Unfortunately, the scene is now familiar to us. The runner on first breaks for second as the pitcher delivers the ball to home. The catcher jumps to his feet, throws a rocket to the second baseman as the runner slides into the base. The play is close, as are so many plays in this game of inches, but the umpire throws his fist through the air to signal the runner ‘out.’ This used to be the end of the matter. Whereas previously the runner might have grimaced at the umpire, and perhaps a disgruntled manager might have emerged from the dugout to have a conversation with the umpire that may or may not have been heated, the manager now signals to the umpires that he’d like a second opinion. The umpires dutifully leave the field, put on headphones, and await a decision from New York where high definition screens provide the arbiters there with the ability to confirm or overturn the umpire’s decision. The fans and the players are simply asked to wait for this decision from the technological gods.
In August 2013, Bud Selig, former commissioner of Major League Baseball, announced a plan to introduce expanded instant replay review beginning in the 2014 season. A committee made up of Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz and former MLB managers Joe Torre and Tony La Russa developed the proposal. “I couldn't help but sense in the room the acceptance and excitement,” Selig said. “People understood they were sitting in on something that was historic.”
So began the beginning of the end of baseball.
There is in baseball a central dramatic quality. It’s a dramatic quality that is intertwined with the humanness of the game, a humanness transformed by its eternal patterns and made even more human because of them.
To a degree not found in any other team sport, umpires in baseball play a key role in the game’s drama. The umpire is front and center on each and every pitch, and with each pitch on which the better does not swing, we await the call he will make. The umpire is the final arbiter on this. It is to assert their authority that umpires each have their own unique and usually forceful way of calling a third strike.
While replay review doesn’t currently include balls and strikes, there are already numerous calls to automate the strike zone, and it seems to me only a matter of time before pitches come up for review, or we lose umpires behind the plate altogether. That said, it isn’t only at the plate that umpires play a crucial role in the game's drama. Close plays on the bases also involve umpires making difficult decisions, and because their word stands on the field of play umpires punctuate those close calls with dramatic gestures.
Major League umpires are not perfect. However, statistical analysis shows that umpires are as close as one can get, calling a whopping 99.5 percent of plays correctly. And while umpires do blow some calls, I’m convinced that baseball’s law of averages applies to umpiring as well: For every bad call against your team, there is another call that will go for your team.
Yet even if this is not the case, there is something very important about the fact that baseball has always had decisions on the field made through interpersonal engagement. The arbiters on the field are not machines. They're not robots. They are people, and since the beginning of baseball we have recognized the ultimate authority of umpires even as we have disagreed with some of the calls they have made.
Replay review compromises this. The game itself stops to a standstill each time a manager decides to question a call, as umpires leave the field to await the decision from the faceless machine in New York. The problem is not that the game stops after a contentious play, for the game also stopped in the pre-replay era when managers would engage umpires in frequently vigorous debate when they disagreed with a call. The problem is that the stoppage is now completely devoid of drama. Arguments between managers and umpires are part of the human interaction that is central to the game, and has always been so. Replay review takes this drama out completely. Instead of witnessing humans engaged in dialogue, we watch two umpires wearing headphones while the game’s participants stand in boredom.
In this situation, umpires are no longer the final arbiters who make key decisions on plays occurring in real time. The ultimate authority is instead a machine that allows one to slow down the action enough to be able to make a supposedly infallible decision, and it is this demand for technological infallibility that is perhaps most troubling about replay review.
In Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games, A. Bartlett Giamatti argued convincingly that our games tell us something significant both about ourselves and the society in which we live. If this is the case, what do we learn when we demand total accuracy all of the time and are willing to elevate technology and sacrifice interpersonal interaction on the field to get it?
Promoters of instant replay review seem to view the game in startlingly utilitarian terms. The elevation of technology above human assessment and interaction is not as straightforward or philosophically benign as proponents of replay review seem to think. Is the game of baseball only about who wins and who loses, only about getting the calls right every time no matter the aesthetic consequences? Or is baseball a game whose beauty relies not only on the outcomes of games but on the drama that is central to each game being played, a drama that relies on human interaction and, yes, fallibility; a drama that, like life, doesn't always go the way you want it to go?
Gregory K. Hillis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at Bellarmine University located in Louisville, Kentucky.