Dial Up The Robot Umps

Some call it the human factor. I call it human error.

Over and over, we’ve seen games riddled with blown calls by umpires, and it’s not as if there’s nothing we can do about it.

Just in the last few seasons, we’ve had a blown call ruin perfect game, a blown call save a no-hitter, a groundout with the first baseman three feet off the bag, and an extra inning playoff double ruled foul.

It’s infuriating to watch from the stands or the couch and know that a potential game-changing call was wrong. Oftentimes, it’s as if the umpire is the only person in the world who thinks the call was made correctly.

Major League Baseball finally added instant replay in late August of 2008, a move far overdue for the nation’s pastime. I don’t want to say that Bud Selig has been a bad commissioner because of how he’s handled steroid suspensions versus DUI suspensions, but he certainly hasn’t been a very progressive commissioner.

After all, he’s following the worst line of reason around: We’re not making a change because this is the way we’ve always done things.

Change is a good thing. Change has brought us interracial marriage, DVR, and pepperoni P’Zones.

I’m a mathematical guy, so naturally I like things to be precise. I don’t like when picture frames are rotated two degrees too far clockwise, so you can bet I really don’t like it when a second base umpire messes up a stolen base call.

Fifteen years ago, there was an excuse for the lack of instant replay. There weren’t HD cameras, for one. But now, we have nearly a dozen camera angles for every play on some extremely precise cameras. We have the technology at our fingertips, yet Bud Selig has resisted the spoils of modern technology.

One of the main complaints of anti-replay fans is that consulting replay would take too long. As if Red Sox-Yankees marathons weren’t long enough as is, imagine them taking five-minute breaks every inning to check over every other call. Well, that’s not exactly the case. If you caught the Sawx-Yanks game on July 29th, you’d see it a different way.

With no outs and a runner on first in the top of the tenth, Will Middlebrooks came up to bat, squared to bunt. The second pitch of the at-bat was way inside, and as Middlebrooks brought back in his bat, the pitch hit him in the wrist. Unfortunately, the ball deflected straight into home plate umpire, Brian O’Nara.

O’Nara couldn’t make the call, as he laid on the ground in pain. The other umpires were all 100 feet away from home plate, so they didn’t have a good angle. But the umpires huddled up for about five minutes discussing what they thought they had seen. We have access to super slow motion, 1080p video from endless angles, yet baseball has resorted to four men discussing their views from afar. But that’s just the beginning.

Middlebrooks was angry because he was showing off the mark on his wrist made by the ball, but the umpires wouldn’t look. Bobby Valentine, however was even more angry since he got to see the replay in the dugout. Bobby V then spent the next five plus minutes yelling at the umpires before fruitlessly getting ejected.

On that one play alone, the umpires and manager wasted 10 minutes, when a brief look at one instant replay could have correctly sent Middlebrooks to first base.

This game-winning run couldn’t be reviewed because that would obviously ruin the integrity of the game.

With access to instant replay, Major League baseball could cut down the amount of missed calls nearly to zero at the same time as they save time and collateral damage, in the form of ejections.

But what blows the mind most about the current instant replay rules is that the most important play in all of baseball–run scoring plays–cannot be reviewed. Sure, checking if a fan touched a fair ball could significantly alter a game, but there’s nothing more crucial than a play at the plate. After all, you do win games by scoring more runs than the other team.

My rules for instant replay would be very simple. 1) Have a fifth umpire in the press box with access to instant replay. 2) Give each team two challenges per game, and if the play is overturned, they get to keep the challenge. 3) Challenge anything that’s not balls and strikes. 4) Cook for 30 minutes, then let it cool.

And you know what, I’d even be fine with robot umpires behind home plate using K Zone. Maybe then we wouldn’t have blatant miscalls based on payback, such as what sparked Brett Lawrie’s terrific tirade earlier this season.

But have no fear, sports fans, Commissioner Selig is coming to the rescue! Earlier this week he told Mike Lupica he’s confident replay will be expanded to include trapped balls and balls hit down the line… but not before 2013. He also added he would be “very cautious” to make any more changes.

Clearly it’s going to take a new commissioner for MLB join the modern age of technology. And I hope that change comes sooner rather than later because I’d hate to see change spurred on by a playoff game marred by a blown call.

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Also check out my newest article for the Charlotte Observer: Tigers rugby club finds early success.

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