By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
What will it take for baseball to expand its instant replay system? A series of umpiring blunders in the post-season? Been there: There was Joe Mauer's "foul" ball down the left field line in the ALDS ... the botched double-play benefiting the Yankees in the ALCS ... in the same series, there was Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher incorrectly called safe on a pick-off attempt and then incorrectly being called out after tagging up and scoring on a fly ball—all in the same inning. There are other examples from preliminary playoff rounds.
Blown calls potentially affecting the outcome of the World Series itself? Done that. In a tight second game on Thursday night, umpires managed a blunder double-play, killing two late-inning rallies in a tight game. In the championship series.
If you didn't watch the game and haven't seen the replays: In the bottom the 7th inning, the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out. Outfielder Johnny Damon hit a sharp liner at the Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who snagged the ball at ground level and turned to throw to second base in order to cut down the lead runner. Note that Howard (who would later be evasive about whether he had caught the ball on the fly) reacted as if he had caught the ball on a hop; had he caught it on the fly he would have trotted over first base for the double-play. Howard threw wide, apparently giving the Yankees bases loaded with one out—but the first base umpire, who was standing behind Howard and in foul territory, thought the Phillie caught the ball on the fly and called it an inning-ending double play.
In the very next half-inning, with Phillies on first and second and one out, Mariano Rivera induced a grounder to second that appeared to result in an inning-ending second-to-short-to-first double play. But instant replays showed, again, that the first base umpire had blown the call; the batter beat the throw and the Phillies should have had first and third with two outs.
You can see both plays here (you'll note that MLB.com's video department says that "replays show" the plays "were not actually double plays").
Both plays were bang-bang plays. Any umpire could have gotten either or both wrong.
And that's why we need to expand instant replay: because people get things wrong. I think the overwhelming majority of baseball fans would like the World Series to be decided by the players on the field, not the umpires.
Instant replay opponents argue that human error is part of the game. And it is, but that's like arguing that grass and dirt are part of the game, so there's no need for grounds crews. Baseball should strive for the game's only errors to be a dropped balls and hanging curves—again, let the players make the errors, not the umps.
Critics argue that expanding instant replay would slow the game down. So do arguments after close calls; and so do the umpires huddling together to confer on a call, which they do now. And really what's an extra minute or two if it means getting the call right? (Here's the dirty secret about baseball: The pauses and plodding rhythm that can make it somewhat boring in April only serve to heighten tension and drama in October.)
Baseball has a rich tradition of tradition. Huge swathes of fans oppose innovations—the designated hitter rule, free agency, inter-league play, expanded playoffs—simply because that's not how it's been done in the past. And many times those traditionalists are right. But this is a case where tradition is the enemy of the game.
Commissioner Bud Selig talked to the media before Thursday night's game and reiterated his opposition to expanding the use of instant replay. Maybe last night's blown calls will change his mind. Or maybe he has to wait until a game—perhaps the series—is affirmatively decided on a blown call.
We've got up to five more chances; maybe this will be the year.
(Oh and: Go Yankees!)