Making a Case for Instant Replay in Baseball

Ken RosenblattSenior Analyst IMay 23, 2008

Officiating in sports will never be perfect. Shortstops make errors. Point guards make turnovers. Umpires blow calls. And that’s all okay.

In all three of those instances, the best method of prevention is focus. We cannot ask players and officials to do more than be as focused as possible on fulfilling their responsibilities to the best of their abilities.

Even then, there will be lapses.

In a week when baseball umpires have made the wrong call on three home run balls, the challenges of getting it right were not limited to spotting the landing point of a ball moving at a fast rate two hundred feet away.

Take, for example, the same game in which the most recent outcry for instant replay began.

Last Sunday night, well after Carlos Delgado was sent back to the plate three RBIs poorer, another play demonstrated why umpires must keep a clear and unbiased picture of what is happening before their eyes.

In the eighth inning, Ryan Church raced across the plate with the Mets’ seventh run on a Brian Schneider single to right. The play at the plate looked like it was going to be very close until the throw from Bobby Abreu tailed slightly up the third base line.

The safe or out call came down to whether Yankees’ catcher Jose Molina would be able to corral the throw and slap a tag on Church as he passed by. Home plate umpire Bob Davidson’s experience told him this was the case, and, for the most part, he was right.

Church was able to get by Molina without being tagged. Davidson, standing in fair territory just above the plate and slightly up the third-base line, saw this and immediately signaled that Church was safe.

Just one problem. Church hadn’t reached the plate yet.

And it just so happened that Church’s stride nearly caused him to miss the plate. He barely caught the leading edge with his toe and kept going.

Davidson never saw the conclusion of the play. In his mind, the play was over as soon as Church cruised by Molina without getting tagged.

You could argue that Davidson's safe call was strictly related to the tag play, but he never turned to watch Church complete the run and didn't offer an additional safe call.

What would have happened if Church had missed the plate entirely and Molina noticed while Davidson remained in the dark?

Sometimes knowledge and experience work against you in trying to perform your duties optimally. It's the same reason that well-regarded players occasionally get embarrassed for not reaching second base on a dropped pop up.

Officials sometimes make calls based on what they know should have happened. Just as bad is when they make calls based on what it looked like happened.

No one is capable of getting every situation exactly right.

As someone who leans toward the traditional, I prefer to leave the human element as prominent as possible in most situations. That's why I find performance enhancing drugs to be such a pox: they introduce an unnatural, non human element to the capabilities of players.

In this case, however, making the best use of advanced technology seems like a no-brainer. Instant replay, used in a well-defined set of circumstances, would add to the integrity of the game.

As we have seen, even instant replay doesn't perfect officiating. Replays can be inconclusive, or sometimes an official's interpretation of a replay is flat-out wrong. How many times have you watched a replay and screamed, "That puck definitely went over the goal line!" Or, "There's no way his feet were in bounds!"

But if umpires are already willing to confer with each other on questionable calls, why not go a step further to get more calls right?