Umpire was wrong, but replay is worse

Updated: October 13, 2005, 8:26 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Upon further review, you play it where it lies. Upon further review, the whole bleedin' situation stands as called.

Do umpires make mistakes? You bet they do -- along with every pitcher, catcher, fielder, hitter and manager who ever stepped onto a baseball diamond to attempt this infernal game, where a guy who chokes seven out of 10 times at the plate is a .300 hitter and bound for glory.

In other news, they're all humanoids, every last one of 'em. Mistakes, the little annoying ones and the grand, glorious, grounder-through-the-wickets-that-changes-a-Series-forever ones, are a part of the process -- an integral part, I'd argue.

OTL: A Second Look
Major League Baseball remains the lone holdout among major pro sports when it comes to instant replay. After Wednesday night's ninth-inning controversy in the ALCS, the debate is heating up. Should Major League Baseball adopt instant replay? Would it be used? Tonight, Outside The Lines and Bob Ley explore the issue with former major-league catcher Mike McFarlane and former umpire Davie Phillips (ESPN, 12:40 a.m. ET/9:40 p.m. PT)
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They'll do the game, foibles and all. We'll watch and talk after. It has been working pretty well for a century.

It isn't as though you couldn't see the call for instant replay coming at a time like this. The home-plate ump got it wrong Wednesday night in a playoff game in Chicago, and he essentially took an out off the board because he lacked the courage of his conviction. If you're the Angels today, or someone close to them, or someone who just likes to see the just thing happen most of the time, it's almost a natural reaction to ask whether some sort of replay system might solve this kind of stuff.

But of course instant replay does exist, in every TV room and on every plasma screen in the country that happened to be tuned to the White Sox-Angels game -- or any other game. We've had instant replay, in one form or another, for my entire sporting lifetime.

You know what replay has shown, at least in baseball? It has shown how staggeringly often the umpires get it right. Replay, for baseball, is just about the umps' best friend, not that any of them probably see it that way. When the umpires think about replay, they probably think about getting second-guessed from here to eternity or having the integrity of their strike zones questioned (about half the time, they should be). But the truth is that replay has borne out, time and again, that Major League Baseball umps do a very good job, a consistently good job, under split-second conditions. They don't miss much. Most of you would take their success ratio into your line of work any day of the week.

If the argument for instant replay comes down to eliminating mistakes from the game, then let's all save breath. The beauty of sports, from a spectator's point of view, is the human aspect everywhere you look. The White Sox don't find themselves in that situation Wednesday night if A.J. Pierzynski doesn't swing at a pitch so far out of the strike zone that it really does drop almost all the way to the dirt. The Angels aren't made to pay for umpire Doug Eddings' unfortunate change of heart if Kelvim Escobar, who has been so brilliant to this point, doesn't suddenly hang a pitch right in front of Joe Crede.

(Another beautiful thing about sports: Competitors who make each other pay for those mistakes. Crede didn't miss his opportunity.)

And here's the kicker in this very specific instance: It appeared that umpire Eddings got it right the first time. He rang up Pierzynski emphatically -- or so it seemed.

It wasn't until Pierzynski sprinted for first (a great human moment, by the way, just sort of hoping the fake out might work) that -- my interpretation here; Eddings claims otherwise -- he allowed himself to be taken in by the scam. Eddings didn't need replay, in truth. He just needed to believe his own call in the first place.

Human error? Well, Josh Paul could have simply tagged out Pierzynski at home plate after the pitch. We teach that kind of stuff in Pony League and Cal Ripken League all the time. If there's even a remote doubt, apply the tag and be done with it. You can argue that Paul didn't bother because he knew he'd caught the ball and Eddings confirmed it, but, look, are we going to talk about eliminating the potential for human miscue or not?

If the great adventure of the NFL has taught us anything, it is that replay review does not remove the human capacity for mistakes; it just pushes it around on the field. Now the arguments are mostly about whether the replay judge gets it right, or about the call that is non-reviewable, or about the call that never gets made in the first place and thus cannot even be considered.

When you enter into a game that involves people, you are going to see people playing a game, flaws and all. If I want PS2, I can just go upstairs and steal it from my kids. The attempt to get things right or do it better next time, to agonize over the pitch you wish you had back or the swing that somehow completely missed a batting-practice fastball -- that's the good stuff in the game. And that includes the people who call the games. It's true that no one ever buys a ticket to watch an umpire work, but it is also undeniably true that the umpires add a crucial dimension to the deal.

It's the human element -- on every level -- that makes sport so consistently interesting, which is just another way of saying we're never really done talking about it. Or, as Darin Erstad said late Wednesday night in Chicago, "People, when they say they've seen it all? They haven't seen it all."

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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