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Palladino: Expanded Replay Threatens MLB’s Human Arbiters

What's Next? A Machine Calling Balls And Strikes?
(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Welcome to the NFL, MLB!

Well, not yet, but it’s coming. Thanks to the support owners gave an expanded instant replay review system Thursday at their meeting in Cooperstown, all it needs now is an affirmative 75 percent vote at their quarterly meeting Nov. 13-14 in Orlando, Fla. After that, and certainly after some minor negotiating with the players union and the umpires union, a sport once proud of the strength of its officiating will be ever more deeply invaded by technology.

In case the tone here is confusing, let us clarify. This is not a good thing.

Not at all.

This “historic day” commissioner Bud Selig and Braves president John Schuerholz talked about at the Otesaga Hotel, a couple of miles from baseball’s most hallowed building, is not historic at all. It’s a further descent into the dark, impersonal side of progress that began with reviews of disputed home run calls in 2008.

Eventually — and you know this is coming — it will culminate with some laser machine calling balls and strikes. Whether it happens this decade or the next, or the next, the permanent marginalization of living, breathing umpires is where all this ends.

The shame is, baseball survived pretty well without instant replay. Blown calls and all, the sport went on for more than a century providing exciting pennant races, fantastic home run chases — illicit drug issues notwithstanding — and generally well-officiated games. Sure, once in a blue moon somebody goofed catastrophically and cost a kid a perfect game, as first base ump Jim Joyce did Armando Galarraga in 2010. But a handful of those every 50 years or so is a cheap enough price to keep the premium on the human element.

But, like all the other sports these days, baseball feels a need to follow suit. Most situations aside from balls and strikes will be open to review now, with managers getting one challenge between the first and sixth innings and two from the seventh inning. A failed review will cost that manager his second challenge.

Like the goal-review system in the NHL, all challenges will go through the league office, so at least umpires won’t have to wear out their soles as they wander off to a TV screen behind the backstop. But it does take the decision-making out of their hands, and that’s never a good thing. At least in the NFL, the on-field officials still have some say in the outcome, unless it’s to confirm a scoring play or turnover, or an assistant-ordered review in the final two minutes of a half.

Better that baseball should have shown the same wariness as soccer in these matters. Despite the existence of two goal-mouth technologies which can clear up the hairline ball crossings, world-governing body FIFA had consistently refused to implement a review system until 2012, and only then after the developers took out insurance policies to indemnify FIFA for system malfunctions. This season, only the English Premier League will use the technology. Europe’s other top leagues in Spain, Germany, and Italy want no part of it. They’ll continue to rely on the old cornea-lens-optic nerve-brain system. Replay will make its World Cup debut in 2014 in Brazil.

For soccer, the world’s sport, it is a reluctant marriage at best.

For baseball, which used to be America’s pastime, it shouldn’t even have been a casual date.

MLB went far enough opening disputed homers to review. Even those took up to three minutes. For those who already have trouble sitting through a 3 ½-hour game on a weeknight, imagine the fun everyone will have if both managers use all three of their challenges. That’s six artificial interruptions. As for baseball’s assertion that a single review will only take about 90 seconds, believe that when you see it.

The games will become interminable.

That’s a cosmetic drawback, however. The serious one involves the umps losing power and respect. That was never what baseball was all about.

If that’s the price of progress, you can have it.

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