Seeking officiating perfection in an imperfect sports world

Any baseball game can hinge on a close call — the rapid movement of a line drive off the bat or a 200-pound body shifting in front of an umpire’s line of vision.

Is the ball fair or foul? Is the runner safe or out?

For years, the call — whether perceived as good or bad — was considered part of the game, a human element as wholly ingrained in baseball’s fabric as a misplayed ground ball or errant throw.

But now Major League Baseball is tussling with another kind of close call: Should it stick to tradition or consider leaning more on technology, as the NFL is already doing?

MLB currently uses instant replay only if there is a debate over a home run. There has been discussion, though, about whether to take that a step or two further, and use television replays to assure that other situations are judged correctly.

To that end, Little League has upped the ante on the big leaguers, announcing in advance of its World Series showcase later this month that it was installing a replay system to address close calls in a variety of situations.

Then, on Sunday, ESPN piled on to that, reporting in an “Outside the Lines” segment the results of a two-week study of 184 major league games that found that 20% of the rulings on 230 close calls were incorrect.

So who has it right, baseball or football?

Carl Johnson, who is in his first year as the NFL’s vice president of officiating, says the use of replay technology has made games “better . . . for our fans.”

“At the end of a game, the fans don’t want to talk about a call that decided the game,” Johnson said. “They want to talk about how well a game was played.”

In baseball that hasn’t happened in at least a few recent instances.

A bad call on a slide at home plate cost the San Francisco Giants a July 18 victory in a game they ended up losing. About two weeks later, the Florida Marlins lost a game on a ground ball hit over third base that was erroneously ruled foul.

Such calls are tough on fans who are tethered emotionally to their favorite teams. But beyond that, pro sports is a billion-dollar industry, with wins and losses shaping a team’s fate. The Giants, for example, are in a pennant race, and that loss could be the difference between the team’s making or not making the playoffs.

“What’s the acceptable level of mistakes? There is none,” said Mike Pereira, a Fox Sports analyst and former head of officiating for the NFL. “Look what’s invested in the game — the dollars of the owners, the work by the coaches, the interest in fantasy sports and, for goodness’ sakes, even gambling.

“You eliminate the huge mistakes, your game is going to be better.”

On the flip side, purists say, we should remember how we start out in sports — on dusty ball fields, in stuffy school gyms and over gopher-holed gridirons, playing games officiated by volunteers or low-paid individuals motivated mostly by the kindness of their hearts.

In the pursuit of officiating perfection, they ask, have we become entirely intolerant of human imperfection?

“If mistakes are unintentional, human error is acceptable,” said Rich Jarc, executive director of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. “We should be more understanding when these officials make a mistake. They’re human beings. None of us are perfect.”

Yet, impatience with sports officials also gets ingrained in us quickly. Think of the boisterous parent barking at the single youth umpire responsible for monitoring the entire field of play.

“The pressure we should be exerting [in youth sports] is not about winning at all costs, but just doing your best,” Jarc said. “Just think how much better our world would be if we all gave our children that example of how to react to hurt feelings [caused by a bad call]. Because when we get into the real world, believe me, you’re going to have to deal with hurt feelings.

“It’s important to strive for perfection, but it’s an unrealistic demand.”

Perhaps the most poignant illustration of Jarc’s point was the June 2 baseball game when Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game and induced a grounder that should have clinched his rare feat. Instead, umpire Jim Joyce erroneously called the baserunner safe at first.

Joyce, minutes after the game, apologized profusely that he “kicked the call,” and a day later was handed the Tigers’ lineup card by a forgiving Galarraga, bringing tears to the veteran umpire’s eyes.

Former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said tough calls are “the name of the game,” assessing that over the course of a 162-game season, “sometimes you get the break, sometimes not.

“If you bring in replay, you know how many close calls you’d have to be looking at?” he added. “Let the game stay the way it is.”

In an ESPN survey of major league players, a majority agreed with Lasorda. Seventy-seven percent said they didn’t want replay expanded to safe-or-out base calls, and 62% said they didn’t want it extended to fair-or-foul calls.

“We prepare ourselves, we position ourselves, we look at plays closely, we want to get the play right,” said Barry Mano, president of the National Assn. of Sports Officials. “But there’s a limit to seeing, isn’t there? And what’s the alternative? Guessing? No one will go on the record and say they’d rather we guess if we haven’t seen a play clearly. Joyce got it wrong, there it is. He shouted [obscenities] at himself. He hated it. We want to be right, but we all have to accept a certain level of inaccuracy.”

The umpires were right on 66% of the close calls in the ESPN study. Another 14% were inconclusive.

Mano said officials “are in favor of getting the play right, as long as it’s in sync with how the game is played. We wouldn’t want to spend 18 minutes looking at a play, or have six-hour games.”

He added, however, “To leave it the way it is is archaic. Doggone it, if the fans can see things, we need to see the same things.”