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A Good, Long Look at MLB’s Expansion of Instant Replay

Photo by John Vanacore/The Sound | Buy Photo

Brothers Matt and Joe Mondene have their eyes fixed on a game between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers at J. Roos Restaurant in North Haven. Baseball fans around the country are keeping their eyes and ears open to learn how Major League Baseball plans to expand instant replay next year, a proposal that's sparked plenty of debate.

A Good, Long Look at MLB's Expansion of Instant Replay

One of the ironies of instant replay is that there's hardly anything instantaneous about it.

In recent years, I've seen a sharp increase in the number of plays reviewed and the amount of time it takes to determine the outcomes. Often, these reviews come in the waning stages of games, when the drama should be at its boiling point. If you've watched a basketball game, you've seen someone hit a winning shot at the buzzer as the crowd goes bananas and the hero gets mobbed by his or her teammates. What you probably saw next was the refs interrupt the celebration by huddling around the monitor to see if the shot was taken before the clock hit zero while the Jeopardy theme plays throughout the arena.

Sometimes, the player barely got the shot off with tenths of a second to spare; other times, the ball was out of his or her hands with two seconds left. Rarely is the basket nullified, but the excitement is for what should have been immediate exaltation becomes an anticlimactic delay to confirm what most everyone already knew. OK, the basket counts and you can officially begin celebrating because the refs said so. Thanks, gang! Uh, yeah, you too, LeBron.

******

This brings us to Major League Baseball (MLB), another sport with a reputation for games that take too long. MLB was the last of the four major sports to adopt instant replay, doing so in 2008 to determine borderline home run calls. Three weeks ago, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that MLB plans to expand review to other plays in 2014 by using a challenge system similar to the NFL. To get approved, the measure requires a 75 percent affirmative vote by the owners, along with the players' association and umpires agreeing to changes in the current system. Reviewing home runs will remain at the umpires' discretion.

Although there is not yet a definitive list of what plays would be newly reviewable, Atlanta Braves President and Replay Committee member John Schuerholz said that 89 percent of incorrect calls made in the past would be, generating speculation that everything except for balls and strikes is subject. Managers could one day challenge one play through the first six innings and two from the seventh until the game is over. Challenged plays will be reviewed and finalized by MLB headquarters in New York City. Challenges not used in the first six innings don't carry over, although a manager who wins a challenge retains it, leading to unlimited reviews if they're correct.

The potential for lengthier games is drawing criticism by those who feel they're already a slog, whereas others feel it's more important to get the calls correct. So with all this debate surrounding historic changes to America's pastime, I spoke with some local players, coaches, umpires, and fans to get their thoughts. I heard a variety of opinions, from those who are flat out against replay, to those who are for it, but aren't sold on the challenge system. For lack of a better term, let's review.

To Expand or Not to Expand?

The first thing I wanted to know was whether people thought MLB's expansion of replay was a good idea outright. I'm sure Detroit Tigers fans are all for it. In June 2010, Jim Joyce cost Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game when he incorrectly called a runner safe at first base with two outs in the ninth inning. The runner, Jason Donald, was clearly out by a stride; Joyce admitted he blew the call; and Galaragga is currently pitching in the minors.

North Haven Senior Legion coach Charlie Flanagan isn't a Tigers fan, but feels MLB needs replay since the athletes' ever-increasing fitness level has progressed miles beyond that of the umpires, hampering their ability to accurately officiate because it's simply too taxing.

"When you see the size of the athletes and then look at the umpires, they are nowhere near in the same condition. Referees in football run down the field with the players and in hockey they skate right with them, but I question the physical ability of umpires in baseball," Flanagan said. "Baseball's founding fathers never thought we'd see 95 mile-per-hour fastballs and 450-foot home runs. The players are so strong and quick and the umpires just can't keep up. I think the only alternative is to use video."

