Change comes slowly to Major League Baseball, and only after a groundswell of support has developed. So the league's announcement last week that it will implement an expanded instant-replay review system, one that can be applied to some 90% of the game's plays, was met with near-universal enthusiasm. Owners, players, umpires, and traditionalists and progressives alike, agreed that the technology exists to get the calls right. This will make the job of an umpire—which can be both difficult and cruel (ask Don Denkinger and Jim Joyce)—a little easier.
Still, this is baseball, so the news, predictably, brought with it something else: nostalgia. Nostalgia for the days of on-field confrontations between managers and umpires—replete with kicked dirt, flying spittle, insults of both eyesight and parentage and, often, a thumbed heave-ho. Such antics have always been part of the game's fabric, some of which now seems to be unraveling. Each skipper will get one challenge per game, and another one if his first is upheld by a review team in New York City, so why would a manager bother recommending a new ophthalmologist to an ump when he can simply challenge the call?
"If the manager comes out to argue and he has a challenge left, the umpire could say, 'O.K., I'm listening to you and I'm not going to change my call—are you going to challenge?'" Tony La Russa told The New York Times. La Russa, newly elected to the Hall of Fame, suffered 87 ejections during his 33-year career as a manager of the A's, White Sox and Cardinals and served as a member of the three-man committee charged with formulating the new replay system.
There remain certain judgment calls that the system will not cover, about which a manager might still become exercised. These include balks, interference, the neighborhood play at second base, and, yes, balls and strikes. An umpire might also initiate a replay review on his own, after the seventh inning, if a manager has exhausted his challenges. Disputed home runs will still be reviewable without a challenge, as they have been since August 2008. Opportunities for conflicts, and their motivational potential, will be relatively few. All of a sudden, the record for career ejections—161, held by former Braves manager Bobby Cox, himself a new member of the Hall of Fame—seems as untouchable, and as much a relic of a bygone era, as Cy Young's 511 wins.
The change comes at a time when the type of person who occupies a major league manager's office has evolved. Managers were once known for their down-home wisdom and hypertension, but they are now as likely to have a grasp of advance analytics and a six-pack. Jim Leyland has become Dartmouth grad Brad Ausmus. It's all part of the modernization of the game over which the soon-to-retire commissioner Bud Selig has presided. As recently as 2009, Selig stood firmly against replay, but last Thursday he said, "I'm proud of the changes we've made."
The league's revenues have doubled in the past 10 years, from $4.5 billion in 2004 to a projected $9 billion this season. During that period, America's pastime has gone from theater that embraced its age-old flaws to a slick consumer product gunning for a five-star rating, in which quality control and transparency (replays of contested calls will for the first time be shown on stadium video boards) is paramount.
As for that nostalgia for the rousing in-game dustups of days past? Most of the erstwhile combatants seem to agree with comedian Will Rogers, who once observed, "Things ain't what they used to be and probably never was." Even Earl Weaver—whose incarnadine visage will always represent that of the aggrieved skipper, and who was at least once tossed from both ends of a doubleheader—expressed his support for expanded replay review. "That would have saved me a lot of embarrassment," Weaver said in 2010, three years before he died of a heart attack at 82. "Because each and every time I got thrown out of a ballgame, I had lost my temper and I was embarrassed when I got home." The new system will save Weaver's successors such domestic shame, and it was overdue (as is a rule preventing home-plate bound runners from assaulting catchers, which is still being negotiated but is expected to be in place by Opening Day).
Perhaps the worst argument for not changing something is because that's how it has always been done, and the central concern about expanding replay review—that it will slow the game down—has been alleviated by both technological advances and the provision that challenges must be lodged before the next pitch is delivered. Besides, anyone with a hankering for a good, old-fashioned manager-umpire fracas can simply type Earl Weaver's name into YouTube. It will replay—instantly.
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