The Athletic Reporter
September 12, 2005 Sports News the Way You Want It. Completely Made Up. Issue 127
The Average Mulder
by Joe Mulder
Instant Replay in Baseball?

Using technology to help officiate Major League Baseball games is an issue I've touched on in this space before, and it was an issue about two years ago when QuesTec cameras first started "helping" umpires evaluate balls and strikes.

This week, though, comes news that three veteran managers -- Bobby Cox of the Braves, Felipe Alou of the Giants and Frank Robinson of the Nationals -- would support the use of instant replay in baseball, to be applied to such situations as close plays at first base and disputed home runs. On Sunday, as a matter of fact, the Phillies beat the Diamondbacks by one run in a game that included a disputed Phillies homer that even the player who hit the ball agreed wasn't really out of the park.

Traditionalists -- a group I'd usually tell you I belong to, but not in this case -- will decry the notion of instant replay in baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig even used the old "human error has always been part of the equation" argument, always a favorite of needlessly contrarian people who can't find a legitimate reason to be opposed to what is an obviously, unequivocally good idea. As I've said before, the "it's always been this way, so it always should be" argument is a pathetic one, tantamount to arguing that there's no need for a polio vaccine; 20,000 kids have always come down with polio every year, haven't they? Isn't that the way it's always been? Why would we want to change that?


Human error is, has, and ever shall be part of athletic competition; that's sort of the whole point. They don't just take the best 100 meter times of every sprinter in the world over a four-year period, average them out and declare the low man the gold medal winner; no, they actually have all the best sprinters show up at the Olympics every four years and race to see who wins. That's the reason we watch; you never know when the Royals are going to up and sweep the Yankees, so you'd better keep your eyes on the standings just in case. Variation and unpredictability in human performance is pretty much the idea behind sports in the first place.

But is it the point of sports officiating? Don't we want sports officials to make as few mistakes as possible? Don't we want mistakes by the players to decide games, rather than mistakes by umpires? Those who use the "human error has always been a part of it" line to argue against the use of instant replay would apparently argue against it no matter how accurate the technology was, just to preserve their precious human error element. "The replays aren't perfect, either," they'd say. Well, no; neither are barcode scanners at the supermarket, but they make approximately one mistake per 100,000 keystrokes, as opposed to one every 300 for humans (note: I made these statistics up, but I think they serve to make my point just the same). Still, the only argument you ever hear against the use of instant replay is from people who just can't get enough "human error."

[Well, that, and people who say it slows down games and takes too long. And those people are just idiots. Apparently, for some, getting it right takes a back seat to getting it right now]

To illustrate just how ridiculous and untenable this "human error has always been a part of it" argument is, let's distill it down to it's essence: "no matter how good technology becomes," the "human error" crowd will tell you, "we don't want to use it to help umpires. It doesn't matter if cameras became so sophisticated that they could tell us beyond a shadow of a doubt whether a ball had been hit for a home run or whether a runner was safe at first. The cameras could be perfect; we still wouldn't support their use, because we like the fact that umpires' mistakes have the potential to determine the outcomes of games."

It necessarily follows, then, that anyone who opposes the use of technology in an effort to improve the accuracy of sports officiating -- citing some bizarre, fetishistic attraction to "human error" -- would also have to oppose the use of any umpire who got every single call 100% right, all the time. Obviously such a human umpire does not and cannot exist, but, let's say we lived in a universe exactly like our own in every single respect, except for the fact that it produced one perfect umpire. Your "human error" fans would, then, if they wished not to look like enormous, mentally deficient hypocrites, have no choice but to oppose this perfect umpire and his (or her) (but, come on, probably his) being hired by Major League Baseball. After all, they love human error, don't they? They love umpires' mistakes, right? That's an essential part of the game, isn't it?

Perhaps Commissioner Selig should establish a "perfection threshold" for Major League umpires, if human error is so important to him. Maybe any umpire who gets 98% or more of his calls correct should be banned from baseball. Maybe that's too high; maybe 95%. Better yet, why not 50%? Wouldn't that really add an element of excitement to the game, huh?

You know what? All you replay opponents, why don't you just line up over there, next to the people who think it's still amusing to talk about how hard it is to program a VCR and the guy who likes to smugly proclaim that he "doesn't watch TV," and let the rest of us enjoy the 21st century, okay?

Joe Mulder

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