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Everybody’s an Umpire

With Major League Baseball’s expansion of instant replay, a rowdy crowd could end up calling the game

Author Tim Marchman Illustration Christopher Silas Neal

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Baseball fans love history. And even more than reviewing that history—the stats that flit across the screen during games—they love seeing history made. So on June 2, 2010, when Major League Baseball missed out on what would have been its 21st perfect game (there have been 23 through 2013), the powers that be started to rethink their almost religious aversion to instant replay.

On that fateful day in 2010, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga stood on the precipice of entering the history books, having retired every single Cleveland Indian who had stepped up to the plate. Galarraga was just one out from perfection when Jason Donald hit a routine ground ball to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who threw to Galarraga, who was covering first. Though the throw beat Donald by a full step—as instant replay would clearly show—the runner was called safe.

Galarraga would retire the next batter, completing the 3-0 shutout and earning him the unique distinction of having thrown the only 28-out perfect game. More consequentially for the history of the sport, it set the wheels in motion for this season’s expansion of instant replay. No longer is the technology reserved for questionable home runs. Starting this season, plays such as Galarraga’s—and just about everything except balls and strikes and neighborhood plays at second base—will be open to review by a Replay Command Center at MLB headquarters in New York. Through the sixth inning, each manager will be able to challenge up to two calls a game and, from the seventh inning on, the umpires will have the option of deciding to consult HQ themselves, via a “designated communication location near home plate,” according to MLB.

As Bill James, the legendary baseball analyst and current adviser to the Boston Red Sox, described in an email, it’s perhaps best thought of as a continuation of a long-term historical trend.

“When Major League Baseball started in the 1870s,” says James, “each game was worked by one volunteer umpire, normally a local person. By the late 1880s there were professional umpires, but each game was worked by one professional umpire. By about 1910, staffs had expanded to two umpires, then to three, four, etc. I think the use of replay is essentially equivalent to the expansion of the umpiring staff.”

It’s hard to argue with the man, who is, after all, Bill James. But the fine print of the new instant replay rules describes something more than a mere expansion of the umpiring staff; a presumably unintended consequence of the new system is that it sets up something close to crowdsourcing.

At the very bottom of the press release on the new rules issued by MLB earlier this year, there was an entry that addressed “Scoreboard Replays.” It stated that every club “will now have the right to show replays of all close plays on its ballpark scoreboard, regardless of whether the play is reviewed.”

It’s a curious amendment. If providing the umpires with the necessary technology to get every call right is a step toward adding more law and order to the game, expanding that technology to the hometown crowd will do the opposite. As any ballpark control room producer will tell you, the reason they have been prohibited hitherto from showing replays on the jumbotron is to avoid inciting the fans.

Consider the one-game National League wild card playoff in 2012 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. When a pop fly to shallow left field fell between the Cardinals’ left fielder and shortstop due to an apparent mix-up over who called for the ball, the hometown Braves thought they had the bases loaded with one out. Instead, the left field umpire called the batter out under the very subjective infield fly rule. What followed was a 19-minute game delay while the otherwise docile Atlanta fans jeered at the top of their collective lungs and littered the field with empty bottles and hot dog wrappers.

Under the current instant replay rules, that play would not have been reviewable, as the infield fly ruling is a judgment call—much like balls and strikes and the aforementioned neighborhood play. However, Atlanta’s scoreboard operator still could have shown the play on the jumbotron ad nauseam, further inciting the crowd.

Aside from the safety concerns surrounding such an incident, this arouses another ethical thicket: How would the prospect of stadium replays whipping up fans’ fury affect an umpire’s rulings? Could we see a shift toward calls favoring the home team? After all, in that 2012 game, the call, which MLB headquarters eventually ruled was correct, went against the home team. The visiting Cardinals went on to win the game and advance in the playoffs.

Giving managers the ability to plead to a higher power is a good idea, and so is giving umpires the technology to make sure they rule as many plays correctly as possible. But when 50,000 rowdy fans have the opportunity to scrutinize every bang-bang play on a 60-foot-by-100-foot high-definition television screen, there’s actually a possibility that we could get the opposite of that intended effect.

After all, regardless of how many pixels are on that huge screen, the hometown crowd is going to see what it wants to see.

Tim Marchman is the deputy editor at Deadspin. He finds it charming anytime the old-fashioned sport of baseball updates its rules.

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