Human element the heart of baseball

Let’s play out the perpetual debate on instant replay in baseball to its inevitable end:

In 2008, Major League Baseball first committed to using instant replay — but only for borderline home run calls. With the new five-year labor agreement signed last week, instant replay crept a little further toward becoming commonplace in baseball. Pending discussions between the commissioner’s office and the umpires’ union, next season instant replay will be used to judge close fair/foul plays as well as trapped balls caught by fielders.

Which makes a nostalgic baseball fan like me wonder: What’s next?

The first casualty of instant replay’s continuing conquest of Major League Baseball could be the bang-bang play at first base, typically followed by a first-base coach blocking a runner trying to bite the head off an umpire. (You thought that was good TV — just wait until we get to sit around for 5 minutes for the replay judge to render his verdict!) Next up: The feigned tag of second base on a double-play ball, where the infielder only has to make an effort toward touching the bag to get an out call. Slow-motion replays will end that injury-avoiding tradition as fans realize the faux tag of second is as real as an uppercut in WWE.

In the name of accuracy, so too will end the human variant of the strike zone. We already have FoxTrax, a fun tool for fans who like to engage in one-sided arguments with a television. Why not install electronic strike zone monitors at every ballpark? High-pitched beep: Strike. Low-pitched beep: Ball. We could end the silliness of an umpire squeezing the strike zone. We could end the absurdity of a pitcher like Greg Maddux painting corners for a strike call. Who needs umpires at all when a technician can call a game from an air-conditioned booth — and never be wrong?

There’s even a ready-made marketing campaign: “Better Baseball Through Technology.” Wouldn’t it be grand?

Except that the Brave New World proposed by instant-replay devotees will have the same sorts of unintended consequences as every time humanity decides to solve our every problem through science and technology: By aiming for perfection, we ruin what we once took great joy in.

Commissioner Bud Selig has been against the pro-replay crowd for quite some time. People have called him a Luddite, a fuddy-duddy technophobe afraid of his sport entering the 21st century and (over)using instant replay like the rest of the sports world.

Here’s what Selig had to say during the 2011 World Series after another botched call brought visions of instant replay to our heads:

“I haven’t changed my mind,” Selig told a Dallas radio station. “It’s not a question of being stubborn, it’s a question of being rational about it — and I really feel that we have done things on home run calls — but where does it end? And that’s the problem: where does it end?”

Where does it end? Is this just one more step in taking the human element out of sport, of turning every player into a mathematical equation, of turning every variance of human error into something correctable and definite, of valuing machine over man?

Well, yes. And one thing that should be discussed at next week’s winter meetings (but won’t be) is how baseball can halt instant replay where it is, not further expand it.

In no sport is the judge such an integral part of the game. The catcher and the home-plate umpire are joined at the hip. The jawing between managers and umpires (and the pleading, the stomping, the dirt-kicking, the base-throwing) is a beautiful part of the game, one that will be lost when all they have to do is say, “Check the tape.” It’s part of baseball’s theatrics, a way a manager can rev up his team. Even quiet Ryne Sandberg realized the value of becoming a hothead when he became a minor league manager. Short of a home-team home run, can you think of any moment that gets fans — and players — more riled up than a heated argument on the field?

There’s no shortage of arguments to expand replay. The most obvious is this: It gets the call right.

Think of the number of baseball injustices that could have been overturned with replay: Armando Gallaraga would have had a perfect game in 2010 instead of being the victim of a botched call on the 27th out. Don Denkinger would be just another umpire instead of the man who made the worst call in World Series history in 1985’s Game 6, Cardinals vs. Royals. Nobody would have heard of Jeffrey Maier, the 12-year-old Yankee fan whose interference turned Derek Jeter’s fly ball into a home run in the 1996 ALCS. The 19-inning affair this year between the Pirates and the Braves could have gone into the 20th inning — heck, could have become the longest game in big-league history — instead of ending on a missed call at home plate.

And who knows, maybe a sympathetic review judge would have redeemed Steve Bartman with a fan interference call, saving him from becoming the Villain of Wrigley.

Yes, with replay, injustice would be corrected.

And yet, with replay, these mystical moments of baseball lore would be erased.

Bill James, the inventor of sabermetrics and one of baseball’s most thoughtful minds, disagrees wholeheartedly. So do plenty of general managers, who voted 25-5 for the current system. We should do everything we can to help umpires get their calls right, James told me. Why should the average fan have a better view than the umpire?

James also believes focusing on replay misses the point. Replay, James said, “is an awkward, after-the-fact way of looking at the problem.” We could experiment with electronic signatures, where an electronic signal can tell us the ball or the batter’s foot got to the base first.

It’s true that baseball, more than any other sport, has a reputation for plodding toward progress. The designated hitter rule? A travesty! Expanding playoffs to include wild cards? Preposterous!

But it’s also true that baseball is America’s most tradition-focused sport. Why does Cooperstown have an aura you can’t find in Canton or Springfield? Why did baseball fans erupt over performance-enhancing drugs when football fans have mostly shrugged their shoulders?

The oft-repeated argument against instant replay is that it would slow down an already too-slow game. That’s true, but it also misses the point. There’s something pure about the sport, something beautiful about energizing our lazy summer days by booing the umpire, something about baseball that ties us to our childhoods, to our collective past, to simpler times. A ballpark is a place we can turn off our iPhones, grab a beer and a scorecard, and forget about the world.

And the more we forget that, the more we forget what we love about the game.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.