Conversely, Branford Hornets' skipper Ed Bethke doesn't want to see MLB take replay to the next level. He stresses that umpires train for years so they can perform effectively and should be entrusted to their job without assistance.

"It's unnecessary to have someone who's not on the field make the call. Even if one umpire makes a bad call, they can still get together and decide what the right call is," Bethke said. "Plus, you're not just throwing some kid out there to work Major League games. These umps have 20 years of experience and get paid to do their job so it should be in their hands."

North Branford's Tyler Forgione thinks it's fine to have replay for home runs because "it's hard for anyone to tell if a ball is fair or foul from a hundred feet away," but wants MLB to put the clamps on it right there.

"It would hurt the integrity of baseball by taking away the human element. Not every call goes your way," said Forgione. "Baseball is the last sport that's holding out and it'd be nice if they kept it that way."

Time After Time

A baseball game typically lasts three hours and is closer to four when the Yankees and Red Sox play one of their trademark slugfests. Of course, additional replays will make the games last longer. One thing agreed upon by nearly everyone I spoke to is that if baseball expands replay, there needs to be a cap on how many times a manager can challenge. In the NFL, a coach can challenge as many as three times a game if his first two get overturned. Next year in MLB, the possibility will exist for infinite challenges. Even a diehard fan like me might tune in elsewhere if a manager challenges a call when it's 10-0 in the ninth inning and I've already been watching for hours. Hand baseball coach Travis LaPointe feels that I won't be the only one.

"I don't like managers having challenges. It's important to get the calls right, but they don't have the best process in place to prevent delays," said LaPointe. "It's bad for the casual fan who's just going to change the channel and it's bad for the players, too. If I have a pitcher who's throwing a gem, I don't want him standing there while they review a play. I'd rather see every game have another umpire who watches each play and can overturn the call on the spot."

Currently, reviews on home runs average just slightly more than three minutes as the umpires leave the field to watch the play. Schuerholz said the expectation in the new system is for replays to last around 1 minute, 15 seconds. Morgan baseball coach John Litevich thinks that's unrealistic.

"It's going to take longer than that. It always does anytime you allow something like this to be part of the game," he said. "The ultimate goal is to get the calls right, but you don't want to wreck the flow of the game. Baseball doesn't need anything else to slow it down."

Richard Oros, who works at Buffalo Wild Wings in North Haven, feels that since baseball is already so time consuming, it's worth adding a few more minutes to get the calls right.

"I don't think it's a problem if the games take longer," Oros said. "You can't have the outcome of a game affected by a bad call."

It's a Trap!

In terms of what plays will actually be reviewable, the consensus is that balls and strikes will be excluded since different umpires have varying strike zones. Other plays are more clear-cut, such as if a ball is fair or foul or whether a runner was safe at home plate. Most people think those plays will be reviewable.

One type of play, however, falls into murky waters: Did the fielder catch the ball in his glove or trap it with the glove after the ball hit the ground? Sure, if the initial call is a catch and they change it to a trap, then it's a hit instead of an out, but how many bases does the batter get? It hardly seems fair to only award speedster José Reyes a single on an overturned trap deep in the outfield when he would have had a double if the play was called right initially. And what if the play was originally ruled a trap, a runner scores from third, and they determine it was a catch? Does the runner go back to third and then tag up after the umps change the call? Will there be do-overs like when I'd hit one into a tree playing wiffleball?

The fact that the catch-or-trap scenario creates more questions than answers leads longtime umpire and East Haven resident Ed Rapuano, Sr.-whose son Ed was a Major League umpire from 1990 to 2012-to think that play shouldn't be part of the replay expansion. Either way, he knows MLB still has to make sure it examines every aspect of instant replay and its consequences before it unveils its master list.

"It has to be thoroughly investigated. They won't jump the gun until they make sure they have all their i's dotted and t's crossed," Rapuano said. "Maybe they know what they're going to do and maybe they don't, but they're not saying too much yet."


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