By every perception, angle, and shutter-speed available to the naked eye, Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader stole his first base of the season on April 29, at Washington. Only replay, with its superhuman gift to parse the infinitesimal, said otherwise.
For more than 120 years of the sport, Bader stole second base. Fini. He beat the throw. He beat the tag. He even beat the fielder to the base when the throw took the glove away from second. Through happenstance, as the fielder tried to keep his balance and Bader tried to avoid a collision, a Nationals player’s glove stayed on Bader as, for the flap of a hummingbird’s wing, the Cardinals’ outfielder lost contact with the bag.
The umpire said he was safe.
Slo-mo called him out.
“I beat the ball. I got there and everything,” Bader said the next day. “As I was approaching the bag, I saw that the throw brought him off the bag a little bit. I turned my head to protect myself and just lost contact with grabbing the bag. My hand slid past it. And there’s that some little window of time when I’m technically off the base.”
I asked if he was frustrated by the “modern” caught stealing.
“Replay and everything allows them to slow the game down in a way it never has been before and see exactly where I was at,” he answered. “It’s a tough play. But they got it right.”
They got it right.
As replay has spread through all professional sports – from football to baseball, basketball to Wednesday night’s hockey game at the Enterprise Center in downtown St. Louis – the mission statement of the movement has to be: Get it right. That’s the baseline goal of replay. Get calls right. Not get them right, when convenient. Not get them right, when a team challenges. Not get them right, caveat. If we have the technology to review it, do it. Get it right. Period.
Any reason outside of the inability to conclusively determine a play or the unavailability of technology to do so comes across, candidly, as a way to protect the officials, to put their pride above the game.
In Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals between the Blues and Sharks, the winning goal in overtime was scored after an illegal hand pass. Many of us watched as it happened. Four people who didn’t were the officials on the ice. Yet again, intrepid Post-Dispatch uber-sportswriter Jim Thomas had to cover a handoff that determined a game. The Sharks won, 5-4, and took a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series. Almost an hour after the NHL abandoned its job to get the call right, an official spoke with a pool reporter and said the play, as it was, is “non-reviewable.”
“It’s a non-reviewable play,” said NHL series director Kay Whitmore. “You can read between the lines. You can figure out what you want. You watched the video. But it’s just non-reviewable.”
In the quote, an NHL official encourages us to do what the NHL officials would not: “You watched the video.” This play, of all plays, is non-reviewable? Hold on. I just reviewed it on my laptop. One second. Yep, I just reviewed it again on my phone. Give me a minute, and I’ll go find a tablet or turn on the TV and review the play there, too. This “non-reviewable” play is ubiquitously reviewable, and the only reason the NHL adds the word “non” is because of their rules regarding replay. They are lacquered protection after protection for officials, like layers of bureaucracy, all muddying the real purpose of replay. Replay rules are meant to improve the game to augment officials, not protect its arbiters. If the goal is to use replay to get the call right, then use replay to get the call right. Full stop.
Baseball has meandered into this same quagmire, and it starts with the original sin of Major League Baseball’s current replay rules.
When baseball acknowledged, rightly, that the game was long overdue for replay and they had the technology handy to pull it off, the commissioner’s office empowered a group to explore how to implement it. One member of the advisory group was former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. He and others wanted to add some drama to replay, some strategy, and rather than allowing replay to review every play its enhanced eye could track they suggested that managers be giving a limited amount of challenges. That would heighten the suspense, or something. That would add to the risk of replay, or something. If Major League Baseball initially set out to use replay to get calls right, then this decision – to introduce the challenge – pulled the game farther away from that purpose. It made replay a lever for the manager to pull, like a pinch-hitter or a hit-and-run.
Replay is supposed to be an advanced tool for the game.
They made it, first, a new toy for the manager.
One of the driving reasons for the manager-challenge trigger was baseball’s obsession with “pace of play” and “time of game.” The concern was that if replay was unlimited then the game would be bogged down in replays. Color me skeptical. This past week, in Atlanta, Matt Carpenter fouled off a pitch that was immediately ruled a wild pitch, and a run came scampering home. In the time it took us to discuss how that play was “non-reviewable” (patent pending, NHL), it could have been reviewed. The video was there. The eyeballs were there. People at home had a chance to review it between sips of seltzer water.
There is obvious tension between replay and too-much replay, between video officiating and on-field refereeing. Umpires are in the arena, armed only with their eyes, their ears, and experience. New York and Toronto are at a distance, armed with dozens of angles, infinite replays, and slow-motion capture. One simple solution that I have advocated for before is to make a replay official part of the traveling crew in baseball.
For the most part, umpires and officials get a vast majority of calls correct, which again is the goal. It’s an absurdly high percentage. They are elite at what they do. And, to date, there are still calls an umpire or officials make adroitly at game speed that technology cannot.
Major League Baseball is as frustrated as the fans that reliable technology does not allow them to make boundary calls along the third- and first-base lines like, say, they do at Wimbledon or other tennis’ grand slams. During one meeting with MLB officials about replay implementation, I asked about that, and I was told that the irregular size and shape of ballparks has made this tech more complicated than uniform tennis courts. If they cannot do it consistently for all 30 ballparks, then they cannot do it. Not yet. Balls and strikes are similarly unreliable when called by technology. The Atlantic League, which has become a laboratory for MLB’s larger bases and quirkier pace-of-play of rules, will use motion sensors later this season to call balls and strikes. The goal will be to see if the tech can call the strike zone better than umpires – not as well. Better.
In 2004, during the Stanley Cup Finals, many of us watched from the press box in Calgary’s Saddledome as the Flames appeared to score a tiebreaking goal. Photos showed the puck had crossed the line. Replays appeared to do the same. The NHL did not stop the game for a deeper review – are you listening baseball? – because they had time during the briefest of stoppages to scour digital video of the play. It was controversial. The NHL said the views were inconclusive because the puck was in the air, allowing white ice to be seen but not to determine if the puck had entirely crossed into it.
Alas, a high-definition view of the play was not available to replay officials.
One would hope the tech has improved in 15 years.
Like hockey, baseball still has its handful of “non-reviewable” plays that current technology could help review. Replay can only be used for fair or foul calls on balls that land behind the baseline umpire. Technology can help us all determine – often conclusively – fair or foul in front of the umpire. So why have that caveat about reviewing plays that happen in back of the umpire if not to protect his backside? A hit batter can be reviewed but a ball hit foul cannot be. Huh. A ball that crosses over first base cannot be reviewed, but Bader coming off of second base, however briefly, can be. And so on.
All of these crisscrossing, cross-referencing, sometimes conflicting replay rules pull replay away from its mission.
To get calls right.
And so there the NHL was Wednesday night, nestled up in Toronto with all of the angles they wanted and all of them showing an illegal pass to determine a playoff game, and officials were forced to face a false question: Is it reviewable? The question should be, for officials watching over the ball field or looking down on the rink, far easier:
Can we get it right?
“They’re not trying to screw anybody,” Sharks forward Joe Pavelski told reporters late Wednesday night. “They really aren’t. They’re good guys. May not always seem that way, but tonight, we may have caught a break.”
No, the Sharks didn’t catch a break.
They passed it off and the officials handed them a win.
The Blues got caught – in a broken system.