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Baseball should give replay a look-see after close call

The question of the day Tuesday seemed to be whether Tim McClelland’s face would be on the logo of next year’s new instant replay cameras in Major League Baseball.

McClelland is the veteran umpire -- 25 years, four World Series -- who made the disputed call on the play at home plate in Monday night’s 13-inning gut-wrencher that sent the Colorado Rockies into the playoffs.

It went like this:

Game tied, 8-8, nobody out. Matt Holliday tags from third base on a medium-length liner to right field, slides head first at the plate while catcher Michael Barrett of the San Diego Padres plants his foot to the left of the plate and tries to handle Brian Giles’ throw. As Holliday is sliding, he reaches with his left hand for the plate. What he touches as he slides by, his chin bouncing in the dirt, could be any combination of plate, Barrett’s shoe and dust.

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The ball bounces away, Barrett turns to retrieve it and Holliday, slightly injured, rolls on his back behind home plate. McClelland makes no signal, which usually can be translated to mean that the play isn’t over, that he hasn’t seen Holliday touch the plate and that Barrett can still retrieve the ball and tag Holliday out.

But as Barrett goes for the ball, McClelland spreads his arms wide with his palms down, which, at this crucial moment, means lots of things.

Such as:

Holliday is safe.

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It doesn’t matter if Barrett gets the ball and tags him out.

The game is over.

The Rockies win, 9-8.

The Rockies make the playoffs and the Padres make a mess of the end of their season.

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McClelland is on the hot seat.

Major league baseball will soon be facing pressure to join the 21st century, a time when technology has squeezed much of the distrust and guesswork of officiating out of big-time sports.

Sports talk shows exist for these moments. It is manna from heaven for those with microphones. The anger level in San Diego was at a record high Tuesday. Not only was McClelland vilified, but so was Padres Manager Bud Black, for going with his ace closer, Trevor Hoffman, in that spot, and Hoffman, for failing to do what he has done for the Padres better than any other relief pitcher in the history of the game.

But not too far into the rants about Black and Hoffman came the arguments for Major League Baseball to join the NFL, college football and professional tennis and, to limited degrees, basketball and hockey, in using instant replay cameras to get it right.

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Hasn’t tennis created a cordial conclusion to its controversies with its Cyclops for line calls? Didn’t the replay call reversal on the late interception in the USC-Washington game bring a fair result to that game, even though the winning Trojans stunk up the joint?

Can’t baseball see the light and have big brother watching over it, just like it watches over most other sports now?

“Any plans for instant replay are at the discussion level now,” said Mike Port, baseball’s vice president for umpiring. “It comes up about every other year at general managers’ meetings, but it has not yet reached the commissioner level.”

Port, a Southern California native and a former general manager of the Angels, is not a dinosaur, even though he may work for one. Actually, that’s not fair. Most of the dinosaurs were extinct when Bud Selig took over.

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More than being a relic, Selig is a caretaker of the historic traditions of the game he so loves. And those traditions, at the heart of any discussions about introducing cameras and laser beams and, who knows, maybe BlackBerrys, into the officiating of games are articulately discussed by Port.

“I think boundary calls -- foul lines, balls clearing or not clearing fences -- are now being looked at more closely for some use of technology,” he said. “It’s not like football, where you have a defined rectangle. Our parks are all so different now. In Fenway, for example, with people sitting up there behind the big wall, it’s hard sometimes to tell if a ball cleared the wall and bounced back onto the field or just hit it first. And our umpires are making that call from 20-30 yards away.”

Exactly. And that happened Monday, in the seventh inning when a ball hit to left field by the Rockies’ Garrett Atkins appeared to go out but was ruled a double. The umpires huddled and decided it wasn’t a home run. “It used to be so simple,” Port said. “The ball goes over the fence and it’s a home run. Now it’s more complicated.”

Port said that umpires are split over the need for cameras. Translated, that means that some want to get it right no matter what is used. Others know they’re right and see cameras as an intrusion and an insult.

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For the public, one McClelland palms-down gesture, done in a huge national spotlight and perceived to be incorrect and depriving a team of a shot at a championship, makes what the umpires think null and void.

The public has seen how this works. It has watched tennis players, world leaders in whining and conspiracy theories, watch a replay on a big screen, nod and go on. It has seen football coaches, pro and college -- their jobs and reputations in the balance as a picture shows the wide receiver’s foot touch a quarter-inch of chalk -- put the headphones back on and walk away with a shrug.

The public is ready, even if baseball might not quite be.

Port’s arguments, on behalf of baseball’s current stance, are compelling.

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“I remember, when I was with the Angels, I got very upset one time with an umpire’s call,” he said. “Gene Mauch sat me down and told me he always told his players their job was to score runs, his was to take care of the adversities. And he told me that, while I was complaining about the call, I should remember we had had eight other innings to score runs and make sure we weren’t in a game that could be decided by one umpire’s call.”

Baseball will probably get past the McClelland incident. That is, if it is the only high-profile one of the playoffs, in which every moment and call is magnified by ten thousand.

But if there is more, MLB’s off-season agendas may need some revision.

The public has seen replays in other sports now. It is less patient with uncertainty.

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It is ready.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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