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07/27/11 12:16 PM ET
Time to expand replay ... but be smart
By / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- It can't possibly be a good day to be Jerry Meals. Here at Progressive Field, where the Indians and Angels were getting ready for an afternoon game, and all across the baseball universe, Meals' controversial call in the 19th inning of Tuesday's Pirates-Braves game in Atlanta was being discussed and dissected, with disgust the prevailing result. We'll never know what might have happened had the game extended to a 20th inning, but Meals could have cost the contending Pirates an important victory by calling Julio Lugo safe at home. It was a call that Meals himself admitted might have been botched, shortly after the fact. And once again, much like the aftermath of Jim Joyce's imperfection on Armando Galarraga's perfect night in Detroit last summer, the baseball world was buzzing about the need for expanded use of instant replay. "I've always liked the human element," Indians outfielder Austin Kearns said. "But at this point, it's kind of like you wish you had some challenge flags or something." Frankly, even those slow to get on board the replay train (and I lump myself into this group) have to be swayed on some level, simply as a product of our times. Because whether or not Major League Baseball extends replay beyond its current application on disputed home run calls, our societal reliance on technology has progressed to a point where every miscue, major or minor, is going to be nitpicked anyway. We might as well make it worth our while. Commissioner Bud Selig's 14-member committee for on-field matters will hold its next conference call on Aug. 8, and you'd better believe instant replay will be a major item on the agenda in the wake of what happened in Atlanta. And yet, the committee members, who were instrumental in the adoption of replay's use on home run calls, must remember that even replay itself is flawed. That's evident when you watch every angle of the Lugo play and realize that a discerning eye could watch the tape and still not come to a 100-percent conclusive decision as to whether catcher Michael McKenry's tag was adequately applied.
"He looked like he oléd him," Meals told a pool reporter after the game, "and I called him safe for that."
Some (well, OK, most) watch the replay and say Lugo was definitively out. I know I do.
But others (and, indeed, there were a few guys in the Indians' clubhouse of this opinion) saw the replay as less conclusive. If McKenry missed by even a fraction of an inch, Lugo was, indeed, safe.
And there's the rub, of course. Not even high-definition, Technicolor brilliance is perfect. Literally nothing in life is (except, perhaps, Reese's peanut butter cups). I know I've watched countless NFL games where the referees overturn plays that still look inconclusive to my eyes.
Umpires make decisions with their eyes, certainly, but also their ears and their guts. When they whiff, we jump all over them, but it's impossible to appreciate just how difficult that job is until you've been under the glare and had to make those decisions in real time, without technological aid.
Replay, even with its faults, would certainly cure more mistakes than it causes, and that's why its use absolutely, positively needs to be expanded. Pronto. In the NFL, it is used to challenge and, in some cases, overturn calls. In an ideal world, baseball could adopt a system in which replay functions as sort of a fifth set of eyes, in addition to the four umpires on the field, to look at each play for what it is and determine the right call.
But that doesn't mean expanding replay to be used on literally every controversial call -- because if we account for not only close tags and trapped balls but also strike-zone judgments, we're talking about dozens of such calls per ballgame -- is the right move for the sport.
"I think replay has value on a limited application," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a member of Selig's committee. "If you expand the application to some practical plays, I think it helps. On that play [Tuesday] night, I don't see replay being a part of it. But I do see it on balls trapped in the outfield, distance plays where umpires can't see a ball the outfielder goes against the wall to catch, just like a home run, and fair or foul calls down the line. I think there's a practical application for instant replay that should be considered for those plays.
"But around the bases? It's going to be very, very difficult, if an umpire is right there, to do it without being totally disruptive to the game. Because you can virtually argue any close play."
The last thing a sport already criticized for its pace needs is interference to that extent. The notion of having a challenge flag or two, á la the NFL, probably isn't going to happen. Maybe the opinion that a fifth umpire should sit in the press box with replay access, ready to jump in on close calls, has merit.
Whatever the means, though, baseball must be careful not to overcompensate for one or two particularly controversial cases.
"In a game with human beings involved in every aspect of it, you're always going to have some error," said Indians president Mark Shapiro, another Selig committee member. "I'm not speaking to that instance [in Atlanta] specifically. But I'm a believer in that there should be incremental adoption of instant replay. Not just reacting to individual plays, but incrementally increasing it to where it can be utilized quickly and get a call right."
Meals likely got that call wrong last night, and this will be a rough day for him as a result. Hopefully his rough day will lead to a replay system that fosters more fairness in the game. But I also hope people realize that whether the calls are camera-aided or not, they're going to remain imperfect on some level.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.