Sometime soon, perhaps as early as the end of August, Major League Baseball will enter a new era, an electronic era well beyond center field cameras, radar guns and QuesTec. The era of instant replay will represent a fundamental shift in the way the game is called.
On Wednesday, MLB officials and the World Umpires Association ratified an agreement for the use of instant replay. A source close to the negotiations said an agreement between MLB and the Players Association is expected to be ratified within 48 hours. From there, it's just a matter of time before the final touches are applied to the process in hopes of having it operating in an orderly manner for the most important time of the season -- October.
"We're still working at it," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer.
The move to instant replay was hastened by a flurry of missed calls and controversial plays during a two-week period in May. Several of them came in highly visible games, including an ESPN Sunday Night game at Yankee Stadium when home plate umpire Bob Davidson overruled a home run call made by third-base umpire Mike Reilly, who had gotten the call right initially, as replays confirmed. Davidson was over 100 yards away from the play when he made the incorrect call, which, in football terms, was the equivalent of the back judge making an out-of-bounds call from one goal line to the other.
"I think it's a good idea if it can help out the umpires," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "Some of these stadiums, especially the new ones, are so difficult to tell if a ball is a home run or not. I was in Detroit, standing in right center field, during early BP. Someone hit a ball that looked like it went over the fence. I said, 'That's a home run.' Then someone told me, 'No, it isn't. It hit the wall first.' These umpires have to make that call from 100 feet away, at least. I couldn't tell. I got it wrong, and I was 10 feet away."
The players, on the whole, seem to be in favor of instant replay.
The umpires are in favor of it. Not because we've made a lot of mistakes, but because we can't see the calls, we can't see the plays.
--A source within the umpires
"I don't know if it's a good thing, but it's the right thing to do," said Mets catcher Brian Schneider. "When something can determine the outcome of a game, you have to get it right."
The idea of instant replay was presented to major league general managers 15 years ago -- the vote was 27-1 against, then went to 29-1 when the Rays and Diamondbacks joined the major leagues in 1998. A few years later, the vote went to 27-5 against, then 15-15, and now it's on the verge of being implemented.
It's about time," one GM said. "This is good for baseball. We're not going to lose an important game in September, or an important game in October, because someone missed a home run call. Our players like the idea. Everyone likes the idea. We're just trying to give nearsighted umpires some glasses."
Major League umpires have been told not to comment on instant replay until the process is done and is official. But, a source within the umpires said: "The umpires are in favor of it. Not because we've made a lot of mistakes, but because we can't see the calls, we can't see the plays. There was a time when there were two yellow poles and a green wall. If the ball didn't bounce back on the field, it was a home run. If it did, it wasn't a home run. Now we have flowers on the outfield fence in Philadelphia, we have foul poles that are set a few feet back from the fence, we have backsplash on outfield walls, and the Monster seats in Boston. It's so much more difficult now. We can't see the calls."
MLB, the Players Association and the Umpires Association have been working on the details for months. "We still don't have all the answers," said a source familiar with the negotiations. "When we're done, we still might not have all the answers. It's a work in progress."
Here's how the process is expected to work.
The only plays that will be reviewable will be home runs: Was it fair or foul? Did it clear the fence, or didn't it? The Steve Bartman play from the 2003 playoffs at Wrigley Field would not be reviewable, but the Jeffrey Maier play from the 1996 playoffs at Yankee Stadium would be reviewable. No other play is reviewable, and from all indications MLB is adamant that replay will not be expanded to cover anything beyond home run calls.
In all 30 ballparks, there will be a television monitor and a phone line installed in a secured area, usually in a tunnel that leads from the field to the clubhouse area. When a replay is called for, usually one umpire -- but never all four of them -- will leave the field to look at the play on the monitor, assuring that at least one umpire will be on the field at all times.
Television feeds from all ballparks will be monitored in a "war room" in Manhattan -- one source called it "our NASA" -- where a technician and an umpire supervisor will have access to all games at all times. Each game will include the TV feed from both teams, meaning the war room will get angles that won't be biased in any way for either team. The umpires at the game in question will be in control of review process. The crew chief will make the final call. The war room is designed to assure that the crew chief has everything he needs. And, once a pitch is thrown after a disputed call, it is not longer reviewable.
"The umpires will love it," said one GM. "We're giving them all the power in instant replay."
The role of the war room in New York is designed to support the umpires at the ballparks. "We just want to make sure we're all speaking the same language," DuPuy said.
This will not be like the NFL. There will be no challenges. "That's good," Gardenhire said, "I don't need to be carrying a red flag in my pants." If a manager argues a call, "we will check the replay," said an umpire source. "If there's any doubt, we will check the replay." MLB officials said on Tuesday that only 16 times in nearly 1,500 games this season has there been a play that would be worthy of review on instant replay. With technology in place to check replays, there likely will be far more than one replay every 100 games or so.
There is a concern from all parties that the process will take too long, slowing down the pace of the game. But a source within the umpires estimated that it will only take two minutes, 30 seconds from the time a replay is requested until a final decision is reached by the crew chief. It seems unlikely that any review will be completed in under three minutes, but one GM said he wasn't worried about lengthy delays, saying, "If they can run back and check it in five minutes, that's less time that a normal argument would take. [Cubs manager] Lou [Piniella] takes a lot longer than that when he's kicking and screaming."
Not every ballpark will be equipped with the same technology. Not every game will have the same number of cameras, the same angles, etc. A nationally televised game on ESPN, FOX or TBS will have far more cameras employed than in a locally televised game. But, baseball officials insist, that's the way it works in the NFL. There are more cameras and more angles in some stadiums than in others. But instead of trying to keep everything uniform as far as number of cameras in each park, MLB officials says it's more logical to take advantage of every bit of technology that is available.
All sides have agreed that the replay process surely will raise issues. One of the bigger concerns is the placing of runners if a call that was originally ruled a home run is overturned -- and, say, called a double -- by replay. The umpires then would have to assume where the runners would have advanced if the ball had hit the wall, not gone over it.
Surely other potential problems could occur, which is why MLB wants to get the system running before the playoffs. One MLB official said he was worried about a trapped-ball play by an outfielder, a very difficult play for an umpire to see, but one that can be so clear on replay. The worry is that the call for replay will be extended to those plays.
"The concern is that you're opening the door with replay," Schneider said. "You don't want to have replay on out-safe calls, tag calls, trapped balls. You have to keep the human element."
Soon, some of the human element will be replaced by technology. And maybe that's good.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.