(National League President Leonard Coleman said yesterday the use of video replay "is not an acceptable practice" and has "no role" in major league baseball.
"Traditionally baseball has relied on the eyes of the umpires as opposed to any artificial devices for its judgments," Coleman said. "I fully support this policy.")
Maybe you've seen the commercial for Holiday Inn Express. A bicyclist has fallen and is hurt. A man comes up, examines the cyclist's knee with a professional air and tells him he has a dislocated patella and he will fix it.
The cyclist asks the man if he is an orthopedic surgeon.
"No," says the man as he wrenches the knee violently. "But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."
"You'll feel smarter, too, if you stay at a Holiday Inn Express," says the ad's voice-over.
Obviously, umpire Frank Pulli must have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express over Memorial Day weekend in Miami. Suddenly, he thought he was smarter than everybody.
Instant replay for baseball? Sure, just let me fix that for you. Wrench! There, doesn't that feel better? Thank me later. No charge. Glad to help.
If Pulli has a little free time this week, there are problems in Kosovo, Kashmir and Moscow to which he might turn his brilliant judgment, honed as a 28-season big league ump. A ground war in Europe? An argument between nuclear powers? A new deputy premier for Russia?
Those should be easy for Frank. After all, it only took him five minutes to decide, on the spot and on the fly, that the absence of instant replay in baseball was a quaint twentieth-century anachronism. So, in a blink, Pulli went to the videotape.
Seldom have we seen a better illustration of the old saying: "Act in haste. Repent at leisure."
A Marlins player hit what might have been a ground-rule double or a home run, depending on where it hit the left field wall in Pro Player Stadium. One ump called it a double. So, the Marlins screamed. After a conference, crew chief Pulli changed the call to a home run. So, the Cardinals screamed, especially Manager Tony La Russa.
Poor Pulli went into the Miami dugout, peeked through the viewfinder of a TV camera and clearly saw that -- oops -- he was wrong by two feet in changing the original call. Quickly, Pulli pulled a "never mind" worthy of Emily Litella.
Go back to second base, Cliff Floyd. "I didn't know instant replay was in the game," said the dumbfounded slugger, expressing the majority opinion.
Pulli defended his decision by pointing out that the rule book says that umpires have "the authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules." Instant replay isn't mentioned in the rule book. Neither is invasion by Martians.
Marlins fans didn't need long to figure out the implications of Pulli-vision. By the ninth inning, when a close pitch was called a strike on a Florida hitter, the fans started chanting, "Replay. Replay."
To his credit, Pulli was having second thoughts almost immediately. "At the moment, I thought it was the proper thing to do," he said. Famous last words. Wasn't that what Dennis Rodman said to Carmen Electra in Las Vegas?
Wouldn't you love to have been in Bud Selig's backyard on Memorial Day when his cell phone rang with the first request-for-comment call?
"Yes, this is the Commissioner speaking. This better be good. I've got to flip the burgers."
"What do you think of instant replay for baseball?"
"It'll never happen. We've discussed it for years. Everybody hates it. Look at the NFL's nightmare. We mess up a lot, but we don't have replay."
"You do now."
For the better part of 24 hours, baseball did -- in a way.
Pulli may have gotten the call right. But he set the precedent in a totally wrong way. At least his blunder wasn't allowed to stand. Yesterday, National League President Leonard Coleman showed why he might someday be a good commissioner. While Pulli was "acting in good faith," Coleman said that he had nonetheless made a mistake.
"Use of the video replay is not acceptable practice," the NL president said. "Part of the beauty of baseball is that it is imperfect. Players make errors. Managers are constantly second-guessed. But the game is played and determined by two teams between the white lines. . . . Occasionally . . . the umpires too will make mistakes; that is also part of the game."
It's nice to know that, sometimes, somebody gets it. Umpires, like everybody else, are expected to do their jobs correctly -- or catch hell. Pulli said he consulted the replay because he became confused about the ground rules at Pro Player Stadium. He declined to be more specific. Where do the rest of us sign up for a deal like that? Wouldn't it be great if, when we mess up, we could just say, "I became confused" and decline to be more specific.
Pro football officiating often seems broken and, perhaps, can't really be fixed. The game is too fast, too complex and too hard to call for mere humans. Pro basketball often seems on the verge of the same problem, especially now in the all-contact, all-the-time playoffs. When every foul can't be called, sometimes, it seems that almost no fouls are called.
However, baseball, slow old baseball, doesn't have this problem. Umpires, good ones, ran the game just fine for a century. Nothing's broken.
Perhaps, this incident has raised an unintended issue. Clearly, baseball does not need to add instant replay. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to subtract a few umpires. At the least, it might be helpful to remind the arbiters that they're not as all-knowing as a Holiday Inn guest.
For those who think big league umpires are increasingly infatuated with their own power and out of touch with reality, Pulli may now serve as poster boy. That's a shame. He's one of the good ones. Why couldn't this predicament have befallen Joe West, Ken Kaiser, Joe Brinkman or one of our other supercilious umps who act as though they're just killing time until Alan Greenspan calls for some help in figuring out that interest rate thing.
These days, umps get fine salaries and have virtual lifetime job security. As Earl Weaver once fumed, "How did the umpires get the same deal as the Supreme Court?" With those perks naturally comes the pressure to perform.
Big league umps shouldn't need the crutch of replay. If too many calls are blown, the solution isn't more machines; it's better umpires. If baseball wants to address a real problem, then it should face the issue of firing incompetent umps. It's time to stop treating their job security as if it were a matter of national security.