Collier: Challenges, replay in baseball a slippery slope

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Somewhere out there, three baseball minds superior to the ones still cranking hard inside the aging craniums of Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and John Schuerholz might well exist, but the search could take eons.

Those three brains, a.k.a. the committee that produced the new outline of expanded baseball replay, not only represent 62 years of managerial expertise and 28 years of general manager's experience, but an aggregate of baseball sense and sensibility that is pretty much beyond reproach.

So why do I suspect the heavy hand of Allan H. "Bud" Selig, Commissioner of Baseball, in the results of the committee's earnest labor?

Why, obviously, because the results don't make any sense.

It might not be the most illogical baseball stroke since the preposterous "All-Star Game Makeover: Bud's Gone Wild Edition," but it sure is a hot mess.

If you haven't seen the new replay particulars, they comprise a hybrid of the NFL and NHL systems, and with only about 10 times the potential pitfalls.

Each manager would be allotted three NFL-like challenges, one in the first six innings and two thereafter. A successful challenge means he retains his allotment, but the six-inning allotment can't be carried over.

Don't ask.

The challenged play is reviewed in New York, a.k.a. baseball's Toronto.

Some umpires calls are not reviewable, including balls, strikes, batters hit by a pitch (or not) and boundary calls regarding home runs, which will remain the prerogative of the on-field crew, so as to ensure that a blown call like the one by Angel Hernandez's crew that took away a ninth-inning homer by Oakland's Adam Rosales this month in Cleveland would now be ... a blown call all over again.

But to be fair, the system's imperfections are recognized by the inventors, who promise more tweaks. All necessary tweaks would represent a veritable tweak-a-palooza, but the inventors seem willing.

Schuerholz reminds us that "this is but the first phase," and that subsequent modifications are inevitable "down the road."

Don't think for a moment that we're not all rollin' down that road. Within 10 years, balls and strikes and every other umpiring decision will be either validated or orchestrated by New York techno-jockeys. Ultimately, the day will come in all sports when no one ever loses a game they shouldn't lose, and no one ever wins a game they shouldn't win.

And won't that be wonderful for those who somehow escape being bored to death as we roll down this road?

In the meantime, here are just some of the problems with the expanded replay proposals on the table, the ones expected to be improved overwhelmingly by the clubs, players and umpires at meetings in November.

First, there's no good reason to put the responsibility for identifying a blown call on the manager, who has plenty to do already, and, by the way, has one of the worst seats in the house.

Second, there's no good reason for the manager to have only one challenge in the first six innings and two thereafter. That system posits that calls in the first six innings are not as important as calls in the last three or more. This is patently untrue. One of baseball's charms, atrophying as it is, is that a game can be won or lost on the first pitch.

Third, how is the manager supposed to judge whether or not to risk a challenge without the benefit of a replay? An entire crew of assistant coaches is monitoring the network feeds of NFL games upstairs, but baseball does not want team officials reviewing video to see if a challenge is warranted. How could baseball possibly enforce that?

Fourth, does the manager get to throw something like the challenge flag, or is that too "football"? Maybe he could throw a hot dog from the dugout, or shoot one from the Pirate Parrot's hot-dog gun.

Fifth, it will be against the rules for managers to argue an unreviewable call. What's the penalty for arguing a non-reviewable call? Don't know. Fifteen yards? Rhubarb will fast disappear from the game and its glossary.

Sixth, the system as proposed sustains the possibility that the game can be decided on a blown call after allotted challenges have been exhausted. This means that a game that has already been stopped dead six or more times for the purpose of "getting it right," Jerry Meals can still beat you in the 19th.

Yeah, that's perfect.

Look, I'm not a baseball purist. If I were commissioner, I'd change it so drastically it'd be almost unrecognizable -- three balls is a walk, two strikes and you're out, two outs and the inning's over; I'd make all kinds of changes to make it more relevant to a populace with an attention span that's almost purely theoretical.

My problem with replay in baseball is that baseball's whole narrative, for one game or across one season, is how we deal with failure. The pitcher is going to hang a curveball, the hitters are going to look at strikes and swing at balls, the fielders are going to drop easy flies and let grounders through their legs, the manager is going to make strategical errors that ignite and sustain discussion until the next round of mistakes begins tomorrow.

Why, in this theater, can umpires not be allowed to make mistakes?

Bob Costas, whom I admire very much, said to the New York Times on this issue:

"You can't have a World Series game, or an important game in the pennant race, decided by an obvious missed call."

Why not?

That's life.

Baseball is life.

But only for the moment. Soon enough it'll be like all everything else, an existence folded into the quotidian human boredom of staring endlessly at a glowing screen.

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Gene Collier:


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