Replay: First Step Down a Dark Road
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Thirty-five years ago, at Boston’s Fenway Park, Ron Blomberg of the Yankees settled into the batter’s box as the first designated hitter in the major leagues, turning a normal ballgame into a historic botch and the otherwise blameless date of April 6 into an eternal day of mourning. In all the years since, through drug scandals and illegal collusion and worse, baseball has offered nothing quite so offensive as the debut of the 10-man baseball team.
Tonight, that changes. At Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Oakland’s McAfee Coliseum, and Anaheim’s Angel Stadium, the sport will begin its experiment with instant replay, ruining the previously sound reputation of August 28. Tonight, it will be time to lay hands on some Brennivín, the Icelandic liquor also known as “the black death,” and mourn. A great tradition, that of games and pennants being won and lost due to where an overweight middle-age umpire happened to be standing, is passing, and will never return.
Thus we come closer to the day when America, or at least its national game, will be enslaved by monstrous robot overlords. Nothing any important person has said gives me any reason to doubt that this is inevitable.
Commissioner Bud Selig has spent the week loudly insisting that the newfangled replay system, which involves a NORAD-like command center in Manhattan, television screens set up in the 30 ballparks, and the discretion of the umpires on the scene, will be used only to get home run calls right.
“There’s been some concern that, well, if you start here, look what it’s going to lead to,” he told Ronald Blum of the Associated Press. “Not as long as I’m the commissioner.” This would be much more reassuring if Selig weren’t 74 years old. Arizona’s Justin Upton won’t yet be in his prime by the time someone like Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly or tribune-of-the-masses Chris Russo takes Selig’s job. Selig’s whim isn’t a basis for sound long-term policy.
One could look to the umpires as a bulwark against a mind-numbing, NFL-style system, but the tale of instant replay is the tale of how their useless union was curb-stomped by management. A week and a half ago, the umpires began loudly braying about replay, with union spokesman Lamell McMorris even claiming it would lead to a “Laurel and Hardy effect,” whatever that means. You can tell how much these objections counted for by how quickly the replay system went into effect.
Given the powerlessness of the widely deplored men in blue and Selig’s unconvincing arguments, the only hope for replay haters is with the players. Donald Fehr, head of their union, did put out a press release Tuesdau referring to instant replay as “an experiment” and noting that the union reserves the right to renegotiate this act of mad science by complaining about it before December 10. Since the union is generally opposed to renegotiation as a point of principle, though, the experiment would likely have to be badly botched for a complaint to be issued.
If it isn’t — and it likely won’t be, if only because disputed home run calls are comically rare and because MLB Advanced Media, the arm of baseball that will be handling the system, is startlingly competent — the replay system will be entrenched in baseball law.
This is discouraging because it’s an iron law of humanity that any fancy widget laying around will eventually be used. Buy Great-Grandma an iPhone and she’ll be broadcasting live video feeds online within weeks. It’s human nature; as Jimmie Lee Solomon told MLB.com, “You cannot ignore the technology that we have.” Of course you can — billions and billions of people get by without cars, let alone iPhones, let alone instant replay command centers featuring instant streaming of various camera angles from any of 15 different games. But once you choose not to ignore technology, you go where it takes you.
In this case, it’s clear that the technology will eventually lead to purposes other than home run calls. It will have to; it’s completely indefensible to say that a meaningless yet disputed Damion Easley home run in the 6th inning of a 12-2 blowout is subject to replay, while a Carlos Beltran hook slide at home plate in the bottom of the 9th with the pennant on the line on the last day of the regular season isn’t. Plays at home, traps in the outfield, interference, fair/foul calls, bang-bang plays at first, and of course ball/strike calls can have vastly more impact than home runs, and so long as the technology is there to get them right, someone will be risibly claiming that you can’t ignore technology.
Not only can you, in this case you should. There may be no purely practical case to be made against replay, but that doesn’t matter; we’re talking about baseball, not urban planning or epistemology or central banking. It’s revolting to think of a future of manager challenges, brutally lengthened games, and robot umpires, presumably ones who will one day gain sentience and unleash their furious killing power against innocent humanity, but it’s all inevitable now. All we can do is wait.