Earlier this month, Major League Baseball tried out a replay-review system at several Arizona Fall League games. The consensus was that it worked pretty well, and that such a system would be implemented for regular-season games in 2014.
Hallelujah! I've been writing about this for at least four years; almost everyone in baseball agrees that such a system is long overdue, and it's a good thing that such a system is going to start next year.
And every single detail has been worked out. Right? Right?
Wrong, writes Jayson Stark:
"We know it will be a manager-challenge system," said an executive of another club. "And we know everything will get reviewed in a central location. Other than that, nothing else has been agreed to. And I mean nothing." Wait. Nothing? Is that what he said? Nothing? Right. Nothing. How many challenges will each manager get? One? Two? Eighteen? Forget what you've read. Nobody knows yet. How much time will a manager get to initiate a challenge? A minute? A minute and a half? An hour and a half? Yep. Nobody knows yet. Who will review these calls? Umpires? Ex-umpires? The occupants of the Fan Cave? Your cousin Vinny with the fancy remote? Right you are. Nobody knows yet. You can ask pretty much any question you want about how this will work. Same answer. Nobody knows yet.
Stark goes on to point out that umpires would have liked a system where a fifth umpire was in the press box at every ballpark, watching replays and communicating to his colleagues on the field. This is exactly what I proposed several years ago; naturally, MLB thinks that's too expensive, as would a proposal to add two new crews (eight umpires), who would rotate into the MLB central location to review plays. All right, I can understand wanting to do this without adding too many costs. However:
After the owners' vote at the November owners meeting, Manfred said the replay officials were "most likely to be active or former" umpires. But officials of several teams say they were told it's possible the replay room could also be populated by some non-umpires -- who could be anyone from video experts to former players.
The umpires' union (as well as the players' union) has to approve any replay-review agreement. I can't imagine they'd be too happy with non-umpires getting involved.
And we haven't even gotten to the actual method that's going to be used for challenges. Stark, again:
About the only thing that's been settled on is that there's going to be some sort of system where managers get to challenge calls. It could be one challenge per game. It could be two. It's also possible, but unlikely, it could be more complicated than that. Beyond that, MLB would like to give umpires the option to ask for a limited number of replays on their own, without a challenge. And anyone who has imagined the nightmare of a blown call in the ninth inning, that goes against a team that had used up its challenges, knows that's a great idea. But how exactly would that work? You know that answer: We'll get back to you later (after it's all been negotiated with the players and umpires' unions). One thing that has been cleared up? Managers will not have to throw flags, resin bags, fungo bats, emergency flares or Gatorade coolers to challenge a play. They'll handle that with actual human communication tools. What a concept.
There's at least some indication that they're trying to think of everything possible that could be used to call for replays, writes Stark:
You know how NFL teams have coaches up in the booth, looking out for calls to challenge? You can't tell baseball teams they can't station somebody in the clubhouse video room, or even in the tunnel next to the dugout, to alert managers about potential challenges. So apparently, that's going to be legal. The issue now is making sure the home and visiting teams have the same feeds, same equipment and same ease of quickly contacting the dugout. Let's hope that happens -- or there could be some yelling and screaming.
Oh, yes. I can hear the complaints now. But it does seem as if MLB is attempting to address these issues. Stark also notes that MLB is very sensitive to complaints that replay review might slow games down, and they're trying to figure out a way to keep things moving. They appear to have done so reasonably well in the AFL replay-review trial, but those reviews were done on-site, while it appears that the regular-season system will involve reviews done in a central location. On days when all 30 teams are playing, that means they'll have to have multiple teams of people watching each of the 15 games (although given time-zone differences, not all the games will be going on at the same time).
Also not answered -- and not covered in Stark's article, either -- is the question of what will be done with the current home-run review system. Will that still work as it does now (with umpires leaving the field to look at a tiny monitor in the dugout tunnel)? Or will home run reviews be folded into the new system? The latter would make more sense, in my view -- all replays being reviewed in the same way.
At least they're trying. And, according to this article, MLB moguls are expecting this to all be done six weeks from now:
They plan to approve the new rules when they meet Jan. 16 in Paradise Valley, Ariz., after agreements with the unions for umpires and players.
They'd better hurry, then, and get this done. The good news is that they do still consider this a work in progress, and that things can and will be adjusted and changed.
The NFL has had a review system since 1986, the NHL since 1991 (and its Toronto "war room", similar to the MLB proposal, since 2003), and the NBA since 2002. MLB has been far behind the times. It might not be perfect, but at least we're one step closer to having the results of baseball games reflect what the players actually do on the field.