When taking stock of how far we haven’t come, I find myself reliving the early morning hours of July 27, 2011. Late-night comics have relinquished the airwaves to diet pill peddlers, city buses have ceased running here in Atlanta, and even Manuel’s Tavern is turning out the last of its regulars. South of downtown the Braves and Pirates play on, sweating through the nineteenth inning on a field approaching dewpoint. A journeyman Braves reliever, batting for lack of other options, hits a routine grounder to third. Breaking on contact, a baserunner pushing forty—also playing for lack of other options—sprints toward the plate, a kamikaze attempt at the winning run.
The throw beats him easily, the tag comes down in time. He turns slump-shouldered toward the dugout, then freezes, perplexed. He was called safe, it seems. The home team emerges circumspect, as if seeking permission to celebrate. The few dozen remaining fans check themselves for signs of consciousness. This is no practical joke. It’s just a comically bad call, ending the game as abruptly and absurdly as a Monty Python redaction of a medieval epic.
Later that morning, network news-gossip briefly made umpire Jerry Meals a subject of national conversation. The Court of Public Opinion subpoenaed him to serve as star witness in its mounting case for replay review in Major League Baseball. Not that Meals was personally to blame, the more gracious pundits admitted. He had called over five-hundred pitches under heavy armor on a sultry summer night—who wouldn’t have been prone to a lapse in judgment? Surely we could all agree, after seeing such an egregiously human error determine the outcome of a game with playoff implications, that some sort of replay system was in order.
The problem is that replay footage might actually have upheld the horrendous call. That sweeping tag, though clearly applied well in front of the plate, might have missed the runner’s calf by a hair’s breadth. The “eyeball test” was unequivocal; the video evidence, when analyzed frame by frame, proved inconclusive. Contrary to prevailing sentiment, the Jerry Meals incident served as Exhibit A against replay review. Easier to live with a blown call than with an epistemological coup.
Now, a painful half-season into MLB’s new replay regime, my fears have been confirmed. Far from simply providing a safeguard against human error, instant replay has erected a super-human standard for decision making. It has filled the margins of baseball’s rulebook with casuistic distinctions. Catches are deemed not to be catches because the replay—obsessed over like so much newly found Zapruder film—reveals a hint of jostling in the transaction. Calls at first base are overturned upon the revelation that the ball enters the fielder’s glove a hummingbird’s flit before it hits leather.
Traditionalists, in both the baseball sense and the broader sense, have numerous reasons to lament the arrival of replay review. It interrupts the game’s liturgical pace—that ritually laden approximation of timelessness—with a series of committee meetings. It removes one more outpost of resistance to the global fetishizing of technology. By deferring to a system “so perfect no one will need to be good,” it undermines the authority of the umpires. It deadens the game’s acute sense of tragedy—a quality that baseball has done far more than Sophocles or Shakespeare to impart to our constitutionally comedic nation. But replay’s capital sins are philosophical, inasmuch as they ratify a morally treacherous method of ascertaining the truth.
In the game reshaped by instant replay, one learns to distrust common sense, the rulings of elders, and the weight of precedent. Ballplayers have always been instinctively suspicious, if usually respectful, of umpires’ judgments; what troubles me now is to watch them grow instinctively suspicious of their own. Nearly every play concludes with a craning of necks from the field to the video-board. The game as lived out on grass and clay gives way to the game as enlightened by the higher gnosis of the digital record. Wisdom gives way to technocratic expertise, tradition to naked empiricism. The rules are no longer binding customs adjudicated in person but abstractions enforced by an unseen authority from behind a bank of TVs somewhere in Manhattan.
Whether fairly or not, many of us still expect baseball to open some sort of window upon our national soul. Baseball is supposed to reveal what is best about ourselves, or at least grant a sentimental escape into what ought to be best about ourselves: that we go to work every day, that we seek excellence against long odds of success, that we give everybody a turn at bat. Instant replay has never seemed out of place in football, a sport premised upon manipulative personnel schemes and judicial activism. But baseball could always be relied upon for other lessons—in the value of self-sufficiency, in the importance of respecting a man’s word over his gadgetry. Even its ethically dubious aspects, such as the code duello by which players redress breaches of honor, testified to the importance of regulating the game on the field, according to age-old traditions. Now Major League Baseball reinforces the same infantilizing message we hear so often elsewhere: that we are a people who require extensive sociological research to determine that children raised in stable two-parent homes lead happier lives.
I would like to believe that we can trust ourselves with such self-evident conclusions apart from professional expertise. Dialing New York for the truth on that muggy Atlanta morning would have been superfluous, even borderline sociopathic. Every player on the field knew Meals had blown it. The few tenacious fans on hand—sober since the seventh inning yesterday—knew it. Insomniacs watching on cable knew it. The hosts of The View, that definition of the least common denominator, knew it, for heaven’s sake: secures judicat orbis terrarium, “the judgment of the entire world is secure.”
So I’ve been getting my baseball fix exclusively in minor league parks this season. Last month in Chattanooga, I witnessed another controversial swipe-tag, this one applied to a would-be base thief. The runner protested his innocence for a moment, then trudged out to the contemplative expanses of left field, wrestling with the lessons of an injustice endured. His manager issued a few sharp words on his behalf, seeking not to change the call but to maintain respect within his dugout. The umpire calmly repositioned himself. His decision would stand; the game would go on uninterrupted. Here the umpire’s word must be obeyed, if not fully trusted. Here in Chattanooga—in Hagerstown, Maryland and in Midland, Texas, in Clinton, Iowa and in Puebla, Mexico—where the proportion of millionaires on the field and in the crowd is considerably lower, where digital surveillance is less extensive, where common sense and custom still get a fair hearing: here the faceless imperium of the hi-def camera does not have final say.
Drew Denton is a doctoral candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist in his local parish.