Baseball’s problem with umpiring has more to do with television cameras than the umpires. The numerous camera angles, in tandem with the technology available to production crews, turn every missed call into an obvious screw-up, and every obvious screw-up into an outrage. It is hard to say if umpires are worse now than before, but they have never looked worse.
The problem, of course, presents its own solution. The technology that exposes umpires could also eradicate the scrutiny they fall under. The same replays fans use to decry incompetence could simply be put to use and correct mistakes as they happen.
It is more complicated than that. Major League Baseball has decided it will expand instant replay, which is currently deployed only to determine whether a ball was a home run or not. But when, how and to what degree instant replay will become part of the game remains up in the air.
“I don’t know why we want everything to be perfect,” MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre said. “Because this just isn’t a perfect game.”
That attitude, that human error is an essential part of baseball, permeates the sport. Commissioner Bud Selig said the expansion will not occur until 2013. “The appetite for more replay in the sport is very low,” Selig said. He was probably not speaking with Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly in the moments after Todd Helton received credit for a putout despite being a yard away from first base – the kind of botched call that embarrasses umpires but could be fixed with replay.
The delay in making any changes has arisen as the league searches for the right kind of technology. Executive Vice President Rob Manfred is touring every park to determine where cameras down the line would go, and how to equip them with technology to help correct down-the-line calls, perhaps similar to the highly efficient system used in tennis.
“We've been through this lot, we’re going to expand instant replay when we have the technology to do that," Selig said. "We will review it. Baseball is a game of pace. You can't compare it to anything else. We have to be careful how we proceed.'”
The people who run baseball appear to be resistant to wholesale changes. Some solutions seem easy – why not place a fifth umpire in a booth at the ballpark, let him watch what any fan on his couch can see and make appropriate changes?
On a hit called foul and then reversed, the question of where to place runners would fall to the umpire, thus inviting a new kind of controversy and scrutiny. Torre also worried about umpires calling every close call down the line fair, so as to avoid the issue of placing runners. If it really is fair, the play would stand, and if it’s foul, the play just starts over with another strike on the batter.
“Life isn’t perfect,” Torre said. “I think this is a game of life.”
Perhaps baseball should not aim for perfection. But the league should not use that as an excuse to not make the game better.