Why baseball purists are dead wrong about instant replay

It was an eventful sixth inning in Florida on Sunday. Phillies outfielder Hunter Pence hit what was initially ruled a double, but after going to instant replay, umpire Joe West ruled, accurately, that a fan had interfered with Bryan Petersen's ability to make the catch by reaching out for the ball. Pence was called out, but because Major League Baseball only permits instant replays on home run calls, Charlie Manuel accurately argued that West never should have been allowed to review the play, because it was never in danger of leaving the yard.

Only Major League Baseball could create a policy so convoluted that the umpire can do something to make the right call... and it's wrong.

"They got the play right. Isn't what we want from the umpires, to get it right?" Marlins manager Jack McKeon pointed out after the game. "Did they get it right? Yes. Did they make a mistake in how they went about getting it right? Yes."

What's sad is that this is what baseball considers progress, because until recently there wasn't any replay at all. Purists would prefer the game to played as it was in the 19th century, when butter-churning was considered a hobby and the flappy-winged airplane seemed like a reasonable idea. The purists consider the game perfect. The absolute bare-minimum amount of replay was allowed as a concession, challenging only balls that may or may not have left the yard. But that's like putting a Band Aid on someone who just fell off the roof of his house. Baseball has been carrying this wound for a while, and yet they continue to march on with proud ignorance of the existence of technology, even as professional football enters 26 years since someone thought of the challenge system.

And it's too bad, because honestly, is there a team sport that lends itself more seamlessly to instant replay than baseball? It's not like football, where there's a thousand things going on at one time, and sometimes things are so cluttered that it's hard to tell just what the hell happened. It isn't like basketball either, where replays often center on whether or not the ball touched someone's finger as it went out of bounds, which can take AN ETERNITY to figure out. With baseball, there's only one point of emphasis: the baseball. And with multiple camera angles converging on whatever action is taking place, instant replays almost always prove definitively whether someone was safe, or out, or if the ball hit the foul line, or if it was a home run or not, etc., etc.

So what, then, is the purpose of allowing some form of instant replay, but only a fraction of it? Purists claim to have many reasons, but none of them are rational. Like many arguments based strictly on tradition, which spurn logic and defy progress simply because "that's the way it's always been," the purists find ways to dance around the fact that their aversion to instant replay simply comes down to their own, personal objection to it on a cosmetic level, and that it wouldn't actually damage the game like many of them claim. Dan Shaugnessy of the Boston Globe, who has been an outspoken critic of instant replay for years, summed this up beautifully in a 2010 Sports Illustrated piece. "Instant replay will be baseball's topic du jour and it's not as easy as it sounds, folks," he wrote. "The human element has been part of baseball for more than a century and the national past time is not best served by managers tossing red beanbags after a drive down the right field line which might have been fair or foul."

Oh, so the beanbags would be ruining baseball... Not instant replay, I hasten to point out.

So then, what arguments do the purists make in claiming that replay threatens not just their own purely subjective tastes, but the very sanctity of baseball itself? As Shaunessy briefly referenced, some claim that baseball has a "human element" to it that would somehow be lost if umpires were replaced by automatons or robots, and that the inevitable bad calls are a necessary side effect. This is a phoney baloney argument if ever there was one. Has anyone in the history of mankind ever felt a deep appreciation for their baseball game because the third base umpire was human, and had more control over a game than he would with instant replay? Has anyone ever said the words, "Thank God for the human element," when they went to a game? Is this excuse even applicable to any other area of life? If you went to a restaurant, and the cook screwed up your order, would you say to yourself, "Well, I guess that's part of the human element. I guess I shouldn't be mad," or would you be upset because there's no excuse why every expense shouldn't have been made to get your meal right?

I thought so.

Then there's the tradition argument. Baseball fundamentalists argue that the game should stay the way it always has, but the sad truth is that if purists actually did run the game, nothing would have ever happened to make it better. The mound wouldn't have gotten lowered, and the ball wouldn't have gotten livelier. Spitballs and sandpaper would still be legal, walks would still count as base hits, games would still be played exclusively in the day time, the divisional playoff round wouldn't exist, and -- let's not forget -- minorities wouldn't be allowed to play. Every era, every generation of baseball has faced a crisis that the game has had to correct in some way, from the Black Sox scandal to the cocaine epidemic of the 80's to the steroid era of the 2000's. Even a game as perfect as baseball needs fine-tuning every once in a while, just as a sword needs sharpening and a Lamborghini needs washing. The lack of instant replay in baseball is one of those crises, and simply curling up in a ball and pretending that an issue in 2011 doesn't exist because it didn't exist in 1911 is preposterous.

Finally, there's the most prevalent criticism of instant replay, which is that introducing it would ruin the pace of the game. And this where it's time to revisit yesterday's Marlins-Phillies game. You see, when Charlie Manuel found out that Pence's double had been nullified upon replay, he went out of the dugout and argued... And argued... And argued... And then he went back to the dugout, and conferred with one of his bench coaches, and then he went back out to argue some more. Thanks to the confusion brought on by Joe West's ruling, the game was delayed 12 minutes. 12 BLEEPIN' MINUTES! Somehow, the length of the time it takes a manager to argue incorrect calls gets lost on purists, who routinely claim that instant replay would slow the game down, not realizing that the thing taking its place are these interminable manger-umpire scream-fests that take far more time than it takes to check a replay monitor. Had instant replay been applicable to everything, and not just home run calls, Manuel wouldn't have had anything to argue about.

That game would've ended 12 minutes sooner, and everyone would've gone home happy. Instead...

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