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I Too Am Against Instant Replay

June 4, 2010
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Joe Posnanski has, as he usually does, what I think is the definitive take on the Armando Galarraga instant replay situation.  His comments about why he doesn’t like replay are certainly worth reading (indeed, the whole thing is worth reading if you’ve got the time to read Joe Posnanski), but there are some other things there that I feel are better suited for discussion.  Preface: I, like Posnanski, don’t like instant replay.  Actually, you could say that I hate insant replay.  I can’t stand how long it takes, the possibility that literally any play of a football game could be overturned, or (and that is what really grinds my gears) the fact that two people who’ve no vested interest in either team can watch an instant replay and come to two entirely different conclusions about what happened.  Unfortunately, as Posnanski demonstrates, the NFL is just untenable sans instant replay:

Now, that’s the emotional side of things. I don’t LIKE instant replay in the NFL. But, hey, there are a lot of things I don’t like about sports. Beyond what I like or don’t like — I believe wholeheartedly that the NFL needs instant replay — could not in fact survive as the dominant sports league in America without instant replay. Why? Because we are in a place with technology where, the vast, vast, vast majority of the time, replays will prove conclusively whether or not a pass-catcher had feet in bounds, whether the ball crossed the plane of the end zone, whether the ground caused a fumble, whether the quarterback’s arm was going forward. We will know, almost every time, what happened.

…Pro football simply is not credible without instant replay. We have to come accept that the game moves too quickly for referees to make the right calls often enough. And every game in a 16-game schedule is so important. And we have the technology to get those calls right a lot more often. I think people in today’s era simply would rebel against an NFL where there was no recourse for clearly-mistaken calls.

Okay, I’ll consent this one.  An NFL where the Music City Miracle doesn’t get reviewed is not the most popular sport in America (by the way, I’m obligated to say this: the refs still blew that one).  It’s not a possibility anymore because everybody knows just seconds after the play whether or not the call was right.  There are still problems with it, though, that people don’t notice.

The most glaring example, aside from the decision on whether or not the quarterback’s arm is going forward when he throws (which is still highly vague), is the “down by contact” rule.  Used to, if the refs ruled a ball carrier down by contact, i.e. that the player was down before he fumbled, then the play was not subject to replay.  You couldn’t go back and change the call to a fumble because that meant you were opening up a Pandora’s box of “What would have happened after he fumbled?”  In 2006, the NFL changed that rule because of the credibility issue that Posnanski brings up—it was trying to restore some credibility to the “down by contact rule”.  Now, players can play through the whistle in order to recover a fumble. Normally, you’d get a personal foul for playing through the whistle.  Now, the NFL has institutionalized playing through the sound that’s supposed to stop play in the name of getting the call right.  That’s what we saw in that ridiculous Saint-Redskins debacle last year.  As Chris Chase notes, “Whistles can’t be the end-all, be-all of play stoppage on one down and then be a mere suggestion the next.”

And this is where I find myself disagreeing with Posnanski on replay in baseball:

I think baseball’s credibility long term cannot be maintained as long as every baseball fan in the entire world with a television or an Internet connection can know — really know — within a few seconds that the ump blew the call. That just can’t last. I think it’s beyond naive for the people who run baseball to think they can shut out technology. I believe I’ve made this point before: It’s like that moment in the movie “War Games” when the computer was figuring out the codes to launch nuclear missiles and the computer operators raced over to the General to tell him the horrifying news, and he said: “Well just unplug the damned thing.” Baseball can keep controversial replays off their ballpark jumbotrons and video boards, and they can fine players and managers for saying that an umpire blew a call. But they cannot unplug 50-plus years of technological advancement. And it’s foolish to try.

The two most obvious instances in baseball where replay would be used are, as Posnanski notes, out/safe and fair/foul.  The reasoning goes that baseball can no longer afford for umpires to pull Don Denkingers and Jim Joyces. (Anybody find it odd that there weren’t that many James Joyce references after this game?  Me neither—it’s sports, folks.)  The issue is not the Don Denkingers and Jim Joyces, though.  If the bases are loaded and a guy hits a shot down the right-field line, people are going to want to review a close call to see if the ump that called it fair got the call right, right?  Well, what if he rules it foul and it was actually fair? You could stipulate that if it’s ruled foul, then there’s no review—much like the “down by contact” rule used to be—but it only took a few years for the NFL to warm up to opening that Pandora’s box.  Are they going to guess how many of those runs would have scored?

Another under-discussed instance: the bang-bang play at first.  It seems obvious that replay would really help this, but what’s the definition of a catch?  Has the first baseman caught the ball when it hits his webbing?  That seems like the most likely definition.  Most first basemen, however, don’t let the ball hit the webbing and then close their mitts.  They close their mitts as the ball is coming into their glove.  Nobody can say for sure exactly when the first baseman catches the ball because nobody can see exactly when the ball hits the webbing.  The timing issue is always uncertain.  Sure, the Jim Joyce case would have been easy, but replay would just make the plays that are closer than that one harder.

Fred Schwarz has a host of other reasons here, including the silliness of the “challenge idea” (the Tigers would most definitely already have used theirs in the Galarraga game).  Maybe baseball is lacking credibility sans instant replay.  But, as Ross Douthat says, “extraordinary cases make bad law”.  This is a rule which is likely to produce more controversy than it portends to eliminate.

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