitch the 10th inning instead of Carlos Villanueva. Walker doesn't get a chance to play the hero, and the Pirates may have gone home without a victory. 

It's not the most likely scenario given how the Cubs hit in the game, but you never know how one play can change an entire game. 

The umpires got the call right after initially getting it wrong, which is all that we, as fans and viewers, can ask for. 

There was another unusual moment during the game between Cleveland and Oakland that invoked the new replay rule and blocking home plate rule.

Cleveland's Michael Brantley tried to score on a ball hit back to pitcher Sonny Gray, but Gray shoveled the ball to catcher John Jaso who was standing just in front of the plate before receiving the ball. 

Indians manager Terry Francona talked to home plate umpire Mike Winters about the play to see if Jaso was in violation of the new rule. It's not a play the manager can challenge, but it is a judgement call the umpire can look at if he chooses. 

Announcement in press box is that the replay was a "crew chief challenge." #Indians retain their challenge. #Athletics

— Joe Stiglich (@JoeStiglichCSN) April 1, 2014

Winters felt it appropriate to go to the replay headquarters, which showed that Jaso was in compliance with the rule, so the original out call was upheld. 

What's even better about the way these calls were made was the reaction on social media. It's no secret that umpires are often catnip for the vultures on sites like Twittersome of it has been justified, but a lot of it is just because fans and analysts were able to look at a play multiple times from multiple angles when the umps weren't. 

Instead of seeing a flood of tweets go by about how incompetent umpires are, there were complimentary things about the new system and the work most of these men were doing. 

There were still some sarcastic comments, like this one by Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman (via Marcus Hartman of Fox Sports Ohio), but it was directed at the Cubs instead of the umpires:

Marty Brennaman on the 1st MLB replay challenge: "And because they are the Chicago Cubs, they lost it."

— Marcus Hartman (@marcushartman) March 31, 2014

Most of the comments were actually pleasant and complimentary toward the umpires and Major League Baseball:

Instant Replay is working like a charm in MLB. I'm also seeing a lot less arguments between managers & umpires too

— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) March 31, 2014

Braves-Brewers replay overturned in 58 seconds! Clearly, MLB umpires have not been watching the NFL-NCAA replay reviews...58 seconds- wow

— Jim Mattson (@hoijim) March 31, 2014

Like every new rule change, there is going to be a period of adjustment. There will be some days where a lot of close plays happen that umpires get wrong, but instead of having to hear vitriol from the fans in attendance and seeing their names in headlines after the game, they have an opportunity to get the call right. 

All you want is the right call. MLB has taken the steps to get the game there, and it was used to perfection on Opening Day. 


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 


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