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Archive for Thursday, October 20, 2005

Commentary: Keep instant replay out of baseball

October 20, 2005

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The way things are going, umpires are in danger of becoming figureheads, stuck behind the plate to lend an air of authority more imagined than real, like the Queen of England at events of state, minus the tiara and jewelry.

Hemmed in by cameras on every side, they're being second-guessed more than ever before and losing the courage to make judgments stick without consultation or further review. Once a novelty, instant replay in sports is an increasingly annoying fact of life, like automated phone systems and car alarms, and after a rough week of playoffs and a World Series still to come, holding the line in baseball is going to be tougher than ever.

Tennis became the latest game to knuckle under, with officials from several tours announcing this week that an electronic line-calling system dubbed Hawk-Eye Officiating could be in place for a number of tournaments next year.

Every major sport except baseball and soccer now employs some form of replay. College football, in the second year of a so-called "experiment," has convinced nine of 11 conferences to go along. In reality, the only thing experimental is which machines and how many will be used, not whether replay will become a fixture.

Mike Pereira, director of officiating for the NFL and a former supervisor of college refs who consulted on the program said, "The best measure of its success is the amount of time it takes to confirm a correct call or overturn a wrong one and right now, they're averaging close to where we're at, about two minutes.

"That's pretty good," he added, "when you balance that against the five days of criticism that follow a blown call in any big game."

It's easy to say that from where Pereira sits. The latest version of replay in his league is in its seventh season, and after considerable time, expense and aggravation, many of the bugs have been ironed out. Effectively, though, with humans still making the final decision, all replay in the NFL has done is extend the controversy from the official on the field to the one in the replay booth. Through 74 games in the first five weeks, play was interrupted 86 times to review calls and 28 of those were overturned - roughly one in every three.

"There's no going back, at least not in our game, so technology is something officials can't be scared of," Pereira said. "It's up to them to train and work harder to meet that challenge. In that sense, I believe it's a positive and not a negative."

Baseball came to the opposite conclusion after a tough week. Maybe commissioner Bud Selig decided that an offseason of eye exercises wasn't going to make umpires as unblinking as the cameras that show the replays on the JumboTrons in the stadiums or TV sets across the country.

"I don't know how we could use it to improve the job that umpires do," Selig said. "The human element in sport has always been a big part of the game. I'm a football fan, too, and I hate instant replay in the NFL. Football games are taking four hours."

Playoff baseball games are already pushing the same envelope, but that's not the only reason Selig is insisting that judgments made by the officials on the field stand.

Arguing about blown calls, like bonehead plays by hitters or fielders, is what makes the games interesting long after they're over.

Jeffery Maier leaning over the wall in Yankee Stadium is as much as part of baseball lore as the grounder that skittered between Bill Buckner's legs, no matter how much cleaner the outcomes would have been if both were granted a do-over.

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