It's been less than 48 hours since umpire Jim Joyce's blown call with two outs in the ninth inning cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. Having acknowledged his mistake, Joyce has broken down and cried on the field. Galarraga has said he forgives the ump. General Motors gave the pitcher a Corvette convertible.
Emotions are clearly running high. Many fans are calling it the worst whiff in sports history and clamoring for an expanded use of replay technology to avoid such human failures in the future. Currently, baseball uses replay only to review home run boundary calls, but the capabilities for wider use are already available.
With the flick of a switch, every call in baseball could be determined not by umpires, but by cameras, computers and sensors. Perhaps more than any other sport, tech-tools could effectively be used to ensure the play-calling accuracy of baseball.
But should they be? What kind of game would it be if umpires became more or less chaperones?
Errors Are Part of the Game
The strike zone would be made constant and unyielding. Every call on a bang-bang play at the bag would be guaranteed. Every ball would be either fair or foul. And the sport would cease to be what fans love about it.
There would be no more grown men yelling at their flat-screens; no more batters turning in amazement at a called strike, arguing, yelling, face-to-face; no more index fingers thrown into the air as coaches are ejected; no more stomach-turning moments of pause just after a runner slides into home, just before the ump makes his call.
There would be no more calls to make.
For better or for worse -- and most fans I know would say for better -- errors like the one Joyce made on Wednesday evening are part of baseball. Still, when a critical decision by an umpire changes the outcome of a game or, as in Galaragga's case, it robs a player of his place in history -- it stings like a foul ball belted into the stands. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig can still overturn the call, and he may yet. There is no shortage of opinions over whether or not the league should expand its use of replay technology.
Why Change What Is Clearly Working?
But wherever you stand on the issue, in a pragmatic sense it's doubtful that those who stand to lose most in this situation are going to allow machines to replace them without a serious fight. The Umpires Union signed a five-year contract extension earlier this year.
Perhaps a balance can be struck. Perhaps Selig should follow the National Football League's lead, limiting the number of replay-invoking challenges each team can make per game. No more than one or two. Keep it tight and interesting.
Finally, the league should remember not to mess with something that's working. MLB grossed $6.6 billion in 2009, up from $6.5 billion in 2008. And that uptick came during the darkest part of the recession. As our savings dwindled, we kept watching. Why?
Out there on the field, there is a real, visceral drama unfolding every night. And drama needs conflict. While enhanced technology wouldn't rob baseball of its outs and runs, its wins and losses, it could steal the drama -- and with it, the game's heart and soul.
We don't yet know how this latest controversy will play out, how it will end. For baseball fans, that's a familiar spot to be in. Uncertainty, after all, is one thing we love about the game.
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