The replay discussion in baseball has grown so ubiquitous, so overbearing, so boring that -- like the revenue/payroll disparity in baseball -- it's simply no fun to talk about anymore. Everybody knows about the problem. The problem never seems to get fixed. After a while, the talk feels as pointless as complaining about the humidity in St. Louis in July.
But, as boring as it is, Thursday was a banner day in baseball's grand losing battle to umpiring legitimacy. In the Tampa Bay-Texas game, the umpires seemed to miss a checked-swing third strike call against Michael Young. Given a reprieve, Young homered, and soon after Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was tossed, and the Rays lost.
In the Minnesota-New York game, the home plate umpire seemed to miss a strike three call against Lance Berkman.* The next pitch, Berkman crushed a double that gave the Yankees the lead they would never relinquish. Soon after, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire was tossed.
*Though Yankees fans and others will point out that the umpire probably missed a call on the second pitch of that same at-bat, calling a strike on a pitch that was probably at least a couple of inches outside.
And in the Atlanta-San Francisco game, the second-base umpire seemed to miss a clear tag on Buster Posey on a stolen base attempt. The umpire wasn't the only one to miss it ... the television announcers did not mention it even though they showed several replays (they seemed more interested in the quirks of Posey's awkward slide -- they picked up on it a few innings later) and Bobby Cox, who has never been shy about coming out of the dugout, stayed put. There wasn't even an argument on this one, though Posey was clearly out. Soon after, Posey scored the only run of the game.
A banner day, yes. Of course, this came a day after the umpires clearly missed a catch/trap call that should have ended the Twins-Yankees game, and the umpires missed a hit-by-pitch against Carlos Pena in the Rays-Rangers game. There were probably other misses, but those were the lowlights.
I don't want to sound like Chicken Little here, but I think baseball has a real problem on its hands ... a very serious problem. And it goes beyond all the replay talk. I don't want this to sound too monumental or anything, but, what the heck, you can read this next sentence in your John Facenda voice: Baseball is facing a serious legitimacy issue. Anyway, I think so.
It's a different kind of legitimacy issue from the gambling problems of the 1910s or the shameful color barrier before Jackie Robinson or even the steroid issue. It's different ... but it's still dangerous for the game.
Legitimacy for a sports league simply means this: People have to believe in the fairness and authenticity of the sport. This is why the BCS is so unpopular -- nobody believes in its legitimacy. The NHL and NBA regular seasons have legitimacy issues because so many teams make the playoffs. The Tour de France has legitimacy issues because, as we have only recently learned, contaminated meat is causing positive drug tests. Golf tournaments without Tiger Woods over the last few years have had legitimacy issues because Woods was so much better than anyone else. NASCAR had legitimacy issues when nobody really understood their scoring system. And so on.
I have no idea if baseball umpires are worse these days than they used to be ... I suspect they're probably not worse. I suspect they're probably better. But that doesn't matter. Times have changed. Technology has changed. Every game is on television somewhere. Every television game has multiple angles. You could be a brutal umpire in the days of Casey, and all people could really do was yell "Kill the umpire!" They had no replays to use as proof. Now, these days, there are so many hours to fill on sports channels, and there is infinite space on the Internet, and people are killing the umpires on Twitter night after night after night. And they have pictures to back them up.
And this is the point -- it doesn't matter how good umpires were before all these new technologies, just like it doesn't matter anymore if you have the fastest horse and buggy in the county. We SEE the missed calls now. And those missed calls are embarrassing the game. More, they are making the results of these games questionable. Why was gambling an issue? Because it made the results questionable. Why were steroids an issue? Because they made the results questionable. And here we are in 2010, and umpires are missing hugely important calls, loads of them, and games are being influenced by these blown calls, and baseball folks are just standing by and saying that the human element is part of the game? No, that's can't last.
See, sooner or later, people aren't going to stand for it. I suspect some people already are just shaking their heads in frustration. The more bad calls, the more people are going to turn off to baseball. The more times a fan's team gets cheated, the more likely he or she is to simply stop caring. "Bad calls are a part of baseball," might be a good enough answer for some traditionalists, but there aren't enough traditionalists to keep ANY game popular and vibrant. You really can't have playoff games, World Series games, perfect games sullied, ruined, altered by terrible umpire calls while baseball gurus just sit back like the wrestling referee who doesn't happen to notice that one guy brought a metal chair into the ring.*
*Even as I write this now, they are showing the blown stolen base call over and over and over on TBS -- five or six times in a row. Baseball can't have this.
What can be done? Well, yeah, we probably have to delve back for a moment into that tiresome talk about replay. There are numerous problems with replay in baseball. Nobody wants the pace of the game slowed even more. Nobody wants more of those life-draining delays while umpires gather together to talk. Nobody wants baseball to turn into a conditional sport, where you have to wait for the appeal before unleashing your cheer. And frankly there are some calls -- like ball and strike calls -- that probably do not fit replay as we have it now. The Berkman call, frustrating as it may have been for Twins fans, is probably not reversible yet, not until ball-strike technology gets better.
But to me it's a simple reality: You just can't have these missed calls and maintain your authenticity. You just can't. Not over time. And replay seems the most viable answer.* So if baseball has to give up some time and a bit of tradition to get the calls right, then I think sooner or later -- sooner -- they will have to do that.
*It may not be the only answer, though. I was talking to a baseball insider who says that baseball could fix a lot of these problems by rethinking how umpires do their job. He thinks umpires could work together better as a team (could the third base umpire have helped out on that Buster Posey stolen base), he thinks they could be positioned better, he thinks they could be trained better. I'm skeptical ... but I'm also for any answer that will get us the right calls much more often.
Here's what I do know: While some people talked about Tim Lincecum's remarkable pitching performance after the Giants game, I kept thinking that Posey was out. While some people were talking about the shocking Rangers upset of the Rays, I kept wondering if the Rays might have come back in that game had the umpire called Michael Young out on that check swing. While people talked about the Yankees dominance and the Twins having lost 11 playoff games in a row, I kept wondering if the game might have been a little different had the umpire rung up Berkman.
What-ifs are great for sports. They're not great when the umpires are the ones sparking the what-ifs. Twenty-five years later people in St. Louis STILL blame umpire Don Denkinger for the Cardinals loss to Kansas City in the 1985 World Series. That's a part of baseball history. Now, because of better technology, more replay angles, we're getting multiple-Denkinger moments ever single day. Sooner or later, people will have enough. There were a couple of managers and a lot of fans on Thursday who decided they already had enough.