November 2, 2015

SHATZMAN | Instant Replay

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The replay revolution began on June 2, 2010. On a warm spring evening in Detroit, Armando Galarraga was on the verge of doing something that only 20 players had accomplished in 130 years of Major League Baseball. Galarraga had retired 26 consecutive Cleveland hitters. He was one out away from a perfect game. The ballpark was just 43 percent full that night, but as Indians’ shortstop Jason Donald stepped to the plate, Comerica Park was full of life.

On a 1-1 count, Donald slapped a ground ball to the right side of the infield. First baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged to his right, fielded the ball and fired to Galarraga, who was covering first. In real time, Donald appeared to be out. Tigers announcer Dan Dickerson’s call went like this: “He’s out! No! He’s safe. He’s safe.” First base umpire Jim Joyce signaled safe, and that was that. Replay review had not yet been expanded to safe/out calls, so the real-time call always stood. The replay shown to fans, however, revealed that Donald was clearly out. Joyce had missed the call. And thus began the universal campaign for expanded replay in sports.

The day after Galarraga’s 28-out perfect game, Commissioner Bud Selig admitted that the call was missed, stating “There is no dispute that last night’s game should have ended differently.” Regardless, Armando Galarraga’s name would be left out of the record books.

Many, including former players and United States politicians, lambasted Selig for his refusal to change the call. Although Selig contended that the call wouldn’t be overturned, he did vow to examine “…the expanded use of instant replay and all other related features.”

Prior to the 2014 season, replay in baseball was used almost exclusively for reviewing home runs. But 2014 and 2015 marked significant changes in the system. Besides reviewing balls and strikes, almost any call can be reviewed by umpires at the Replay Operations Center, which relays the decision to the on-field umpires. Managers are afforded challenges, similar to those in the NFL, during which a manager can consult via phone with someone who determines whether the play is worth challenging.

This, of course, takes time. A review can take several minutes, even when the call appears obvious. There are regular lulls in the action. Replay obstructs game flow, which can be frustrating for both players and fans. But if the integrity of the game is at the base of the issue — that is, ensuring the correct call no matter what — then the constant pauses are merely necessary evils in guaranteeing the integrity of the sport. But do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Are sports better with the constant scrutiny of replay?

It isn’t just baseball. The NBA and the NFL have also expanded review systems over the past few seasons. On Sunday afternoons, it often seems like the broadcast crew brings in Mike Pereira every other play. It’s worth considering whether the increase in penalties over the last few seasons — 3,699 yellow flags in 2009 compared to 4,248 last season — can be attributed to the comprehensive scrutiny that officials are always under. Missed calls will be exposed via replay, so officials could be more tempted to throw their flags, even if the penalties seem superfluous. Reviews are common, and cameras are ubiquitous, so every move by every person involved in the game will be tracked.

The effectiveness of replay review has been suspect. On Saturday, Miami beat Duke on a Music City Miracle-esque touchdown as time expired. But the replay showed that during the return, one of the ball carriers was down. The officials reviewed the play and failed to correct the call. Miami gets the win on paper, but Duke won the football game. The mistakes were admitted and the officials were suspended for their errors, but that’s not the point. Replay review exists for a reason: to guarantee the correct calls. If officials cannot make the correct calls using replay, then it’s time to question whether replay should be used at all.

Umpires and referees make mistakes. There are two ways to go about handling the inherent human error that exists among sports officials. Either the mistakes can be corrected, using replay to ensure the correct call, or missed calls can be part of the game that athletes and fans accept.

Having a review system makes sense. But the system needs to be effective. It needs to be quick and precise. Replay was expanded to ensure that there would be no more Armando Galerraga fiascos. That hasn’t been the case. If there are going to be missed calls with replay review, then why have replay review at all?