Don’t go there.
So should read a new directive from major league baseball after one of its veteran umpires wandered over to a TV camera Monday when he should have known better.
Don’t start that.
Don’t even think that.
You bring instant replay into this country’s last tradition-bound major sport, you open a whole new can of knuckleballs.
Frank Pulli unilaterally tried it Monday when he used the monitor in a TV camera to determine that a fifth-inning fly ball by the Florida Marlins’ Cliff Floyd had bounced off a scoreboard, and not a facade behind the scoreboard, as previously ruled.
A two-run homer was changed to a double. The St. Louis Cardinal lead was cut to 4-2, instead of 4-3.
The Cardinals won, 5-2.
And the Marlins protested.
As they should have.
Baseball’s bosses should uphold that protest.
The ultimate decision was correct, but the game deserves to be replayed from that point, because the way Pulli reached that decision was wrong.
If the protest is denied, the precedent will be game-shaking.
You want to guess what will happen the next time a team gives up a controversial home run?
They will first delay a game long enough for somebody to run to the clubhouse to watch a TV replay.
Then if the replay shows the call was wrong, the manager will run out to the umpire and demand that he look at the monitor before the next pitch.
And if the umpire refuses, the manager will claim that if this method has already been upheld by major league baseball, why isn’t it good enough for him?
And the umpire will have no good answer.
Soon, the protests will pop up for ground-rule doubles. And fan interference. And phantom-tag double plays.
And every other problem that deliciously and distinctly belongs to baseball, making it the last great sport that we still feel we can touch.
If baseball doesn’t act now to nullify his call, baseball is going to wish it had never met Frank Pulli, never mind hiring him as an ump.
The league publicly censured Pulli on Tuesday, which is a start.
“Use of the video replay is not an acceptable practice,” said Leonard Coleman, National League president. “Part of the beauty of baseball is that it is imperfect. Players make errors. Managers are constantly second-guessed. But the game is played and determined by two teams between the white lines.”
He added, “Traditionally, baseball has relied on the eyes of the umpires as opposed to any artificial devices for its judgments. I fully support this policy. Occasionally, however, the umpires too will make mistakes; that is also part of the game.”
One could sum that up in three words.
This ain’t football.
The field is not too large to comprehend. The players are not too big or too fast to follow. We are watching essentially the same game we played with our children in our backyards yesterday, or last year, or any time in the last 100 years.
Baseball is the only major sport in which a winner can still be determined by the sun. Or the wind. Or a pebble.
Baseball, often long and slow and deadly dull, has survived this long because it is also human.
Baseball is no longer our national pastime, overcome in this video age by robot-like and gambling-friendly football. But the helmets will grow old and the bets will leave us broke.
Baseball can become our favorite again, but only by maintaining the imperfections that many have come to regard as perfect.
Football needs instant replay because the players and the play have become bigger than life.
Baseball doesn’t need instant replay because it is life.
“To have instant replay in baseball would be the worst thing in the world,” said John Kibler, a retired National League umpire who worked for 27 years and called four World Series. “The games are too long now, what with all the bad pitching. How much longer will they be? How much will it actually change?”
Not much, studies have shown. Baseball umpires are considered the best officials in sports, with replays showing their calls to be correct about 95% of the time.
But, you say, what happens when they make a call that costs somebody a game?
Couldn’t replay have changed history three years ago in the first game of the American League championship series? Ump Richie Garcia missed 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier’s grab of Derek Jeter’s fly ball away from Baltimore outfielder Tony Tarasco and gave Jeter a game-tying homer in the eighth inning, which led to the New York Yankees’ 11th-inning victory.
Well, you could say that call cost the Orioles the game . . . if you overlook that one of the five Yankee runs scored on a bases-loaded walk to Darryl Strawberry.
And that the winning run scored on a homer by Bernie Williams, who legitimately hit a fat pitch from Randy Myers into the stands.
The bottom line in baseball is, there is rarely a bottom line. With each team coming to the plate 35-40 times a game, rarely does a mistake on one of those occasions change anything.
Fine, you say. But you are also angry that each umpire’s strike zone is his own and are certain that replay would fix that.
Would it? More than hitting coaches have been able to fix batters’ strike zones?
If you penalize umpires for making bad ball-strike calls, then shouldn’t you also penalize batters for swinging at bad pitches, and taking good ones?
So you’re angry that umpires have grown increasingly belligerent and self-serving, and believe they need to be put back in their places. Perhaps true, but replaying calls that are usually right is not the answer.
While explaining why Monday’s protest will be denied, Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa said, “There’s a sentence in the rule book that says, ‘Get the play right.’ That’s the rule--the golden rule of umpiring.”
But at what cost? Another rule of baseball is, “Catch the ball with two hands.” But you don’t see lazy players who drop fly balls getting mulligans, do you?
The real rule that has made this sport so golden is, “Do your best to get the play right.” And if your best is not good enough, well, there’s always another hitter, another inning, another game.
By wrongly giving Cliff Floyd a home run on a ball that bounced off the scoreboard, the umpires messed up, but there was nothing in the game reports to indicate they didn’t do their best.
It should require no second looks to understand that this should be enough.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.