Watching Jeff DaVanon

Watching Jeff DaVanon

A weblog devoted to #55 of the Anaheim Angels, Jeff DaVanon. How is he doing? Is he getting his due respect yet? Let's watch and see...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The question of replay

Last night's situation has resurrected the age-old (or at least, really freaking old) debate over instant replay in baseball.

I'm not sure that it should have, since I contend that it isn't about catching or not catching the ball "cleanly", but about the confusion over whether the batter had been called out. A confusion which should not exist in an organized sport that is over 100 years old. I mean come on! Can we possibly figure out a foolproof way to know that an out has been recorded? It seems basic, it seems like something that might have come up at some point in the last 50 years, if not the last 100. I'll bet they don't have this problem in cricket. I've spent the better part of a day watching people wave their fists about in slightly differing ways and in lots of circumstances, and I'm more confused than ever. The best new point was one made on PTI where Wilbon (Go U, NU!) and Lebatard were baffled as to why a rule that is supposed to apply when a ball is not in the control of the catcher was applied here. The argument being that it was not in keeping with "the spirit" of the rule.

I've watched with great interest as instant replay has come into being in a lot of sports of late. Always there is the fear that the "game will be slowed down" layered on top of every institution's and human being's gut-level fear of change.

It so happens that ESPN devoted an entire show (I think it was Outside the Lines) to instant replay in college football just this week. A show that I watched, surprisingly. And a show that was very very interesting. This practice began last year in the Big 10 where they literally use Tivo, and was quietly adopted in most other conferences this year. The ESPN crew followed the replay team in (I think) the SEC, where they use a more sophisticated system than Tivo, one that makes all camera angles instantly available. The most interesting part of the program was this: the calls are constantly being reviewed, not just when there is a game pause to review the play. Every single play is reviewed by the replay team, usually so quickly that there is no need to pause game play. In fact, they have taken to implementing PR replay time-outs. Stopping the game when they don't need to, their conclusive review of the play already having transpired, simply to mollify to the coaches and fans and let them know that yes, someone is watching, someone is making triple-sure that the call was correct.

Let's revist that last point. Fans and coaches want the game stopped, they want to know that the decisions have been made with all the available information. They want this so badly that games are being stopped for play review when no such stoppage is required to review the call. The replay crew feels they have to do it for PR reasons.

I don't think there is any sport with an established instant-replay protocol where people would give it up now. Although the NFL people are probably looking at the College model with some degree of envy.

Old-time baseball people don't want replay because so much of the sport has always been judgement, and the honing of that judgement over time is what creates umpires. It's like having replay would be step one down the path to replacing all the human umpires with large robots that make all calls. And we've all seen enough scifi movies to know that a world controlled in any way by robots or AI, where any sort of power is handed over to them, is a world where eventually humans either die or are enslaved. [Jaron Lanier once gave a brilliant presentation where he pointed out that we need never fear that computers will replace or overtake humans, because they'd forever need humans around to reboot them. The Blue Screen of Death and sucky software makes us invaluble!]

And let's face it, botched calls tend to even out in the grand scheme of things. You get the call one night, you don't the next. And a lot of the time, in your mind, the one call that you got seems much more important than the ones you didn't. I think this is because the calls that you get lead to actual conclusions and even wins, whereas the ones that you don't get lead only to imagined, possible conclusions and wins. So when someone asks you about instant replay, in the back of your mind is that call that went your way when it probably wouldn't have if reviewed, and you've linked that to a real win.

But at what point does it become stupid to eschew technology that is available to everyone except to the people in the stadium? I mean, the good old days of taking the team bus and carrying your luggage sure were grand, and perhaps the game lost something when everyone started chartering planes, but times change. Maybe we can go back to the slave-like days before the players' union, when many players had to work off-season jobs and were bought and traded like cattle with no hope of ever being in control of their own destiny.

I'd personally like to return to the days when the fans attending the games were respectful ladies and gentleman, but that isn't going to happen either. I'd also love it if a recreational sporting event didn't force me to participate in a religous ritual and sing a hymn in the middle of a game once a week, but that's an issue for another day.

There is no innocence to protect. There isn't even all that much purity. This is a multi-billion dollar industry. We ask the officials to do something incredibly difficult, and I am constantly amazed at how many tough, close calls they get right. I don't know how they do it, everything happens so fast, and so many things are a matter of inches and milliseconds. And I'm left to ponder the question: why should they have to? Why should they have to work so hard, and operate with such limited information? Why is it so rare that an official reverses his call or allows others on the crew to reverse it? What are we so afraid of, other than change?

People are still upset about the lights at Wrigley. They still bemoan the addition of the wildcard. The game is better for these developments. This year was a great case for the wildcard-- so many teams in contention for the playoffs right up to the last week.

But I know where they are coming from. I'd be devastated if they tore down Wrigley field, but my husband is right that it's a dump. And maybe they'd build something beautiful in it's place, and in a few years I'd have happy memories of "new Wrigley." But even calling Wrigley a dump seems like a betrayal of the game and all of it's history.

I'm not all "replay, replay rah rah rah!" But at some point isn't being stubborn just being stupid? I just watched footage of a game several years ago where an on-field official, who didn't get a good look at a fly-ball, and couldn't find anyone on his crew who could help him, took it upon himself to go to the nearest TV camera with a monitor and watch the footage they had. He initiated the only known case of baseball instant replay. Back in umpire-land, he was probably fined a huge amount of money and they also probably quickly wrote a rule that no one can do that ever again. But how happy was he to know that he ultimately made the right call, that he didn't have to guess, that help was available?

So remember [when you paraphrase, quote, or argue with me without my being present], I'm not banging the drum for instant replay. I'm just trying to put my finger on what could be so bad about it, because I don't think the argument about slowing down the game can withstand much scrutiny.

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