Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Imperfect Game

Fans often say that “baseball is a metaphor for life,” and last night’s historically bad call by an umpire – one that made Bush v. Gore look Solomonic – certainly gives credence to the adage.

Life is unfair, and so are umpires. In case you missed it, pitcher Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers had retired all 26 batters he faced without anyone reaching base. One more out and he would have achieved the best outcome possible for a pitcher in a sport in which all other outcomes are theoretically infinite – a perfect game, of which there have been only 20 in history. The last batter grounded to the first baseman, who flipped the ball to Galarraga, who stepped on first base for the out to end the game and enter into baseball immortality

Except umpire Jim Joyce – instead of ending this story like that of his literary namesake with a “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” -- inexplicably ruled the batter safe, negating the perfect game and the no-hitter. After the game, he saw the TV replay and sorrowfully admitted his error.

Baseball had always resisted instant replay, and for good reason. Not that it is so time-consuming, but replay could take over and ruin with tedium an already tedious game in which umpires make probably 350 decisions over the course of three hours. A few years ago, baseball allowed umpires to look at the replay for disputed home run calls, on the theory that action had already stopped and a mistake – fair vs. foul, where above a certain painted line a ball actually hit, whether a fan interfered -- could be instantly corrected.

In pro football, where the officials also make hundreds of calls in a game, a coach has a limited number of requests for a replay, which, if he loses, results in the loss of a time-out.

In baseball, the manager can play a game under protest involving the outcome of a call subject to overturning at a later date – but only if the controversy involves the interpretation or application of a rule, not a judgment call.

Many experts say last night’s call was the worst ever in regular season play and the worst in a quarter century. I say it was merely the worst in 24 hours, since the Nationals lost a game they had won Tuesday night when the Houston batter struck out to the end the game, except for the third base umpire ruling – against everyone else’s (including the batter’s) visual evidence -- that he did not really swing.

Here is the solution to the problem of outrageously horrific calls: Give each manager one opportunity per game to lodge an official protest of a judgment call. It would take no more time for the umps to view a replay than they currently take on home run calls, which rarely by themselves determine a game’s outcome.

I don’t know that there could be a penalty imposed for a manager losing the appeal, but the use of limited replay would have two positive effects: 1) Applying justice to a game already decided by inches and 2) proving that umpires are human and correct 99 percent of the time.

I don’t expect fairness or justice here, as I do not expect fairness or justice in life, which as we all know, is a metaphor for baseball.

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