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MLB Has an Umpire Problem

I know it, you know it, the players know it, the fans know it. I suspect Bud Selig knows it. The question is what he’s going to do about it.

Let’s get rid of some preliminaries: Before the pivotal call by first-base ump David Rackley, the Mets hadn’t played a particularly good game. Collin McHugh, so marvelous in his big-league debut, got whacked around by the Cardinals — in the postgame, Bobby Ojeda was certain that he was tipping his pitches, lifting his arm high on the curve and coming with a three-quarters delivery on the fastball. (If so, one hopes that’s the kind of thing that gets communicated between former pitchers working for SNY and current pitchers working for NYM.) McHugh wasn’t great, but he had plenty of company — whether it was Lucas Duda misplaying a first-inning liner into a triple or Kelly Shoppach not backing up first on a bad throw by Daniel Murphy or Bobby Parnell being ineffective in relief or the Mets’ inability to hit with runners in scoring position. More about Rackley’s call in a minute, but to be fair, it was more coup de grace than out-of-nowhere knife in the back.

The Mets looked dead for much of the early going against Joe Kelly, but they fought back on homers by Shoppach and Murphy, followed by a fizzled rally that began with a one-out walk by Ike Davis and a single by Jason Bay. Frustrating, but they looked poised to complete the comeback in the ninth: Andres Torres did a terrific job against Jason Motte, working a deep count against a closer who’d done hard duty in the eighth and then hustling into second for a leadoff double. I was explaining to Joshua that this was a case where bunting the runner over did make sense, because it was more important to maximize the chance of scoring at least one run than it was to try to maximize the number of runs scored, and … but wait, what was happening over there at first?

Oh no he hadn’t.

Oh God he had.

Rackley, an ump I’ll wager none of us had ever heard of before, had emphatically punched out Torres for missing first.

Looking at a little TV set in the beach house at LBI, I couldn’t be sure. But the consensus from those with better sets was clear: Torres had too hit the bag, clipping it with his front foot as he turned the corner. Torres stared at Rackley in disbelief and then headed for the dugout; Terry Collins protested briefly but futilely; and a few minutes later, the Mets had lost [1].

On his way off the field after making the last out, Murphy paused to exchange pleasantries with Rackley. In the postgame, he and Collins both explained that the guys in the dugout had seen the replay; Murph had some sympathy for Rackley, who didn’t have the same advantage.

Which is really the heart of the matter, and why I’m tired of talking about the human element, or hearing worries about the game being slowed down further. Technology has changed the experience of calls and the expectations around them, and the game needs to catch up.

First of all, we already have instant replay in baseball — we just don’t have it on the field, where it would do some good. At Citi Field and many other parks today, any close call is followed by at least half the fans swiveling their heads left or right, to look at one of the many HDTVs hanging from the level above their seats. You can hear it in the broadcasts: a kind of mutter that follows the freeze cam being shown in the ballpark.

And it’s not just the fans. As Murph made clear, the players can see those plays too — I don’t know if they’re ducking into the tunnel, rushing of to the clubhouse or looking at a cameraman’s monitor, but they know. And this trend will continue: Before too long fans (and team staffers close to the dugout) will look at their smartphones a couple of seconds after a play to check the replay. Calls are scrutinized in ways that weren’t possible a decade ago, disseminated in ways that were unimaginable then, and deplored instantly and then at length by wired fans and commenters. In that situation, it’s unfair to expect umpires to rely on nothing but real-time calls when everybody else will pick those calls apart with a slew of camera angles and freeze-frames.

OK, but how to fix this? I love baseball, but there comes a time in nearly every game in which I think, “Gee, this is taking forever.” So why would any sane fan want to introduce more delays?

I’ll tell you why: Because the problems with instant replay are theoretical, and the problems with blown calls are real.

David Rackley’s emphatic wrong call is so far from the first one blown at a critical juncture in a game. We’ve seen Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jerry Meals, along with call after call after call in games played by the Mets and others, a seemingly daily drumbeat of incorrect umpiring.

Yeah, I know we would have lost our one and only no-hitter in a world with instant replay. I don’t regard Johan’s no-no as tainted because Carlos Beltran got a hit that was called a foul ball, but I would have sacrificed it to remove the spreading stain of bad umpiring on baseball. Instant replay isn’t needed just because it’s a presence in the stands and the dugout — it’s needed because baseball’s umpires have become so routinely incompetent that the ultimate oversight of the national pastime needs to be taken out of their hands. [Edit: This is unfair, as was pointed out to me on Twitter. Umps are probably about as good/bad as they always were; the difference is that technology has let us detect their mistakes. Regardless, expectations have changed, and we have the same problem.] The human element should be limited to the successes and failures of players, not referees who are supposed to be invisible and anonymous.

So how would instant replay work? I don’t know — but at this point the onus should be on those who think the daily parade of blown calls is a problem that doesn’t need solving, not those of us who’d like it fixed.

That said, let’s try some basics. We want the umps to get it right and we want reviews to be as speedy as possible. So let’s start with NHL-style review of critical calls. Within a minute of a call, the announcers for both teams have usually established to viewers’ satisfaction whether the ump was right or wrong. So why can’t someone in an MLB control room do what Gary, Keith and Ron do?

I don’t see any reason to limit managers’ challenges, NFL-style — the idea is to get calls right, not to get a certain number of them right when coaches are really mad. Would some manager abuse this by demanding that call after call get reviewed? I doubt it, honestly — and if one did, that’s why the commissioner’s office can suspend people. Moreover, why does an instant-replay plan have to be perfect from Day 1? Let it evolve, and solve problems as they become apparent.

The one thing I would do is keep balls and strikes out of it. That’s the Rubicon I wouldn’t cross, because the game really would grind to a halt. (I reserve the right to change my mind on this as technology advances.) Aside from balls and strikes, though, let’s get things right — because we’ve seen far too many calls that are wrong.

David Rackley’s mistake robbed the Mets of a key runner at a critical point in a ballgame they lost. But he’s not the first ump to make such an error, and he won’t be the last. Technology has progressed to the point where this doesn’t need to happen. The tools available to fans and players have progressed to the point where we increasingly don’t tolerate this happening. It’s clear that baseball has to find an answer. The question is how long it will dither before giving us one.