Expanded replay a welcome change for baseball
Trial runs utilizing new system begin during select Spring Training games
Among the stars playing in Spring Training games Monday were Clayton Kershaw, Derek Jeter, Tim Lincecum, Koji Uehara and Andrew McCutchen.
But the most important facet of Monday's games was not a player, manager or even an umpire. In fact, it was not a person at all, but a set of new rules.
Major League Baseball on Monday implemented on a trial basis its new instant-replay system.
The expanded instant replay will apply to almost any play except balls and strikes, checked swings and a few exceptions in the infield. Managers will be able to challenge one play of their choice -- similar to how NFL coaches challenge plays -- during the first six innings. After that, initiating replays will be up to the umpiring crew, unless the manager has retained his challenge, either by not using it or by successfully challenging a previous play.
This is a change. A big one, at that.
But a welcome one, too, according to Commissioner Bud Selig.
"I'm proud of the new instant replay," Selig said. "You know, I was against it originally, but the more I talked to people, the more I heard, the more I thought -- I'm proud of where we are. I think we're really bringing baseball into the 21st century without disturbing the game."
Yes, the new replay system will have its detractors. What major change to the ages-old national pastime doesn't?
They say pace of game will suffer. They say having challenges will create new antagonisms among teams and fans. The argument against replay is a popular one, and a stance once taken by Selig himself.
"The only thing I kept saying to [the rules committee] was, 'Fine, I'm thrilled, but we don't want to prolong the games, we don't want to do anything to the pace.' That's why I love this," he said. "If anything, we can prevent the arguments that can sometimes go on for 10 to 15 minutes, and we'll have answers quickly. We've accomplished getting it right as well as not affecting the pace of the game."
MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre was quick to support that theory, saying he anticipates that a replay review will only take 60-90 seconds.
In addition, Tony La Russa, who served on the committee to implement the new rules, pointed out the appeal for fans.
"If you watch the game as a fan, your gut just screams when you see a close play and you wonder if they got it right or not because it's really important. If someone gets a break and they don't deserve it, we want to correct that," La Russa said.
As with any rule change, it will take time to fine tune it to work properly and efficiently, and so MLB is doing a series of trial runs utilizing the new system in select Spring Training games, beginning Monday with the Blue Jays at Twins, Cubs at Brewers and Rockies at D-backs.
"We should all understand that we are going to have some bumps, some issues along the way as we roll it out. Hopefully, we'll get a lot of those ironed out during Spring Training," MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Peter Woodfork explained. "Day to day, over 2,400 games during the season -- although everyone thinks they have thought of everything -- I'm sure there will be a case that comes up that hopefully we can, on the field during the replay, work our way through. It's the realization that we're in a better spot than we were last year of getting more plays correct. But we're probably not at the end goal yet."
Both La Russa and Selig said the impetus for implementing this change stemmed from a glaring disconnect brought about by today's digital age. Fans watching a game at home, on their laptop or even on their smart phone or iPad are able to re-watch contested plays and see if the call was right or wrong. But those charged with making those calls didn't have that option.
That was the root of the problem, and a team that included Torre, La Russa and Woodfork then sat down to nail down the specifics, a process that took a little over a year.
"We had some guidelines from football and hockey, but we have a different game," La Russa said. "We went through a lot of what ifs. We just had to identify what our core philosophy is, and that is, at this point, we recognize that we want to keep the game going, we don't want to eliminate all arguments, we just want to correct the big miss. ... We feel like the big misses, they were hurting the competition, embarrassing the umpires and they mess with the integrity of what was going on. So we think we can correct that."
"On the field, it's helping our umpires improve," Woodfork added. "We are giving them a new tool to get more calls made correctly. I don't think it's a tool that will provide them the ability to get every single call correct, but that's not what the overall goal was. It was to improve our overall umpire accuracy on the field and hopefully do it in an efficient timeframe, so that there is not too much delay in the ballgame. We are here to provide a product to those fans. We don't want them to be quote-unquote 'bored' during the game."
Undoubtedly, there will be critics.
"There are some fans -- including some of my own family members -- who probably root against having instant replay and want it to be more traditional, and they can live with the mistakes that are made on the field," Woodfork said. "There are others that strongly want it. That's one good thing about baseball: You are always going to have those discussions, those debates. ... In the end, it was time to take a step forward and hopefully not take away from our game, but add to our game."
But what every baseball fan needs to realize is what an unprecedented, groundbreaking opportunity this is for the sport.
"The managers have to understand that they have a historic opportunity," La Russa, the former manager, said. "You've never been able, in the history of the game, to challenge a call. You have a limited number of challenges. You have one, and you get it right, then you have one more. You have to save it for the one that's a game-changer.
"One of the most basic rules in the rule book is to get the play right, and so we are going to try to get the game-changing play right more often than it's ever been done."
This is going to change the way managers do their jobs.
As Woodfork pointed out, "There is no question that it forces the manager to make more decisions, something that may not be ideal, but I think it's a process that, in the end, they will see it as a benefit to make sure we get more of the plays correct."
Still, it is nothing they can't handle -- after all, they make difficult decisions for a living.
"You're going to give each manager a chance to correct a miss that hurt your chances to win," said La Russa. "You don't have a crystal ball. It will be a tough call whether to use the challenge or not. It's another one of those tough decisions you have to make, and [if] you have a problem making it, then you probably shouldn't be doing that job. I think our guys are going to embrace having this historic chance to improve their chance to win."
Selig was most forthcoming in his praise for the new replay program, and rightfully so. It may very well be the capstone on the career of the Commissioner as he prepares to leave office after this season.
"I'm telling you in three or four years, there won't be a critic left," Selig declared. "That's how good I think this is going to be."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.