Let’s Re-Play Ball!

By Damian Slattery ’80

Damian Slattery '80Two decades. That’s how long I spent making sure the best in sportswriting got it right, every time. As a reporter at Sports Illustrated for 20 years, I fact-checked every line of stories written by the likes of Peter Gammons, Tom Verducci, Frank Deford, Peter King, Rick Reilly, Tim Kurkjian, even Steve Wulf ’72. Each at the top of his game, but in the rush of deadlines, another pair of eyes, another perspective on the “facts” (someone with access to SI’s library, the Web and the time to make confirming phone calls) would ensure getting it right. So, in considering the state of instant replay in baseball, I know the very best can be their very best with another look, a different angle, one more review. And I say: Let’s re-play ball!

Major League Baseball has over the last dozen or so years moved more swiftly and smoothly into the world of digital and mobile media than any other pro league — that is, when it comes to the fan experience. With MLB.com, MLB Advanced Media platforms and the MLB Network, fans can experience every aspect and element of every game, deconstructing (and replaying) missed calls on the league’s own digital platforms in ways those on the field can’t. In fact, with managers’ and players’ easy access to clubhouse and video room replays, the only ones on the field who can’t review a questionable play or call (other than disputed home runs) are the umps themselves.

A pioneering sport in so many ways (think Jackie Robinson or the Hall of Fame, for example), baseball has lagged behind the NFL (instant replay, 1986; challenge rule, 1999; 16 currently reviewable plays), the NBA (replay, 2002; 13 currently reviewable game situations) and NHL (replay, 1991, to review goal-­scoring situations) in the replay arena. Only in August 2008 did MLB implement limited instant replay confined to home run calls.

The recent flip-flop of Yankee manager Joe Girardi puts the argument in stark relief. Herewith a calm Girardi in 2009, after one of baseball’s worst blown calls cost Twins catcher Joe Mauer an 11th-inning leadoff double in a tied Game 2 of the AL Division Series: “The thing about baseball is it’s a real rhythm game…. I think if you were to start to instant replay on all these plays, I think it would break the rhythm of the game, and our games all get to be four games long…. Where would you stop?”

Last fall, after the Yankees were on the wrong end of a pivotal tag call at second base late in Game 2 of their AL Division Series against the Tigers, a hot Girardi did a pirouette: “In this day and age, when we have instant replay available to us, it has to change. These guys are under tremendous pressure. It takes more time for me to argue than for them to get it right…. There’s just too much at stake. And the technology is available.”

Yes, Joe, the technology is available. But baseball — the game without a clock — worries more than most sports about the proliferation of replays playing havoc with that prosaic stat: time of game.

But there’s real hope for change. Former Twins GM (and my Hamilton roommate) Bill Smith ’80 says baseball is reviewing an array of expanded replay situations. Probably not for this season, but very likely in 2014, “re-play ball!” may become a familiar cry. “I tend to be a little more ‘old school’ and lean toward the umpires’ decisions,” says Bill, onetime catcher for Hamilton’s varsity nine. “However,” he admits, “the technology keeps getting better, and we now have the ability to review plays faster and with less disruption to the flow of the game, which opens up improved avenues to get the call right.”

Commissioner Bud Selig has appointed an expert 14-member committee to consider an expanded replay program. The committee is considering adding these situations to instant replay review: fair/foul calls on balls in play beyond first and third, trap plays on line drives and fly balls to the outfield, and tag and force plays on the bases and at home plate. “The committee’s recommendations,” Bill says, “will provide the leadership toward the right ultimate answer for MLB.”

When it happens, Armando Galarraga and I will say the same thing: Perfect!

Damian Slattery, who spent 20 years as a reporter at Sports Illustrated and writes documentary and feature films, now works at FORTUNE magazine as VP of marketing. He lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, with his wife Melissa Howard Slattery ’82, daughter, Virginia ’12, and son, Jack, a ­first-year student at Hobart.

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