Is Baseball Replay Review a Bridge Too Far?
First it was the designated hitter, which fans in most National League cities will tell you is sacrilege. Los Angeles is an NL city, by the way. The Angels don't count.
There has been expansion after expansion, multiple realignments, teams switching leagues, second place teams crowned World Series champions, more steroids than sunflower seeds in the bodies of ballplayers, and dugout camera angles so close you can tell which men are headed for nose hair trims the moment the last out is recorded.
And starting next season, pending approval from a couple of unions, Major League Baseball is expanding its only-on-home-runs instant replay review to include all calls with the exception of balls and strikes, which may not be far behind. According to Bill Shaikin of the LA Times, Washington Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson wants an "electronic strike zone." An electronic strike zone.
And where oh where I have heard this all before? Right, in Noonan: A Novel About Baseball, ESP, and Time Warps by Leonard Everett Fisher. Think of it as a cross between 1984 and Shoeless Joe, just maybe with a little more tongue in cheek. Or not. Read it and decide for yourself.
There are no umpires, no cry of "play ball!"
Published in 1978, Noonan is a look back at 1896, with a flash-forward to 1996, where all games are played in a building known as a "ballstudio," which "once called 'ball park or 'ball field' -- was electronically engineered -- all, that is, save, Wrigley Field."
Scanning devices and other sensitive electronic gear determined the outcome of every play. Home plated glowed green or red beneath an electronic strike zone -- green for a ball, red for a strike or foul. If a pitcher interrupted his motion, or balked, that too was picked up by an electronic device that set off a bell at the pitcher's mound. All of these signals, or impulses, and more were fed into a central computer located directly behind home plate -- some fifteen feet behind the catcher -- protected by impenetrable, shatterproof glass. The computer stored the records and statistics of the game and made all final decisions while registering the game's progress on the center-field scoreboard as always. The computer also was connected to "status panels" located in the team dugouts so that the managers would have an immediate and handy reference to work out strategy. The whole playing field operated like a gigantic pinball machine.
Fisher was writing in the '70s, remember, just a few years after the introduction of the DH. And here he was forecasting precisely what Dave Johnson -- the losingest manager in L.A. Dodgers history, don't you know -- would plead for some 35 years later. Talk about your ESP and time warps.
Another radical change in the game was the elimination of public instant replay. The new owners -- the networks and advertising agencies -- felt that this was a waste of good commercial spots. Now, in addition to the regular commercials between innings, and before and after each game, there are ten-second commercials after each play.
There are references to the "1996 National League World Series," which included the Cubs, 27-man rosters, back-to-back perfect games, a Russian "psychokinetic" and a June 1996 Old-timer's Day at Shea Ballstudio featuring 275 pound Tom Seaver, then a United States senator from California. Also at Shea that day was "Nolan Ryan, whose lifetime pitching record included 17 no-hitters [and who] could only throw underhand."
After the Old-timers game, with fans sick of studio baseball and demanding a return to the real thing, there was rioting in the street: "It was the worst, the meanest, public demonstrations of any kind ever witnessed in the United States."
An American Spring, you might say, only with motives more easily understood by those with a passing knowledge of the subject.
My feeling is similar to what I thought about the institution of interleague play in 1997. The changes being put forth by MLB now will do some good, create some interest while pissing a few people off, but in the long run won't make all that big of a difference. The novelty will fade eventually, and we'll get back to business as usual.
Expended replay review will neither eliminate bad calls from the diamond nor keep us from the often-fun-to-watch tradition of a manager getting in an umpire's face. It'll correct some mistakes made by actual human beings, while highlighting the errors of others.
Controversy will continue, life will go on, and as with every other development in the history of the game -- a batter was at one time allowed to call for a pitch to be delivered high or low, after all, and nine balls for a walk -- baseball won't come anywhere close to being ruined, which is a physical impossibility anyway.
Remember, glove conquers all.