Chip Shots by Chip Griffin

Upon Further Review Let’s Have a Booth Umpire for Baseball

Photo by Scott Ableman via Flickr

I was just two years old when Larry Barnett served as the home plate umpire of Game 3 of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. Needless to say, I have no contemporaneous memory of the game, but I came to learn as a young boy that he had made a controversial non-call in that game that many believe cost the Red Sox a victory.  By refusing to cite the Reds’ Ed Armbrister with interference, the umpire unwittingly wrote a significant chunk of his own obituary, even though disagreement exists to this day as to whether it was the correct call.

At Fenway Park, Barnett’s name was an expletive for years to come. Two decades later some fans would still boo when the stadium’s public address announcer would utter Barnett’s name prior to a game. Today, Barnett’s Wikipedia entry highlights that call and notes that he was also the home plate umpire during the infamous 1996 American League Championship Series game in which fellow umpire Rich Garcia clearly made an incorrect call awarding the Yankees’ Derek Jeter a home run on a ball that was clearly interfered with by a young boy named Jeffrey Maier who reached over the fence with a glove from  the outfield stands.

Virtually any baseball fan can relate a complaint about a blown call that cost their team an important game. This week we saw even non-baseball fans getting engaged in the debate after umpire Jim Joyce admittedly blew a call that cost Detroit’s Armando Galarraga a perfect game by failing to correctly call an out at first base that should have been the final play of the game.

It’s hard not to feel for Galarraga – the would-be perfect game could well end up being the highlight of his career. At the same time, he is now virtually assured of a prominent place in baseball history after receiving widespread praise for his poise in accepting the frustrating outcome.

Setting aside the emotion of the moment, it is difficult for me to muster extraordinary outrage over this blown call. It was the textbook definition of a “bang-bang play.” Indeed, only with the benefit of slow motion and freeze frame technology on a high definition monitor can one be certain that the call was wrong. Any number of other missed decisions in the history of the game have been more obvious and arguably more consequential. The real surprise was that umpire Joyce gave the benefit of the doubt to the runner – one can make a strong argument that major league umpires frequently err on the side of making calls that complete dramatic moments.

The discussion this week inevitably turned to how to prevent similar injustices in the future. Instant replay was introduced less than two years ago to MLB games, but its use has been limited to so-called “boundary” decisions – mostly home run calls. Some would now like to see replay expanded to cover a wider range of plays.

Although I consider myself a baseball traditionalist, I support enhanced use of in-game reviews of umpires’ decisions. Sure, blown calls add to the game’s lore, but it’s too easy to avoid missed decisions in the current technological age.

However, I don’t want to see the existing system expanded. Indeed, I would like to see and end to the current approach where the umpires adjourn to a nearby video room to review the play and make a decision. I do believe this interrupts the flow of the game and that’s simply not necessary.

Some have argued that an NFL-style challenge system should be adopted by Major League Baseball that provides each manager with the ability to contest one or two calls per game. The argument goes that by limiting the number of reviews in each game, it would detract the least from the tradition of the sport. If that path were pursued, I think there would need to be an option for an umpires’ decision to review in the ninth inning or later to ensure that a manager who had previously exhausted his challenges was not forced to accept an egregious, game-deciding blown call.

There’s a better way, however. Why not follow the NHL booth review model? In hockey games goal scoring decisions are reviewed not by the on-ice officials but by the league office who looks at instant replay while the game action continues. Only at the next whistle is the outcome officially reviewed, thus ensuring no unnecessary interruption.

I would like to see a “booth umpire” introduced at major league games who would keep an eye on the broadcast feed of each game. The natural pauses in baseball games – especially on disputed calls – make it an ideal sport for this approach. There’s no clock that needs to be stopped and truly egregious calls can be spotted on replays that are customary in every baseball TV broadcast. The only interruption would occur if the booth umpire needs to call down to the on-field crew chief to let him know that a call was being overturned and why.

The only real drawback that I can see is that this system might lead to an increase in the frequency and length of manager arguments on-field in an attempt to delay the game long enough to ensure that the booth umpire gets a good look. I discount the likelihood of this becoming a problem, though, because close plays today almost always draw an argument anyway. Unlike hockey or football where a pile up of bodies may make it time-consuming to review a call, baseball’s blown calls are usually fairly obvious.

Of course, the cost of this proposal might cause MLB to balk. After all, it would probably cost a few million dollars a year to employ an additional umpire at each game. But that’s a small price to pay to eliminate obvious blown calls from the game while detracting minimally from the history and tradition of the game.

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One Comment

  1. I’ve always compared baseball to opera, and for both to be great they need some tragedy. It would be better if it came from the game, not botched calls. Perhaps they could start thinking about more technology, tennis is doing well with automated line calling – maybe we should talk to some VCs about a digital strike zone!

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