Since James Joyce botched the easy call that cost Armando Gallaraga his perfect game, the sports world has been debating the merits of incorporating instant replay into officiating. Major League Baseball has been kicking around the idea of implementing a challenge system similar to the one used in the N.F.L., in which coaches can ask officials to review the call made during the last play on the field. The challenge system has worked pretty well in the N.F.L., and to the extent that it slows down the game, it’s offset by the suspense of determining whether a player made a key-catch on first down. It’s actually made watching games more fun, and I’m kind of unsympathetic to the complaints by fans of baseball, of all sports, who whine that instant replay might slow the game down. (We wouldn’t want to cut into all the precious spitting-and-ball-scratching time, now would we?)
Ross Douthat doesn’t like the idea of instant replay in baseball, because “extraordinary cases make bad law”:
Whereas the solution to the problem — some kind of football-style system, in which managers get one or two replay “challenges” per game — would affect almost every baseball contest, week in and week out, across the entire 162-game season. To avoid the extraordinary bad calls, you have to start overturning the quotidian bad calls, the gaffes and brain cramps that have always been part of the warp and woof of the game and that have never detracted a whit from anyone’s enjoyment of it. And I’m pretty sure that would be a mistake.
Not a disastrous mistake, mind you: Baseball with instant replay would still be baseball, and I’m sure there would be many moments, across games and seasons to come, where I would be grateful for the technology’s existence. But baseball is also a game where history matters, and where continuity — those mystic chords of memory, connecting the Tiger fans who watched Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and Mickey Lolich to the Tiger fans watching Armando Galarraga last night — matters even more. True, often it’s just the illusion of continuity (part of the fury over the steroid scandal reflects the rage of a fan base having part of that illusion stripped away), and starry-eyed sportswriters can go overboard heaping metaphysical significance on what is, in the end, an athletic contest and a multi-billion dollar business, and not necessarily in that order. But still, baseball’s past is real, those mystic chords are real, and a hundred years and counting of bad calls are part of the sport’s history, part of the legacy of glories and grievances that one generation hands down to the next.
So Cardinals fans have Denkinger. Orioles fans have Jeffrey Maier and Rich Garcia. Red Sox fans have Ed Armbrister and Larry Barnett. Braves fans have Eric Gregg and Livan Hernandez. Now Tigers fans have Armando Galarraga and poor despairing Jim Joyce. And the fact that the fallibility of umpires has always been part of baseball history strikes me as a sound — not dispositive, but sound — argument in favor of living with that fallibility, even in an age when the worst blunders could be corrected with a glance at a television monitor. It’s not fair, but then life is not fair, and I’m not sure I want to live in a world where the next generation of fans is deprived of the particular agony associated with losing a game, or more, because the umpires are human beings too.
This is horseshit. Giving managers challenges wouldn’t eliminate bad calls from baseball; there are plenty of blown calls in football despite coach’s challenges and the number of challenges (and circumstances in which they could be used) would be so limited that plenty of winnable challenges will go uncontested. That other leagues have welcomed the expansion of use of instant replay is in part due to their recognition that fans hate bad calls, and that the appearance of a lack of recourse for dumb mistakes is bad P.R.
But you’ll also probably never read a better distillation of modern conservatism than this. Douthat thinks that giving managers a chance to revisit egregious bad calls will tug at the cosmic threads that binds baseball fans together: the misery of being on the losing end up of an important blown call. But as long as there are shaky relievers and other actual human beings playing baseball, there will always be plenty of opportunities for a team’s fans to have their souls crushed in a big game. Douthat is calling on those conservative ideals — tradition and respect for authority, no matter how inept — that are always marshaled in response to calls for progressive change outside of sports. Never mind getting the calls right — which by the way, takes nothing off the table in a game that should have been on the table anyway — what concerns Douthat is that instant replay might raise fans’ expectations of fairness. It’s pretty telling.