Umpires are cynical by nature. We expect the worse – we have to. For the umpire there is no such thing as a routine play. Umpire guru Jim Evans writes, “Nothing is routine while it is happening.” There is always the possibility of a bobble, a miss, a deflection, or a player that just plain loses his mind and does something unexpected. The umpire does not cause the unexpected play, but must adjust to it to get the call correct. Often the routine can change into the unusual in a second or less.
This off-season many umpires have already experienced unusual and significant changes. For instance, many amateur umpires will be required to carry a stopwatch during the NCAA 2011 season to enforce certain speed-up rules. I suppose that George Carlin is rolling in his grave. In a famous bit the late comedian compared football to baseball, including the differences in pace of the games:
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end "even if we have to go to sudden death."
Baseball has no time limit: "We don't know when it's gonna end!"
Well, things change, and, for the most part, things change because of some financial interest. For that reason I fully expect that Major League Baseball will implement instant replay into its games. Football, America’s favorite sport, has shown the effectiveness of instant replay, and any casual fan can see on high-def television when an umpire kicks a call.
Not that baseball fans are driven by a hatred and distrust of umpires. On the contrary, as writer Bruce Weber points out in a recent New York Times article, improvements in television has increased the public’s awareness of just how difficult the umpire’s job truly is. Case in point the recent call Gerry Davis made during the ALCS. C.C. Sabathia tagged Nelson Cruz at home and Davis called Cruz out. Even during slow motion instant replay, it appeared that Cruz had beat Sabathia to the plate until one angle showed conclusively that Cruz was out and Davis had made the right call. And there are many umpire decisions that make Davis’s call look easy!
Professional baseball is by its nature a business. Grown men are paid to play a child’s game. In order to survive and prosper, a business must be able to change and adapt to the public’s demands – and the public is demanding instant replay. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has procrastinated and delayed, but the media has spearheaded the demand for replay. ESPN has taken the lead in framing the instant replay debate, including providing instant replay during this year's Little League World Series, just before the baseball post-season. One must wonder about the media’s motivation. It seems that once the rule is adopted television cameras will be mandatory at every MLB game. The broadcast company that holds the contract to provide this service stands to make a handsome profit.
Baseball has survived the Designated Hitter Rule. Baseball has survived AstroTurf, lowering the mound, and night baseball. All of these changes were driven by economics. Baseball will survive the implementation of instant replay. As Bert Lahr, the actor famous for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, once said, “If you want a full house, you give the public what it wants.” Lahr was referring to the spectacular turnout at Hollywood producer Louis Mayer’s funeral. Let’s hope that giving the public what it thinks it wants doesn’t turn out to be the first step in baseball’s funeral march, with Commissioner Selig leading it dressed as the Cowardly Lion.