Someone once said the best officials are the ones we don’t know by name. That’s because one mistake, one glaring error, one moment of indecision can alter a game, a series or perhaps even a season. Officiating is a thankless profession.
Think back to some of the more memorable questionable calls in history: the Ed Armbrister-Carlton Fisk catcher’s interference call, the Tuck Rule, Scottie Pippen’s ‘foul’ on Hubert Davis, the Immaculate Reception, Jeffrey Maier reaching over the wall to give the Yankees a home run that wasn’t, Colorado’s fifth down, basically any foul called on whoever was covering Michael Jordan in crunch time. The list is endless.
The human element and corresponding potential for error in judgment has always been a part of sports. Yet in the past month, the clamor for more effective officiating has been more resounding than ever. Southeastern Conference referees were reprimanded, then suspended, for subsequent incorrect calls in the LSU-Georgia and Florida-Arkansas games. In both cases, questionable decisions may have swayed the outcomes and possibly the college football season as a whole.
In Major League Baseball, the bad calls continue on like clowns piling out of a circus car. We have seen fair balls being called foul, safe runners being called out and vice versa. Then came Tim McClelland’s double whammy in Game 4 of the ALCS. First he incorrectly called Nick Swisher out for leaving third base early on a sacrifice fly, then he failed to correctly call out Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano when both runners were clearly off the bag as Mike Napoli tagged them out.
After making what he knew was the wrong call, McLelland stood in foul territory, mouth agape, as if he were in an argument with his girlfriend he knew he had lost, yet refused to change his mind. Only this time 65,000 people were on her side.
McClelland is one of the baseball’s most respected officials, having worked in the sport for over twenty-five years. He made a mistake. So did the SEC referees. So has Tim Donaghy. So has Ed Hochuli. So has Joey Crawford. So have you and I. To err is human. But baseball does not allow for indecision. Like a time share salesman refusing to take no for an answer, an official’s ruling is generally final, no matter how tomato red the manager’s face might turn in disagreement.
Baseball purists argue that replay will lengthen a game fans already complain is too long. Replay thumbs its nose at tradition and demeans the umpire’s authority. Officials claim they don’t want to submit their referees to the embarrassment of making a bad call but don’t you think McLellan would prefer that to the backlash he’s receiving now? Personally, if tradition means repeatedly littering the game with incorrect calls, then they can have the sport.
Most fans want replay, but it’s not like anybody’s watching baseball anyway. This year’s League Championship Series featured teams from three of the country’s most populous markets, yet playoff baseball is still getting lower television ratings than mid-season college football.
Baseball desperately needs instant replay not only to police itself, but also to repair its image. In fact, baseball and its commissioner should champion the cause. The NBA employs instant replay on last second shots and it has worked flawlessly. The NFL and college football have gradually instituted replay to the sport’s benefit. These systems are still imperfect with some calls reviewable and others not, or some calls that can’t be correctly determined based on the position of the camera, but for the most part countless missed calls have been averted since replay’s inception.
Fifty years from now, sports fans may look back on the day we relied on humans to make simple judgment calls and laugh thinking about how prehistoric we were. Leather helmets, wooden rackets and Astroturf have all fallen by the wayside as people realized their time had come. So should a strict reliance on human judgment. Just because we’ve always done it that way is no longer a valid excuse. Baseball needs to rid itself of its fear of change.
By no means am I suggesting that we entirely automate officiating. Certain calls require human judgment and always will. But other calls are cut and dry, particularly in baseball. A runner is either safe or out. A ball is either fair or foul. There is no room for error. It’s bad for the sport. Any changes should be implemented piecemeal. The last thing baseball needs is more bad decisions.
Aside from presiding over his sport, the objective of any commissioner should be to leave the sport better than he found it. If Bud Selig wants to be remembered for anything other than presiding over the steroid era, he should champion the cause to have baseball evolve. It could serve as the last saving grace to his regime.
College and professional sports have a dilemma, but an easily resolved one. They can either continue down their slippery slope, running the risk that a questionable call will one day affect a game on the grandest stage or they can put their heads together and determine how replay can improve their games. Change is necessary to guarantee we’re talking about the action on the field and not the poor decisions off it.