The base runner slides in, throwing up a cloud of dust and dirt. The catcher stands his ground as he takes the throw. There is a cataclysmic moment of collision between the baseball, home plate and the players’ wills. The umpire’s arm goes up. “Yer out!” he cries.
And the hometown fans stare in disbelief. “We was robbed,” they lament.
At this juncture in baseball’s long history, so intertwined with that of the country that calls the sport its national pastime, the game stands at the brink of the abyss. The leaders within the major leagues have decided to follow the money and opt for instant replay. Yes, we understand that the owners, umpires and players must all sign off, but it appears that the skids are greased on this watershed decision.
Over the years, baseball has evolved as people tried to make it better. The baseball itself has changed. The pitcher’s mound is different. You can’t throw spitballs anymore. And, of course, there’s the designated hitter — but that’s another debate.
Still, those tweaks never really altered the fundamental scheme of things. It is amazing that a game played on a diamond-shaped field, with bases 90 feet apart and the pitcher’s rubber 60 feet and 6 inches away from the back edge of home plate has survived from the 1880s until today. The athletes are bigger and probably better, but the game still works. Amazing.
It took the will of the baseball community all those years to preserve the game as it is. But instant replay will bring a fundamental change. It may increase short-term profits, but may destroy the beauty, charm and heart of the sport.
Baseball is what it is. People make mistakes, and mistakes are part of life and part of the fabric of baseball. The baseball scoreboard shows hits, runs and errors. Eighteen players square off on the field, and four umpires (at the major-league level) make the critical decisions that guide the sport. Every play is a decision. Every time the pitcher tosses one up there, the umpire must rule.
It’s a game of judgments, made by real people reacting to real situations. It’s a game where a lot of mistakes are made. It’s a human game.
We can understand why football in particular has gone the route of challenging calls made on the field using technology. It’s a technology sport. Football never really took off in America until television became its primary medium. It’s a made-for-electronic-media sport, and the replay challenge adds to the drama of the reality television.
And let’s be clear. The proposed instant replay in baseball is not about trying to get it right. We are not focusing in on some holy effort to bring perfection to baseball. It’s all about money. It’s all about bringing the younger television viewer into the ranks of fans. We’re sure the power brokers of the sport consider instant replay as a survival tool.
But what’s the likely long-term result? Nobody likes to see a pitcher’s perfect game lost by a bonehead call at first base, but thus it has always been. The capacity for human error has been built into the rules and soul of the sport. It’s the element of baseball that has been key in its perseverance in a changing world.
Instant replay may bring some instant rewards, but the marriage of technology to this human passion will in the end break its heart.
There is some good news for the time being. Baseball purists still will be able to take their seat cushions and head down to that American Legion game at the local ballpark. Or they can take in a Little League game, or a town ballgame, or a high school or college game. It will be a while before the technology for replay will reach those last vestiges of the true sport.
Years from now, America will look back to this sad event — the day the music died — and there will be lamentation over the loss of the heart of the great American sport. Fans will miss Ron Gardenhire storming out of the dugout and kicking dirt all over the umpire’s shoes. They will miss what prior generations had the sense not to fool around with — the magical inner workings of a great human game.
And they will say:
“We was robbed.”
Al Zdon is the secretary of Minnesota American Legion Baseball.