Replaying the replay

There are many things that bug me about instant replay in sports, but I would say the thing that bugs me most is that replay tends to burn a lot of the fun out and instead turn our games into boring side-session arguments about technicalities. This was never more true than Saturday afternoon, when the Kansas City Royals (and many fans) believed they were entitlted to a run they very clearly did not score. That’s exactly the sort of nonsense that replay was supposed to end.

I’m in England now, writing some Premier League soccer, and it’s vivid how differently people here feel about sports. The soccer games are just as important to people here as any sport in America, probably more important, but fans seem to have very limited interest in replay. That is to say they have very limited interest in FIXING bad calls.

This is a generality, of course, but I ask a lot a lot people and they seem to view bad calls as essential to the experience. I take it that people LIKE bad calls, or at the very least like the comfort bad calls provide. Every loss can be (and is) pinned to some bogus penalty call … or a missed one. In the brilliantly dreary Burnley-Sunderland nil-nil draw I saw Saturday, just about every home fan left Turf Moor muttering about the time Burnley’s Lukas Jutkiewicz was held as he entered the penalty box. It should have been a penalty, or anyway it could have been a penalty, or anyway it probably wasn’t a penalty but the referee could have called it anyway — these were discussion points over dinners in Burnley, a surprisingly pretty mill-town in England that seems pulled directly out of the Dream Academy’s song “Life in a Northern Town."

More about Burnley in a later story — the point is that soccer fans in England gnerally seem to see offiiating more as art than science. The idea, best I can tell, is to officiate in the MACRO than in the MICRO, to give each side an equal chance, to even things out in the long view, to (as announcers like to say) get it right in the end. It’s funny how we in North America have come to mock the “make-up call.” In English soccer, the make-up call seems to be a prominent strategy for making sure that things somewhat even out.

OK, I obviously have not asked every British soccer fan if they would want offiials painstakingly watching replays of every play — I might get a flood of emails from English football fans screaming about the state of officiating — but my sense is the vast majority would be horified by comprehensive replay. The point here isn’t to get every call exactly right. the point is to get the overall game at least mostly right.

We in America want every call right. So we have instituted expansive replay rules in every sport. This has led to all kinds of unforeseen things such as theoretical arguments about what consititutes a catch, when a quarterback’s arm is officially going forward and a sort of delayed cheering where you can’t get too excited about a play until it goes through committee. But we seem OK with the tradeoffs. As a nation, we like mistakes getting fixed.

But what about Saturday in Kansas City? Here was the situation — the Royals-Tigers game was tied at 1, sixth inning, and Kansas City had runners on second and third with one out. Omar Infante was at the plate, and this is probably not the time to talk about what a spectacularly awful season Omar Infante is having.

Infante hit a kind of loopy line drive to Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler, who caught the ball, paused a second, and then tried to double off Eric Hosmer at second base. It was an ill-advised throw by Kinsler (Hosmer was easily on the bag), and it was an even more ill-advised play by shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who made a sort of half-hearted reach for the ball. The ball rolled toward shallow left field. From third base, Kansas City’s Salvy Perez ran home and scored what appeared to be the go-ahead run.

Except Perez — in the most ill-advised move of all — did not go all the way back to third base to tag up (as he was required to since Kinsler caught the ball). The Tigers noticed this, appealed to third base, and at that point Perez should have been out and this bizarro play would have gone into the books with some of the classic blunders of recent Royals history.

Except for this — the umpire apparently failed to see Perez’ gaffe and called the runner safe. At this point, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus asked for replay, sending umpire Larry Vanover to those now familiar headsets connected with replay officials in New York. While all this was going on, the Royals jumbotron operator (doing what jumbotron operators do whenever official replay review is involved) showed the replay, which clearly showed Perez failing to tag up. The crowd groaned.

The New York replay officials then told Vanover something odd — it was explained that the play was NOT reviewable because it involved a runner tagging up. More on this in a minute. The official said it was left to the umpires on the field to make the call on the field. At this point, Vanover and the crew (claiming they were not affected by the replay on the scoreboard) overruled themselves and called Perez out.

And so now we find ourselves arguing THE CORRECT CALL — that is, arguing whether the umpires even have the right to change their incorrect call if it doesn’t fall precisely under replay guidelines.

Well, so be it. There are two guiding principles here in the MLB replay rules — I’m assuming that the reason New York said the place was not reviewable is due to Rule V, D-2

The following calls will not be subject to review:

2. The Umpire’s judgment on whether a base runner left early when tagging up.

However, I think New York blew it — that should not be the guiding principle here at all. That rule specifically refers to a runner leaving early. The question here is not whether Perez left early but whether or not he tagged up at all. I believe the applicable rule here is Rule V, F-3 which talks about base running calls that ARE reviewable.

The following base running calls are reviewable:

3. Upon an appropriate appeal by the defensive Club, whether a base runner touched a base (see Rule 7.10(b) and Comment).

The rule 7.10(b) refers to failing to touch a base in order or missing a base with the ball in play. It seems this would be the guiding principle because there was an appropriate appeal by the Tigers and, essentially, Detroit was arguing that Perez did not touch the bases in order. He needed to touch third base again before home plate.

So, it seems pretty clear to me based on a basic reading of the rules that the Tigers DID have the right to replay there and New York got it wrong.

But … who cares? Again, we are left arguing sub-points of the rulebook rather than pointing out the most basic fact of all — Perez most definitely did not touch third. The umpires got the call OBVIOUSLY right. That would have been a farce if the Royals had been allowed to score that run … and I say that as someone who obviously wanted the Royals to win.

This is one of those side effects of replay. A friend and a Royals fan asked me if the Royals JumboTron operator actually cost the Royals this game by doing his/her job properly. That’s how ridiculous it can become. Salvador Perez’s base running brain cramp … Ned Yost’s inane bunting strategies … James Shields letdown against the bottom of the order … Alex Gordon and Josh Willingham’s ineptness at the plate … these are the things that cost the Royals the game. Also Max Scherzer’s dominance, Torii Hunter’s homer and Joe Nathan’s last strands of effectiveness.

Bill Bryson once wrote a great bit about the difference between British and American attitudes toward over-the-counter drugs:

“An advertisement in Britain for a cold relief capsule, for instance, would promise no more than that it might make you feel a little better. You would still have a red nose and be in your pajamas, but you would be smiling again, if wanly. A commercial for the selfsame product in America, however, would guarantee total, instantaneous relief. A person on the American side of the Atlanta who took this miracle compound would not only throw off his pjs and get back to work at once, he would feel better than he had in years and finish the day having the time of his life at a bowling alley.

“The drift of all this was that the British don’t expect over-the-counter drugs to change their lives whereas we Amerian will settle for nothing less."

The same goes for instant replay. In England, they seem to accept the possibility that replay could right some obvious wrongs (whether a ball crossed a the goal line for instance) but that it is not a panacea for every call in a soccer match, and that the tradeoffs are not worth making. In America, we want the panacea. It leads to us getting more calls right, no doubt. It also leads to long delays while referees determine the precise blade of grass to mark the football and stupid posts like this one about whether umpires followed the correct procedure in getting the right call.