It was a Wednesday night. Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga had thrown 26 consecutive outs, leaving him one out away from doing what has only been done 20 times in Major League Baseball history, a history that dates back over a hundred years: throwing a perfect game. On the next pitch, the ball is hit. The first baseman runs in to scoop it up and Galarraga rushes to cover first. The throw is bobbled but retrieved and the quick toss made to the bag. It’s close. The call on the field: safe. The perfect game is blown.
The reality? The batter was thrown out at first. Jim Joyce, the umpire who made the call, has had a long and fine career. This isn’t a matter of making him feel guilty. He already does. He apologized to Galarraga, holding back tears. No, this is about reopening that perennial baseball can-o-worms, the question of using instant replay to reverse on-the-field calls. Baseball, with its roots deep in a historical heritage, has always been, it seems to me, the most reluctant sport to defer to the all-seeing camera. In 2008, instant replay verification was approved for double checking close homerun balls—fair or fowl, did it bounce back in, etc. I think it’s high time for the use of replay to correct base calls and close catches or misses low to the ground.
I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want cameras used to call balls and strikes, and I don’t want every call to be double checked. I don’t want cameras used for balls and strikes because that would 1) be impractical (checking the replay every pitch?), and 2) umps have their own quirks. Some call wider or narrower strikes zones. They aren’t consistent across the board from game to game and ump to ump. But as long as an umpire is self-consistent during the course of one game, it’s all part of baseball’s idiosyncratic nature.
Secondly, no one wants chaos. I think MLB can take a lesson from the NFL, which has been able to come up with a workable replay system. I think that on-the-field calls should always stand unless officially challenged by the opposing team. A procedure for challenging, and perhaps a limited number of challenges, would be put in place. As in the NFL, the call should not be overturned if the video is questionable. Only a clear, undeniable contradiction of the call on the field could reverse it.
Ultimately what we want is truth in sports. If a runner beat the ball, fairness dictates he be safe. If a fielder beat the runner, fairness dictates he be out. I think that if we did expand the use of instant replay review in baseball, it might not be utilized as frequently as some fear. The vast majority of calls on the field are correct, and umpires elicit a high degree of respect. But there are times when they err, and when the all-seeing camera could help improve the game by restoring simple justice.