Hall of Fame umpire Nestor Chylak once said, “They expect an umpire to be perfect on opening day and to improve as the season goes on.”
Nestor, meet instant replay.
It was inevitable.
Instant replay found its way onto the agenda yesterday at the GM Winter meetings, the first step in what will likely be a multi-year effort by its proponents to steadily erode resistance to electronic second-guessing. If MLB ultimately decides to override the human element under certain circumstances and implement instant replay, one of the game’s most unique characteristics will be lost forever. Only in baseball with its inherent spatial and temporal properties are we able to reconstruct individual plays in our minds’ eyes with remarkable clarity and debate their outcome endlessly. True, televised instant replays already exist but without any authority other than to refresh our memories, sometimes in slow motion and from different angles, but until now no one has suggested that what we and the men on the field believe we saw with our own eyes won’t necessarily count. Nor has anyone imagined that henceforth the game would come to a halt as the arbiters walk over to some shrouded playback device to view the errors of their ways, or not.
A few GM’s and managers are on record as saying one or two crucial calls could have materially affected the outcome of some recently concluded playoff games and they would hate to see that happen. They quickly add that the umpires got all the controversial calls right this year, but some day they won’t be so fortunate. (There were a number of rulings in the playoffs that were reversed upon review by the umpire crews themselves without anyone’s or thing’s assistance.) And while these same front office types are open to discussing the use of instant replay for certain calls, they quickly point out they would never approve of its use to question balls and strikes, at least not now. That slippery slope may already be lined with QuesTec.
Baseball always manages to weather controversial calls. Jackie Robinson’s steal of home plate in the 1955 Series; Jeffrey Maier’s grab of a home run in the 1997 playoffs; Steve Bartman’s similar grab in the 2003 playoffs. The list is endless, as are the ongoing arguments. It’s all part of the game. Yogi Berra jumping up-and-down in violent protest, pointing at the plate; Tony Tarasco and Moises Alou pointing up at the offending fans in disgust and pleading for justice. Those images are etched in our collective memories and enrich rather than detract from the game.
If some of baseball’s lords have their way, these little imperfections will be banished once and for all and, presumably, Nestor Chylak’s spirit can rest easy. Nobody’s perfect, Nestor. That’s why they want their machines.