It took a lot longer than it should have, but MLB entered the 21st century Jan. 16.
All 30 major league owners approved a new, expanded instant replay system Jan. 16, and it will be put into place for the 2014 season. And for MLB, which often moves at a glacial pace to institute new technologies and changes, replay is a much-needed and long overdue addition to the sport.
While MLB had taken incremental steps toward replay during the past few years -- allowing home run calls, fan interference and fair/foul plays to be reviewable -- the new agreement represents the most advanced system yet, as it will allow for review of nearly every type of play. Everything from close calls on the base paths to whether a batter was hit by a pitch can now be given a second look. (Although the so-called "neighborhood play" at second base is not reviewable, so shortstops and second basemen will undoubtedly continue to turn double plays in which their foot is nowhere near the bag.)
At last, baseball fans will get to enjoy the game with far less risk of seeing their favorite team get swindled by a blown call, an occurrence that has become all too commonplace during recent years. Imagine if the replay system had been in place in 2010 -- then-Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga would have added a perfect game to his résumé instead of being robbed of the 27th out by umpire Jim Joyce's mistake. Or, if only some kind of replay had been allowed during the 1996 American League Championship Series, when Jeffrey Maier … I'm going to stop there before I make Orioles fans depressed. Suffice it to say that the Orioles' fate could have turned out differently that year.
Not only will replay increase the accuracy of calls, but it will do a better job of holding umpires accountable. Although many umpires do a good job overall, they're bound to make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes happen at a critical juncture of a game. Instant replay will help fix many of the calls the umps will inevitably miss. And for the worst umpires in the league, the ones who tend to put themselves above the game -- I'm looking at you, Angel Hernandez -- the introduction of replay gives them less of an opportunity to make a giant mess of things.
As part of the new replay system, all challenged calls will be reviewed not by the umpires on the field, but in a central location -- the Replay Command Center in New York. Although the name sounds like something out of a science-fiction war movie, MLB is doing the right thing by having a single, off-site location from which to review all plays from all games.
Umpires on the field will simply radio into the Command Center, which will also be manned by an umpiring crew, the members of which can take a look at the replays from every conceivable camera angle, and then radio back with their ruling. In the majority of cases, it will allow the matter to be quickly resolved with little delay. No longer will the game umpires have to leave the field and view the replay in a booth behind the entrance tunnel.
One other benefit is that, as part of the new replay agreement, teams will now be allowed to show replays of close plays on the stadium video board. For years, teams weren't permitted to do so, at the risk of showing up the umpire after a blown call and riling up the stadium crowd. But now, at long last, fans at the ballpark will get to see the same replays the viewers at home see. No longer will the stadium crowd be left in the dark as to what really happened on a close play.
The expanded replay system is not without its flaws. Not every close call will necessarily be reviewed, because each manager is allowed only one challenge during the game (though if a manager wins a challenge, he is awarded a second challenge). If an umpiring crew were to have a particularly egregious game, there could be more than one or two blown calls going against a team, and the manager's hands would be tied at getting all of them reviewed. But umpires themselves can choose to review a call in the seventh inning or later if a manager is out of challenges, which helps mitigate the risk a bit.
I don't think manager's challenges are necessary. I think the umpiring crew at the Replay Command Center should automatically review every close play, regardless of whether a manager has challenged it, and contact the umpires on the field if there is a mistake. This won't slow down the game -- the natural time gap between plays provides more than enough opportunity to look at any replays that may be necessary. Baseball is a wonderful sport, but it's not exactly played at a breakneck pace. A replay crew could easily examine and correct a blown call before the next pitch is thrown, without having to go through the formalities of a managerial challenge.
But that's a minor quibble. All in all, I expect that the new, expanded instant replay system will provide many more positives than negatives for baseball moving forward. And I think most fans will welcome it with open arms.