MLB zoning in on better replay plan

Major League Baseball is closing in on improved instant replay plan.

Did you really expect baseball commissioner Bud Selig to stand before the cameras Thursday and declare that, effective immediately, every pitch is subject to instant replay?

Of course you didn’t. You’re a baseball fan. You understand your sport. You know it isn’t perfect. You also know that, in time, Major League Baseball usually gets it right. And that is what the latest umpiring/replay drama is all about: Baseball is trying to get it right.

In time, that will happen.

Last week was bad for baseball, between the Angel Hernandez and Fieldin Culbreth umpiring controversies. This week was better. After the round of owners’ meetings that concluded Thursday, it’s apparent that the sport is evaluating expanded replay with more seriousness, and in greater detail, than ever before. Change is coming, probably sooner rather than later.

That doesn’t mean MLB umpires will make every call correctly. They haven’t before. They won’t now. Joe Torre, the MLB executive vice president of baseball operations, made clear Thursday that balls and strikes won’t be reviewable. So your gripes about inconsistent strike zones will continue.

But everything else is up for discussion. Torre said he remains “hopeful” that expanded replay will be in place for next season. Selig said his opinion on replay has “evolved” over time, and his tone on the issue is one of open-mindedness rather than obstruction. Torre said he doesn’t believe the technology’s expense will be an issue. The umpires aren’t standing in the way, either.

“Our dialogue on replay with the umpires union has been very positive,” said Rob Manfred, the MLB executive vice president of economics and league affairs. “We’re at a point where we’re not specific enough to make a good judgment as to exactly how it’s all going to play out. But they’ve been open and helpful in the process.”

Most telling of all, though, was the replay subcommittee itself: Torre, Tony La Russa and John Schuerholz. La Russa has the most wins of any living manager. Torre ranks third on the list. Schuerholz, one of the greatest team executives in baseball history, presided over the Braves’ 14 consecutive division titles.

The three must believe there is a solution to the replay question, or they wouldn’t have accepted the subcommittee assignment. Selig wouldn’t have brought them before this week’s assembly unless he was confident the owners would be receptive to their recommendations.

What, exactly, were those recommendations? Torre mentioned few specifics. He did, however, acknowledge the breadth of options under consideration: a fifth umpire on site in a replay booth, a central replay facility (similar to the NHL), a communication device worn by on-field umpires that would alert them when plays need to be reviewed.

Torre’s not keen on the idea of challenge flags. But he didn’t completely rule it out, either.

“We’re listening to all of it,” Torre said. “We’re considering all of it.”

However it happens, Torre acknowledged the replay analysts must be trained for that specific job — a potentially significant development. One flaw in the current system is that the on-field umpires view the replays — a task for which they are not specifically trained. (Hernandez’s blown call in Cleveland illustrated that pitfall.)

By the time it’s instituted, the replay program may be more extensive than MLB first expected. In addition to the current home run/boundary plays, baseball had sought technology for catch/trap and fair/foul plays down outfield lines.

Torre acknowledged he became willing to consider more changes after last year’s American League Championship Series, when umpire Jeff Nelson missed a call at second base (to the Yankees’ detriment).

“That really caught my eye and caught my attention,” Torre said. “There was a lot more conversation about that instead of the game itself. That’s a concern to me. There’s no question we’re considering much more than the trap play and fair/foul.

“But one of the decisions we have to make is, ‘How much do we want to do, without really disrupting (the game) and putting people to sleep?’ When you get those bang-bang plays at first base … we’ve got to live with that.

“The technology is there. We have to make sure we apply it to what we need to do.”

Exactly. The objective should be to keep umpires from appearing on the highlight shows and — even worse — national news programs. That is reasonable. In the end, baseball is running out of reasons to not expand replay. Torre hopes it will happen next year, and most everyone seems confident it will happen, period.

That’s the baseball way: Eventually, when it comes to most things, our national pastime gets it right.

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