We never hesitate to recommend taking in a minor league game. It’s a fun time at a fair price, with an added attraction this year. You might see a certain bit of craziness that the major leagues have essentially legislated out of the sport.
We speak, of course, of the old-fashioned managerial arguments, the ones where jaws are clenched, dirt is kicked and caps are tossed off in disgust. Miss Manners would approve of the widespread use of instant replay this year, in which managers walk unthreateningly toward an umpire and say, “Excuse me, sir, kindly allow us to challenge your call.”
We’re losing a time-honored theatrical dimension of the sport. Do yourself a favor, and go find Phillip Wellman’s classic rant on YouTube. In 2007, Wellman slammed his cap to the ground, covered home plate in dirt, yanked out a base and hurled it into the outfield, crawled behind the mound to grab the rosin bag as if it were a grenade and toss it at an umpire, motioned as if he were ejecting the umpire, and blew kisses to the fans as he exited through an opening in the outfield fence.
Wellman, then a minor league manager in the Atlanta Braves system, now manages the Angels’ double-A Arkansas affiliate. The minor leagues cannot afford the millions for television cameras and replay rooms and command centers, and so managers and umpires there still go nose to nose.
“That’s basically our only weapon,” Wellman said. “It’s pretty much futile anyway. In all the years I’ve managed, I’ve never gone out and had them say, ‘You’re right, Phillip. We’ll change it.’
“But we’re pretty much playing it old school.”
That is the beauty of the replay system. Resistance is no longer futile. A bad call need not stand.
Of the 598 plays reviewed through Thursday, the call was overturned almost half the time — on 278 occasions, or 46.5%, according to Major League Baseball.
“There is a challenge every night,” Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier said. “I don’t think there was a manager coming out to argue every night.”
In preparation for replay expansion, league officials reviewed video from last year’s games and determined one call every six games would be challenged, according to Joe Torre, the executive vice president who oversees replay operations. This season is halfway done, and the challenges are coming once every four games.
“They’re challenging a lot more bang-bang plays than I thought they would,” Torre said.
When a player insists the call is wrong, a manager wants to at least consider a challenge, lest he be perceived as not supporting his player. When a team’s challenge has been used, an umpire wants to at least consider a manager’s request for an umpire review, lest the umpire be perceived as intransigent.
And, because an unused team challenge does not roll over to the next game, there is no harm in trying an available challenge late in the game. On their last trip to San Diego, the Dodgers called one in the ninth inning, with a three-run lead.
“We had our challenge, so you might as well use it,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “There was a two-minute delay in the game. But it’s a piece of strategy managers can use to help their ballclub, so why wouldn’t you?”
Never have games taken so long to play, and the daily use of replay is a factor.
The average major league game covers 3 hours 3 minutes, according to MLB statistics through June 22. The record of 2 hours 59 minutes was set last year.
Never have there been fewer than three replay challenges on a given day this season. On June 14, there were a record 14 challenges, according to MLB statistics.
Torre said he is skeptical that the replay system is overly delaying the game. One of the selling points for replay, remember, was that those lengthy managerial theatrics would vanish.
The average replay review takes 1 minute 49 seconds, not counting the average of 40 seconds before a manager officially decides to challenge.
“That’s not really a game-changer,” Torre said.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly says he should not have to go to the umpires to issue a challenge. He says all he needs is 15 seconds, and by then the Dodgers’ internal video review team will let him know whether he has good cause for a challenge. At that point, he says, he should just throw a flag on the field to indicate a challenge.
“Don’t run out there and waste a minute,” Mattingly said.
Torre said he plans to consult with every manager in the two weeks between now and the All-Star break, soliciting ideas for how to improve the replay system. For instance, Torre said, the league might consider whether to add cameras, some at particularly effective angles, others with advanced slow-motion capabilities.
He chuckled at the notion of throwing a flag to initiate a replay.
“In certain cities, I could just see a shower of red flags coming out on the field,” Torre said.
The idea has been considered, he said, and to this point rejected, in favor of managers’ retaining the ability to have a conversation with umpires.
“It’s more of a conversation than an argument,” Torre said.
Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter told Torre that he missed the arguments. Mattingly said he does not.
“You end up doing [stuff] you shouldn’t do,” Mattingly said. “You say stuff you shouldn’t say. You lose your temper.”
Said Ellis: “That was one of the great things that set baseball apart from other sports. That is a part of the game that is definitely gone.”
Wellman, the minor league manager with the legendary tantrum, wonders what fans think when they see a manager who does not argue.
He has been a minor league manager for 16 years. He holds major league managers in the highest regard. To him, their passion is unquestioned.
“But it’s not as evident or obvious to the fans as it once was,” Wellman said.
His rant was a once-in-a-lifetime episode. “Not my proudest moment in the game of baseball,” he said.
On video, it lives forever.
“Until the instant replay, every time you had a manager get ejected and throw a base, it would pop up on ESPN,” Wellman said. “I don’t see it too much anymore.”