- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Maybe Brad Hawpe would have stroked a two-out hit into the gap and former Tennessee quarterback Todd Helton would have scored all the way from first to still give the Colorado Rockies a 9-8, break-out-the-defibrillator-paddles victory against the San Diego Padres and a ticket to the National League Division Series.
Then again, maybe not.
Maybe Hawpe strikes out against the greatest reliever of all time, Trevor Hoffman, and the 163rd game of the season needs a 14th inning. Or a 20th. Maybe the Padres, not the Rockies, end up winning the thing, shower in champagne, and then fly to Philadelphia for Wednesday night's NLDS opener against the Phillies.
Instead, a bang-bang play at home plate -- essentially the play that decided if the Rockies would become the last playoff entrant -- was made by a well-meaning plate umpire who was forced to make an educated guess on the call. Tim McClelland guessed, and he was wrong.
If only he'd had a friend to help him out. Hello, instant replay.
McClelland, a 25-year-plus umpiring veteran who has worked four World Series and six League Championship Series, called Matt Holliday safe at home in the bottom of the 13th inning of Monday night's game at Coors Field. It was a slightly delayed call -- that's McClelland's style -- but there was no mistaking that he thought Holliday, tagging from third on a sacrifice fly, had somehow slipped his left hand (pinkie?) past catcher Michael Barrett's left foot, which blocked the plate as Barrett waited for the throw from outfielder Brian Giles.
Holliday's hand never touched the base. But by then McClelland had made the call, Barrett had dropped the ball and begun walking toward the Padres dugout, and the Rockies had begun celebrating. Had there been instant replay, they might still be playing.
Yes, I know what I wrote two years ago after a handful of close and sometimes bizarre plays helped determine the 2005 ALCS and NLCS winners:
- Is it time for instant replay in baseball? The answer is no, and should always be no unless hell freezes over, Bud Selig wears a thong, and artificial turf is installed at Fenway Park.
I was wrong. Turns out the answer is yes. And it isn't yes because McClelland probably botched the Holliday-Barrett call. It's because it's time for the baseball purists (guilty) to acknowledge the game can be improved by technology.
Did you see the replays? Not even Holliday, who was there, knew if he touched home plate. Of course, that's what happens when you're semiconscious from the collision.
Barrett said he thought he blocked Holliday off the plate. So did TBS analyst Cal Ripken Jr. But Padres manager Bud Black, watching from the dugout, said he thought Holliday's hand slipped through. And a giddy Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told Denver reporters, "I don't care."
Wouldn't it have been nice to be sure? Or as close as you can get to sure?
How many Don Denkinger/Game 6 moments of the 1985 World Series do we have to endure before Selig and the owners give instant replay a chance?
"I am an umpire's friend," said Seattle Mariners GM Bill Bavasi, who, by the way, thought Holliday could have been safe. "I like those guys. I think they're good. I'm proud of our umpires. But, hey, if you can help these guys, help them."
It cost the NFL $9.5 million to help its guys. That's the what the league spent to install state-of-the-art, high-definition monitors in the replay, coaches and on-field booths of all 31 NFL stadiums. Depending on the system, Major League Baseball could do it more cheaply, but why not demand the best? The fans, the Padres, to say nothing of the umpires themselves, deserve that much.
"We're going to demand these [umpires] stay in the dark ages?" Bavasi said. "And then get pissed at them when we have the technology that we refuse to give them?"
Good point. Bavasi isn't advocating a sweeping, all-encompassing replay system. But he wouldn't mind the umpires having a video safety net when it comes to fair or foul balls, balls above or below the home run line on outfield walls, fan interference, and maybe even those bang-bang plays on the bases.
He isn't alone. The Rockies' Dowd is the chairman of the technology committee at the annual GM meetings. He plans to raise the issue of instant replay later this year.
Meanwhile, just a few nights ago at Seattle's Safeco Field, there was a close play that went against the Mariners. The replay, seen throughout the stadium on monitors, elicited an instant groan from the Mariners' crowd.
Between innings, crew chief Ed Montague walked down the first-base line, sort of turned to Seattle manager John McLaren, and said, "By the reaction of the crowd, am I safe to assume that I blew that one?"
See, the umpires want to get it right, too. They really do. So maybe you give a manager two challenges per game on a close call. Will it slow down an already plodding game? Sometimes. But it also might speed it up in some circumstances.
Manager challenges a call. Crew chief ducks into the HD booth. Decision made. Beats the 12-minute hissy fit by a manager. Or the occasional long conference by the umpiring crew.
"This is a ball that is very, very friggin' small," Bavasi said. "The foul lines are narrow. The ball is traveling at a very high rate of speed. Did it touch the line? Did the fan reach over? That's not easy to [determine]."
The umpires wouldn't resist the move. At least, the smart ones wouldn't. Why would you resist technology that can help you do your job better? After all, the NFL uses it. College football uses it. The NBA uses it. NASCAR uses it. Pro tennis uses it.
MLB, its owners, the baseball media, the old-timers shouldn't resist. This isn't about preserving history. This is about improving the accuracy and the integrity of the game.
"Yes, I know for the last 100 years we did it without instant replay," Bavasi said. "Hey, I've got a guy here, if he had gone without the latest cancer treatments the last 10 years, he'd be dead. So B.S. on that."
Late Monday night, as reporters assembled around his locker, the classy Hoffman blamed himself for the loss.
"Unfortunately we're going home," he said. "And you can't point to any other factor other than my performance."
That's not exactly true. Just look at the replay.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.
What's wrong with giving umpires every technological advantage possible to get the calls right? Absolutely nothing.