Forty-one years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. You would think by now the sports world would have replay figured out.
Only it doesn’t. In football, replay grinds games to a complete halt at both the NFL level and the college level and there is no guarantee that the call is going to be correct when all is said and done. Basketball is the same way. I was at a game last season where the officials went to replay on four consecutive plays because they didn’t think the clock had been set correctly. The game may still be going on for all I know. Hockey’s closer: Usually replay can determine if a goal has or has not been score fairly quickly or if a player was in the crease or had his stick above his shoulder. Even so, there are times when it takes a lot longer than it should to get the call right.
And then there is baseball. Bud Selig said last week at The All-Star game that there is, “little appetite,” for replay among people in the sport. That may be because baseball people have seen what replay has done to football and basketball and want no part of it. I actually get that although I also think if baseball were to add replay for safe-out calls like the one Phil Cuzzi so clearly blew on Sunday in San Francisco—not to mention the now infamous Jim Joyce blown perfect game call in Detroit earlier this season and for fair/foul calls—like the one Phil Cuzzi so clearly blew in the playoffs last October on Joe Mauer in the 11th inning of game two of Yankees-Twins (anyone see a pattern here?), it would be good for the game.
Actually there is another problem baseball has that has only a little to do with replay: there’s a lot of bad umpiring out there. One thing I do on vacation is watch a LOT of baseball; flipping from game-to-game most nights. Cuzzi was god-awful throughout the Mets-Giants game on Sunday but you can bet both MLB and the umpire’s union will defend him just as both almost always defend bad umpires.
My biggest problem is the strike zone. A few years ago when QuesTec was first used, umpires were virtually forced to start calling the high strike again. Until then, pitches at the belt were routinely being called balls. It now appears to me—and others—that they’ve gone back to squeezing pitchers on an almost nightly basis. I don’t know about you but I sit there all the time and watch a pitch and say, ‘that’s a strike,’ and the umpire never moves. I know those pitchtrax things are fallible but let me ask you a question: how often do you see a pitch outside that box called a strike? Almost never. How often do you see a pitch inside the box called a ball? Often.
On the night that Stephen Strasburg made his debut in Washington, I was sitting in the Pittsburgh dugout with Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and ESPN’s Jayson Stark (one of ESPN’s good guys). We were talking about pitch counts and the length of games. Kerrigan commented that the average game in 2010 required about 30 more pitches to complete than an average game did 20 years ago. Why, he asked, did we think that was the case.
“A lot of hitters are working counts more,” Stark said.
“Strike zone,” I said.
“Bingo,” Kerrigan said. “NO ONE calls the strike zone that’s in the rulebook. When was the last time you saw a pitch just below the letters called a strike? How about never. Check the rulebook. That’s a strike.”
There are other issues too—batters stepping out on every pitch; pitchers slowing down to an almost complete halt with runners on base—but the strike zone is an issue too. Not only does it mean more pitches are required but it means hitters are working with favorable counts far more often, leading to more hits, more walks and more runs—and more time. The only thing that has balanced some of that the last few years is drug-testing. There’s a lot less power in the game and a lot more warning track fly balls.
The first thing MLB should do is start firing bad umpires and let the union sue if it so desires. Why is Phil Cuzzi still working? He’s a proven incompetent with a bad attitude. So is C.B. Bucknor, who one pitcher described to me a couple of years ago as not being good enough to work in Double-A. There are plenty of others. Players get fired for not doing their job and so do managers. Why not umpires? The easiest game to officiate is baseball. The only serious challenge is balls and strikes about 99 percent of the time. If the other three guys have one tough call in a game, it’s a lot. A basketball official can have five block-charge decisions in the first five minutes of a game. Football officials have to decide what is or is not holding on almost every play. Hockey officials have to be on the move constantly and decide when physical contact is legal and when it’s not.
Umpires have the easiest job and the worst attitudes—generally speaking. It was too bad that Joyce, one of the best umpires and a very good guy, was in the middle of the blown perfect game. At the very least though, that call and that game and Joyce’s response to it should have sent a message to Selig that more replay—competently managed--is needed in the game.
You do NOT send the umpires into their locker room every time a replay is needed—the way they now do on home run calls. You have a replay official—not another umpire—in the press box who can hit a button to tell the home plate umpire he wants to look at a play when something appears blatantly wrong—like Joyce’s call in Detroit or Cuzzi’s call on Sunday. It would have taken under 30 seconds to get those two calls right. If the replay official needs more than 90 seconds to make a decision, the call on the field stands. Move on.
Of course baseball will continue to huff and puff and do nothing about any of this. Bad umpires will continue to umpire and there will be no replay anytime soon. On a different level it is sort of like drug-testing. MLB doesn’t want to wrangle with a union on something that is clearly needed so it will continue to duck the issue and say that all is well and, hey, look at our attendance!
Maybe they should call NASA for help. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot going on over there these days.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases