MLB: Technology is Not the Answer

Glenn DarbySenior Analyst IMay 23, 2008

Those in New York may have felt a little sickened when Alex Rodriguez's second home run was taken away from him this past week. They may have cried and complained. Actually, I know they did. I used to live in New York, and I know just how they are.

They are a passionate group of fans that always have the answer for what ails the Yanks (or Mets if the Yanks are a lost cause). So, the answer that has been force-fed down the throats of anyone within ear shot of the Hudson has been instant replay. 

And now, the MLB offices (which happen to be located in New York) have leaked a report that says instant replay will be "experimented with" during Arizona Fall League games, and possibly the 2009 World Baseball Classic. I remember another "experiment" that MLB brought us: the DH. Thorough testing guys, thanks.

So now we arrive at the heated debate between baseball purists and baseball fans. This is a debate that will either run the course of QuesTech or follow the path of the designated hitter. There are those who believe baseball is a game played by people and officiated by people. Then there are those who believe it is a competition, and everything needs to be done to ensure that the playing field is level across the board. 

Those who wish for baseball to catch up with newer (and arguably more fallible sports) seem to believe that instant replay will solve all problems. There are cries of lost runs and fan interference. There are complaints about poor umpires and outfield walls. The cause trumpets a world of global uniformity where all home runs are created equal. The ball must clear the wall (or wall marking) within the confines of the foul poles without striking an area in-play. 

The ball must also not be pulled out of play by an interfering fan. If the ball bounces off of Jose Canseco and proceeds out of play, it is deemed a home run.  Baseball fans see this as clear cut and wonder where the problem is. If the technology exists, why not use it to ensure that the call is correct? Baseball fans want everyone to be given their due.

Of course, baseball purists appreciate the human aspect of the game and accept the fallibility of the umpire. They do it every single time the pitcher lobs the ball across (or around) the plate. They put their faith in umpires (of whom QuesTech found to be 98 percent accurate) to determine what is and isn't within the rules.  The game has existed this way for 120 years. Why change it now?

The slippery slope argument that purists make is that we will eventually let robots control the entire game. If we are going to remove the umpires from calling balls fair and foul, why not remove them from calling safe and out? We can use cameras there. If we want to let them determine if a ball hit above or below the yellow line, why not let the cameras determine balls and strikes?

When Lou Piniella comes out to argue with the camera, it can use an algorithm to determine how wildly he is flailing his arms, and use motion sensors to determine if the camera gets bumped. Too much flailing and/or bumping and the camera will signal an automatic ejection.

Home plate cameras will also have voice recognition technology built in. At the sign of any player complaining about calls or using foul language, the player will automatically be tossed. This ensures a fair game for all that will be played under the same strict standards from Seattle to St. Pete.

The appeal to tradition argument for purists would say that this is the way that it has always been done. How can we be expected to change now? What about all of the home runs that have been taken away in the past 120 years? What about the games that were lost because of a lack of instant replay? Should we go back and review every game? How can Alex Rodriguez's pursuit of Barry Bonds exists asterisk free when we know that Barry had to have lost and gained a few home runs due to the lack of instant replay?

The most logical argument that a purist could make, however, is an appeal to reason. Don't you believe that umpires get it right more than they get it wrong? Don't you also think that over the 162-game seasons played by 30 teams along with numerous Spring and Fall games, that Major League umpires have probably both taken away a rightful home run from someone that they gave an illegitimate home run to? Of Alex's 600+ home runs, there was probably one in the Kingdome where Bill Gates reached over the wall and robbed Rusty Greer of an F7 that balances out the staircase shot heard round the Bronx.

And when you really think about it, the Yankees have already found a solution to the problem—a net. They put up something that reacts distinctly different than a hard surface to prevent umpires from ever robbing A-Rod of another home run.  The Wrigley faithful know what I am talking about. There is a nice net that hangs over the ivy and prevents fans from stealing balls that would be outs.

Umpires don't have to wonder if the ball hit off the top of the wall or if Steve Bartman is lurking in right-center. They know that the if the ball is in the net, it is a home run. Stadium renovations not involving cameras need to take place to remove problem areas. 

In Arizona, there is a spot in left-center where the lower wall continues its arc, while the upper part of the wall jets back away from home. A ball striking the upper part is a home run, whereas the lower part would be in play. The area just to the right of the "problem area" is also in play and level with the lower wall. I have seen at least four home runs bounce off the wall in home-run territory and be ruled in-play. This is an area that needs to be fixed. Every stadium has them. 

Whether it involves putting up those little-league fences off the tops of foul poles, using nets to catch balls that would normally bounce off rear (home run territory) walls, or using chalk and drywall to cover surfaces so that baseball impressions are left—there are simple improvements that can be made to the design of stadiums to prevent these mishaps.

This is the real issue behind the argument over instant replay. We all know that it will add time to the game. We all know just how long it takes NFL and NBA referees to watch video, and then they still make the wrong call (Chauncey Billups). That time isn't going to be any better in baseball. The problem lies in taking away the human error that makes baseball a beautiful game.

Where would we be if we couldn't harass the umpire about the wrong call? What would we do if we didn't think we knew better than those who spend almost a decade training, practicing, and working their way up to become Major League Umpires? Every fan loves to argue a call. Why take that away for a home run?