On the final day of baseball’s regular season, the San Francisco Giants were playing the San Diego Padres in a contest with post-season implications for both teams. Had the Padres won , it would have forced two one-game playoffs, with the loser of a Giants-Padres showdown today facing the Braves on Tuesday to determine the National League Wild Card team. In the bottom of the first, the Giants’ Andres Torres smashed a Mat Latos pitch down the left-field line. The ball clearly landed right on the chalk-marked foul line, kicking up a cloud of white dust as undeniable proof that the ball was fair,and the batter destined for second base or beyond. Third-base ump Mike Everitt called it foul, however. Broadcasters, the Giants managers, everyone protested and pointed, but to no avail.
The Giant’s won anyway, so it only mattered to Torres’s batting average. But a time-bomb is ticking. Baseball, which was embarrassed last season into adopting video replay for home run calls, allows no videotape mandated reversals on other blown umpire calls. As the game heads into its period of highest visibility, when casual baseball fans start paying attention to the best teams playing for the title, the likelihood of an obviously wrong call by an umpire leading to an undeserved win in a crucial game is unacceptably high. Why does baseball’s leadership resist a solution?
The reason is that accepting instant replay requires a paradigm shift that requires the sport to change its culture and traditions, and consequently its concept of right and wrong. Because players had inherent conflicts of interest that prevented them from calling their own outs, balls and strikes, baseball on all but the sandlot level adopted the quasi-judicial device of neutral arbiters, the umpires, who enforced rules and interpreted on-field action. This required accepting the umpire’s word as the ultimate authority, with almost no appeal. (Baseball will overrule an umpire when a rule is interpreted incorrectly and changes the outcome of a game, but will never challenge or reverse an umpire’s perception or judgment.) If an umpire said a ball was a strike, it became a strike, regardless of whether it was technically within the strike zone or not. The same was true of home runs, foul balls, and outs. What the umpire said was true became true.
This cultural adaptation served baseball well for almost a hundred years. It was the charming ” human element”— umpire’s decisions, fallible but unassailable, were treated as just another element of the game, like bad bounces, muddy fields, balls hitting seagulls and injuries. Until the last twenty years, many games were not televised, so lots of game-changing bad calls were only reported in accounts by journalists and fans, who the game naturally disregarded as biased inferior judges compared to the exalted umpires. Technology, however, changed everything. Plays could be watched over and over again, from multiple angles, in “super slo-mo.” Pitch tracking technology now allows the TV audience to see how badly a home plate umpire was missing balls and strikes. The umpires are no worse than they ever were, but they look worse. Nobody was willing to accept, for example, that Armando Gallaraga gave up a hit to the 27th batter in his perfect game just because umpire Jim Joyce said the batter was safe at first. The camera showed that the runner wasn’t safe. It was obvious within seconds of Joyce’s stunning and erroneous call.Joyce saying the groundout was a hit didn’t make it a hit, because we saw, a hundred times, that it wasn’t. It was a mistake.
Baseball still wants players, teams, fans and sportswriters to accept the umpires’ decisions as facts, but that is now impossible, thanks to technology. Now “the human factor,” once accepted as a part of baseball, means “incorrect and incompetent calls that cheat the players and distort the game.” It is a direct challenge to baseball’s integrity.
Given the sport’s self-destructive and long-standing habit of waiting for ticking time-bombs to explode before trying to defuse them (See: gambling, cocaine, the reserve clause, steroids, maple bats), there will probably have to be some horrible, championship-changing umpire’s call that destroys the ump’s career, sends him into despair and suicide, and causes riots in the streets before Major League Baseball executives agree to put a fifth umpire in a TV monitor room so he can over-rule the worst calls on the spot. It will come to that, however. The integrity of the sport is at risk. Baseball just hasn’t realized it yet.