Phil Miller's Sunday Insider: Challenge system turns managers into umps

  • Updated: August 17, 2013 - 9:33 PM

With the challenge system next year, managers will have to be umpires, too.

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Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, wanted his sport to get calls correct.

Photo: MIKE GROLL • Associated Press,

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Ron Gardenhire got a pay raise this week.

Well, not an actual increase in pay, exactly, but he will be keeping more of the money he earns. That’s because one side effect of baseball’s decision to review umpire’s calls via replay should be a reduction in on-field arguments, ejections and the nearly automatic fines that go with them. Gardenhire has been ejected 64 times as a manager, and fined thousands of dollars as a result.

Of course, maybe he deserves to keep a little more of his paycheck now, because baseball is adding a new job to his responsibilities: Starting next year, he will have to umpire, too.

That’s one of the most glaring weaknesses of Major League Baseball’s decision to adopt a challenge system to the game, starting next Opening Day — it shifts the burden of umpiring from umpires to managers, who are standing perhaps hundreds of feet away from the play. Without the benefit of seeing a replay — TVs and other electronics are banned from dugouts; managers don’t even have headsets that allow NFL coaches to confer with staff members watching from above — it will be Gardenhire’s responsibility to determine whether a call was missed and whether he should exercise one of his limited challenges.

Yes, baseball should be applauded for finally dragging itself into the 21st century, for finally acknowledging that it makes no sense for games to be decided by calls that everyone in the stadium, except those making the decision, can see clearly and definitively were wrong.

But here’s the craziest thing about the system that baseball has settled upon: On a day when player after player, manager after manager, kept saying that the most important thing is getting calls right, baseball proposed a system that it acknowledges right up front won’t do that.

They’ll get the calls right … as long as the manager can tell it was missed. They’ll get the calls right … as long as the manager hasn’t used all his challenges. They’ll get the calls right … as long as the manager calculates that it’s worth risking a challenge, rather than saving it for later.

How does that make sense? A close play at first with two out in the first inning, when the manager couldn’t tell for sure, might be deemed not worthy of double-checking, since teams get only one challenge for the first six innings. But if a player is called safe when he wasn’t, and his next two teammates walk and the next hits a grand slam, why is it fair that the game was potentially decided by an easily confirmed missed call?

Baseball is adding complexity where it’s not necessary, and tacitly allowing blown calls to stand rather than be corrected.

“I’ve said all along that they should have a guy up in the booth, he has a replay right in front of him, and he signals yes or no. I’ve always thought that’s the quickest way to do it,” Gardenhire said. “That would be fine. Leave me in the dugout, that’d be great. I wouldn’t ever have to go out on the field.”

No system is going to be controversy-free. It’s not difficult to imagine scenarios where blown calls affect how a play unfolds — a player whose sinking liner is caught but ruled a trap then gets into a rundown, allowing runners to score ahead of him; where do you put the runners when the original call is overruled? The system is surely the death of the “neighborhood play,” too, since replays will detect whether a player has the ball as he touches second. And balls and strikes, the most heatedly debated calls in the game, won’t be affected.

But Gardenhire is right. The “solution” to baseball’s tech-fueled discovery that umpires make more mistakes than we once realized shouldn’t create a new set of problems.

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