Thursday, June 3, 2010

Time For Baseball To Introduce The Challenge Flag

Last night, an umpire in Detroit ruled a runner safe at first base on a close play. Replays showed that the runner was out by at least half a step. The umpire was wrong, but the play stood.

This has all happened before, hundreds, maybe thousands of times, in the great game of baseball. Today, there are 30 teams in baseball, and 162 games played each year by each team. And usually, each team needs 27 outs to finish a game - 54 total. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. But you get the picture. When you start multiplying 162 times 54 times 30 times all the years of baseball, you understand how many chances there have been for umpires to make the wrong call (and that's not even bringing up balls and strikes, fair or foul, or anything else - we're just talking about outs). There are going to be mistakes made. And most of the time, that's ok, the sheer weight of the countless number of calls got right will drown the few calls got wrong in a sea of baseball umpiring justice.

Now, back to Detroit, last night, and to last night's blown call at first base. Here's another number: 20. There have been 20 perfect games pitched over the entire history of modern baseball. It's the rarest, toughest feat in baseball, bar none.

And if the ump had gotten the call right last night, that number would've gone up to 21.

Instead, we have hand-wringing, tearful apologies from the umpire (Jim Joyce, whose name will now live in infamy along with Don Denkinger and really nobody else), graceful and classy handling of the situation by the pitcher (Armando Galarraga, who might want to look Pedro Martinez for his thoughts, considering it's going to be hard to reach Harvey Haddix today) and his teammates... but here's what we don't have: justice. And we never will. It's too late. To overturn this call, and give the perfect game to the pitcher who was perfect on June 2nd, 2010, would be to open a massive can of worms which is better left shut.

Baseball will never be able to set things right for Galarraga and Joyce, as well as Tigers catcher Gerald Laird who caught a perfect game but did not, and even Indians shortstop Jason Donald who grounded into the 27th out of a perfect game but did not, whatever he thinks about it.

But baseball can, and should, make some changes. Or maybe just one change. Give managers a challenge flag! One challenge flag per game. Authorize the use of the challenge flag for a limited set of circumstances - boundary calls, calls of safe or out at any base, and maybe a very few other extremely rare occurrences. Let the manager throw the flag if they like, and let the umpires go to the booth for video review.

If there is clear evidence that the wrong call was made, then allow the umpiring crew to overturn the call, and if necessary award extra bases as necessary - say, in the event that a runner who grounded into the third out with a runner on second base is ruled safe after a successful challenge, the umpires could allow that runner on second base to take third.

And if the manager was right, give them back the flag, and allow them to use it again if they feel as if the wrong call was made. And if the manager was wrong, then they don't get it back - that's it for the game.

One challenge flag. That's all. People talk about "the human element" in baseball, as if umpires screwing up is charming somehow. Maybe it is - but it's also "human" to give a manager - a "human" - a challenge flag. Hell, it makes the "human" element more interested and less one-sided. People talk about how the game is too slow, and how instant replay would make that worse. One flag doesn't slow the game down, as opposed to the current argue-argue-kick-dust-eject-the-manager system! That gets things right.

Perhaps time is all relative, and history repeats itself, and all the past mistakes umpires have made will all happen again - but this time, the manager will have a challenge flag to throw.

That means that, in the future, Armando Galarraga's perfect game is perfect. That means that future Joe Mauer hits a double in the ALDS last year, not a long strike two, and the Twins maybe slay that Yankee dragon. That means that the future St Louis Cardinals have another chance to win the World Series in 1985. (And maybe we can set the whole Did Yogi Tag Jackie Out At Home? debate to rest, too - that is to say, when it happens again, in the future).

Sorry to get all quantum on you there, readers. But seriously. Let's give the managers a challenge flag. Just one challenge flag. Try it out, Bud Selig! It won't make the game perfect... but it'll certainly help.

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