For home runs, replay is right call

Originally Published: June 9, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

"With all of the cameras that we have now, I'd hate to have a man in South Korea see that a guy caught the ball and the people that are here don't see it."
Giants manager Felipe Alou, on the virtues of instant replay

Only in baseball could technology be viewed as some newfangled complication of modern life – to be avoided like, say, Pete Rose.

Only in baseball could an innovation as ingrained and time-tested as instant replay be considered an unnecessary intrusion on – OK, cue the string quartet here – the beloved "human element."

Felipe Alou
Giants manager Felipe Alou has been outspoken about his support of instant replay.
Well, who among us doesn't love humans – and every one of their elements? But please – someone, anyone – it's time to admit that all of us humans can use help now and then.

And in our whole lifetimes, it's hard to think of anything that could be more helpful to baseball and its 100-percent-human umpires than the miracle of videotape.

"You know, I've had an idea for years, and nobody's ever asked me about it," said Brewers coach-humorist Rich Donnelly. "I'd like to see all the umpires wear a little digital video camera on the top of their hats. We'd call it Head Cam. Then, every time there's a close play, instead of making a call, they'd just hit a button and record the play.

"Then a red light would go on, right there on their caps. And in 10 seconds, the two managers would come out. Then the umpire hits a button and shows the play. When it's over, he says, 'Well, boys, whaddaya think?' And they'd say, 'OK, he's out,' and go back to the dugout. You'd have no more arguments. Nobody'd have to throw any red flags. It would make everything better.

"They always want to get the play right – right?" Rich Donnelly concluded. "And with Head Cam, they always would. So I'd think all the umpires would like that. They wouldn't have to go 'safe' or 'out' anymore. They'd just have to go to the Harry Wendelstedt Umpiring School and learn how to hit that button."

Ah, if it were only that simple. If only those umpires could hit a magic button that would get every call right. What a wonderful, harmonious world this would be.

But of course, there is no magic button. And there is no Head Cam. About the closest we can come is those 97 TV cameras crammed into every big-league ballpark on earth. So why not use them – not to second-guess the umpires, but to help them?

Not for everything, of course. Not for "Strike One" or "Ball One." We'll even spare them from "Safe" or "Out." But how can baseball not use replay in at least a limited number of cut-and-dried situations? And the first place we'd start is with the big home-run questions of our day:

• Over the wall or off the top of the wall?

• Fair ball or foul ball?

• Fan interference or not?

It's not as if those particular issues come up as often as a full count. This is basic, did-it-or-didn't-it stuff where the camera almost never lies. And how often would we have to use it – twice a week? For about 45 seconds?

Just a few days ago, Arizona manager Bob Melvin was leaning back in his office chair, talking about how home-run calls would be the one and only area where he would support instant replay.

"I wouldn't want to take it (replay) any further than that," Melvin said. "But that's a situation where there's either going to be a zero on the board or a run, and it's something you always get a pretty clear view on."

Well, some people will do anything to prove a point. So amazingly, two days later, Melvin's team actually lost a game over this very issue – when a ball that clearly hit the top of the wall was first called a double, and then changed to a home run.

If this had been a world where umpires were allowed to check the tape, it sure wouldn't have taken them long to figure out this was no home run – "maybe two minutes," Melvin said afterward. "If that."

"Look, I can also see the flip side of this," he said. "I know we've never done it in this sport. And if we're going to use it for one thing, people will say: 'Why not use it for other things?' I'm not even campaigning for this. But if there was ever one call where you'd use it, you'd use it for something like that."

This made Melvin the third manager in a week to suggest that instant replay's time had come – with Bobby Cox (after a disputed non-home run) and Felipe Alou (after two botched trap calls) preceding him. And last fall, 15 general managers voted in favor of using replays when the issue came up at the annual GM meetings.

This is my job. I call what I see out there, and if I'm not sure, my job is to communicate with my crew and get the play right. And I think we do get most of these plays right.
Umpire Jerry Crawford

But in case you thought these voices of reason might actually have an impact, forget it. Out in Milwaukee, the commissioner of baseball still wasn't persuaded.

"I never like to say I'm opposed to anything under all or any circumstances," said Bud Selig. "But what I've said is that the human element is part of our sport. I've watched instant replay in football. And it solves some problems, but it creates others. So at this point, I don't have much interest in using it."

Now we always respect our commish's point of view. But let's look at it this way: Can you think of any other business in which a technological innovation came along that could make life better and more efficient – and the people in charge would say: "We don't have much interest?"

If you balanced your checkbook with long division instead of a computer, forgot to carry a zero and then wrote a check when you had no money, would any collection agency ever tell you, "Aw, that's OK. It's the human element?"

If a bank got robbed, the wrong man got arrested and the security camera could prove him innocent, is there anyone who would say: "Naaah. Not interested. We prefer the human element?"

So how can baseball possibly justify being the only pro sport that doesn't use replay in any form?

"Look," replied veteran umpire Jerry Crawford, "this is a baseball game. It's a game. How technological do you want to get? Umpires have been questioned about calls since the beginning of time. So where does replay stop if you use it? Are guys going to come out and argue every slide play at second base? Every time you call a guy safe at first? Once you introduce technology into the game, where does it stop?"

OK, fair question. And the proof that it's fair is that it isn't just umpires who think this way.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel admits unabashedly that if replay were introduced into baseball, "I'd run out there every time a ball was hit and say, 'I want to see that.' I'd do it every time. So I think you'd have more arguments, not less."

But that's why we would limit replay to very specific situations. The NFL doesn't use replay to decide every holding call. The NBA doesn't use it to determine who got hacked shooting every jumper. So baseball, too, could keep it simple:

Home run or not?

But Crawford says even a home-run reversal wouldn't be as simple as it sounds.

"If you did that," he said, "you'd have to change a couple of rules. It's one thing if you (look at the replay and) call it a home run. But what if it's a double – and you've got runners out there? What do you do with them? ... You'd have to make it a ground-rule double and say the runner is going to get two bases, regardless of whether he would have scored or not."

What he prefers – what the commissioner and all umpires prefer – is having the umpires huddle, when there are questions, to get calls right. But suppose they do it that way and change a home-run call into a double? How is that different from using replay to change the call? Aren't there the same issues with where to place the runners?

"You're certainly entitled to your opinion," Crawford said. "But so am I. And this is what I do for a living. And my feeling is, for the small number of times that mistakes are made, this is not necessary... .

"I disagree with instant replay in any sport," Crawford went on. "I know it's been part of the other games for a while. But this is my business, and I think anybody in my business would agree with me in a heart beat – your football referee, your basketball referee, your hockey referee. They'd all agree you don't want to have that camera over your shoulder second-guessing every call."

Our response to that, though, is that the intent wouldn't be to second-guess the umpires. It would be to give them the ultimate, most fool-proof tool to get calls right. To which Jerry Crawford replied: "You're looking at it from a fan's point of view, which is fine. But I'm not. This is my job. I call what I see out there, and if I'm not sure, my job is to communicate with my crew and get the play right. And I think we do get most of these plays right."

Well, we're not here to claim otherwise. But the goal isn't to get most calls right. It's to get all calls right. And if something comes along that could help this sport get closer to that goal, how can baseball justify not even looking at it?

With that observation, we actually got the commish to hedge – by about half a millimeter, anyway.

"As time goes on, we'll look at everything," Selig said. "We've made a lot of changes. I'm sure we'll make more. But this one just strikes me as wrong."

Oh, well. Just wait 'til he sees Head Cam.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com