Highbrow Sports | February 26, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Let’s Re-”Play Ball”

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baseball 3The question of whether or not Major League Baseball should expand its instant replay rules to cover more than just homeruns has been an intensely argued debate for quite some time, and understandably so. Surely, the stakes for both sides of this argument are not inconsequential. Many fans of baseball think back in dismay to 2010 when a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game, and they ask how this could possibly be justified given our ability in the modern day to do an instant replay. Yet on the other hand, many fans of baseball feel resistant to instant replay because of the human nature of the game.

Joining this debate, Julian Atehortua, a sophomore at Harvard and Crimson editorial writer, wrote an op-ed on February 26 arguing against expanding instant replay in Major League Baseball. As I understand them, the three main arguments for his position are that 1) instant replay is not inherently fair; 2)  baseball has not been moving toward a fairer system; and 3) sports ought to be controlled by human nature. While having made his arguments passionately and intelligently, I remain unconvinced and wish to make the case that instant replay can be expanded in a sensible manner to enhance the game of baseball.

The Fairness of Instant Replay

The number one argument in favor of expanding instant replay in baseball is undoubtedly the fact that supporters believe it will add fairness to the game. Atehortua, however, finds instant replay not to be “inherently fair,” claiming that “[t]he better team does not necessarily win every game, nor does the lesser team necessarily benefit from instant replay.”

Reading this, I cannot help but feel that Atehortua should be more careful about how he defines fairness in baseball. Fairness is certainly not about making sure that the better team, whatever that may mean, wins every game. Nor does fairness mean “benefiting” the “lesser team.” Fairness with respect to instant replay is about making better judgments on the closest and most difficult plays. The dichotomy between “better team” and “lesser team” is irrelevant. The real dichotomies are fair ball or foul ball, safe or out, homerun or not homerun, etc. These are specific instances within a game in which one player or team has the advantage during a play over another. And with this being the case, instant replay really can add some fairness back into the game.

Fairness vs. Excitement in Baseball

One of the most interesting and thoughtful examples that Atehortua brings up is the fact that the MLB has not been moving, as of late, to a fairer system of baseball. The example he gives is the fact that the MLB, before the 2012 season, expanded the number of teams that make it to the playoffs from eight to ten, adding a new wild card in each league. This effort to help teams with worse records make it to the playoffs results in a toss-up game between the two wild card teams in each league. Atehortua argues that this cannot possibly make baseball more fair, and I couldn’t agree more. After all, how can resting a team’s playoff fate on the outcome of a single game after a 162-game season add more fairness to baseball?

I do, however, disagree with Atehortua’s conclusion. He correctly argues that the MLB’s motivation for adding this new rule is that it causes more excitement because of the baseball 2uncertainty of which team will make it to the next round. But he goes too far in suggesting that expanding instant replay will lead to less excitement, which doesn’t seem to be a priority for MLB officials.

From my own personal experience and general observations of sports fans, instant replays can actually be very exciting. Consider every time a team makes a challenge in the NFL, a league twice as popular in America as the MLB. During these times, more than most during the game, viewers and fans are on the edge of their seats, anxious to hear what the call is. Indeed, the couple of minutes that are taken to review the play add suspense and capture the uncertainty of the moment in a way that instant calls do not. This is not to say that instant calls are not also exciting, because they are in many circumstances. The point is, instant replay cannot be categorically dismissed as not exciting. As other sports with instant replay demonstrate, instant replay can add plenty of excitement to the game.

Human Nature

Finally, and perhaps most characteristic of those who oppose expansion of instant replay in baseball, Atehortua suggests that baseball has a human aspect to it that is essential to the history and character of baseball. While a very respectable and understandable position, this argument does not encompass and appreciate what ought to be the truly revered aspects of human nature in sports.

Atehortua says, “We want our competitions to reflect the best and worst of human performance.” But what are these competitions and the nature of human performance about: the players or the umpires? The instant replay debate causes many to focus on the performance of the umpires, when really the game is about the competition between two teams. The purpose of umpires is to have qualified, unbiased individuals make judgement calls during the game related to the performance of the players in accordance with the rules of the MLB. In cases like in 2010 when Jim Joyce admittedly made a bad call costing Galarraga a perfect game, not having instant replay shifts our focus to individuals–umpires–who are clearly not part of the competition. We should respect umpires, their expertise, and proper role in making judgments during games. This does not mean that in extreme circumstances we should not prevent close, or obviously bad, judgment calls obscure the true purpose and spirit of the game.

Furthermore, if we conclude that instant replay really does rid an essential aspect of humanity from baseball, is that also true of the NFL, NHL, and NBA which each have forms of instant replay? It seems as though there is still plenty of humanity demonstrated in these sports. Indeed, the humanity is demonstrated in the actions and performance of the players, not the referees.

baseball 1As a final note, Atehortua suggests that the role of umpires as “impartial arbiters does not imply they be correct.” On this point, I agree. However, like judges, who are also imperfect, umpires are fact-finders and arbiters of the rules. Surely we cannot say that in all cases, namely when a play is extremely close, that umpires feel very comfortable with the information they have, which is limited to what they saw with their eyes in a matter of seconds. It seems as though special circumstances like these merit more fact-finding so as to achieve a more accurate judgment. Maybe the judgment is still unsatisfactory to a majority of the fans and viewers, to team managers, etc., even after instant replay. That’s acceptable because, as Atehortua put it, we cannot expect that umpires be “more than simply human.” But at least upon review of the call in these cases, everyone can say that they had their day in court. That seems to be the most reasonable and just solution to this problem that has afflicted baseball now for some time.

Conclusion

Overall, I am in favor of expanding instant replay in baseball. But I, like so many other supporters, believe that there are concerns and limitations which ought to be taken into account. For one thing, baseball is already incredibly long, with an average time of almost three hours. Nobody wants games to last longer, and many are justifiably concerned that instant replay may add more time to the length of the game. Another concern is the slippery slope argument, which begs the question of what kinds of plays and how many plays will not be subject to instant replay if expanded. These are real issues which the MLB should address in any plans to expand instant replay. But these challenges are not insurmountable.

Instant replay rules, like those that exist in the NFL, NHL, and NBA, are very limited in nature and are applicable to the most important calls in a game. Perhaps each team can be limited in the number of challenges they get. Or perhaps only umpires will have the right to review a call if there is a lot of uncertainty. There are so many ways in which instant replay can be limited and be made a reasonable and exciting, not intrusive, part of baseball. Again, other professional leagues that use instant replay are great role models for how this can be achieved.

At the end of the day, baseball is a sport with a lot of rich history, character, and unique qualities. Expanding instant replay will not change these facts, nor should these facts foreclose the possibility of enhancing baseball in this way. In the 21st Century, we possess the technology to rid bad calls from our beloved game of baseball and reinforce the fairness of the game, which has now been challenged by so many in light of unfortunate calls in extreme circumstances. MLB officials can come to a common sense and balanced solution to this problem. I say, let’s re-”play ball!”

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