The VCR in major league baseball's office is blinking 12:00...12:00...12:00. Hey, guys, get with the times. For all baseball's embarrassments in the daffy 1996 postseason, at least one—the phony Derek Jeter home run in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series—could have been avoided if someone in the commissioner's office had had a clue about the outside world. Instant replay, a bit of gadgetry even older than Betamax, could have cleared up the Yankee Stadium mess in less than a minute, but sadly, this horsehide-bound game is unwired.
Replay technology is so simple, a 12-year-old could explain it. Even a 12-year-old who plays hooky. And we have a candidate: Jeff Maier, who blew out of school last week with a note saying he was going to the orthodontist and now is in his 16th minute of fame as the New York Yankees' rightfield whiz kid. Master October reached over the wall at Jeter's fly ball, which seemed about to fall into the hands of Baltimore Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco, and tipped it into the stands for what mistakenly was ruled a homer. NBC captured Jeff's misdemeanor on videotape from innumerable angles—you wish surveillance cameras in convenience stores worked so well—and while it wasn't exactly the Zapruder film, the replays were shown so often that he got on Good Morning, America and was invited to swap witticisms with David Letterman. Unfortunately, one of the few people who didn't have immediate access to the replay was rightfield umpire Rich Garcia, who needed it the most.
Baseball has erred as grievously as Jose Offerman in not bending technology to fit its pastoral game. If integrated judiciously, instant replay would prevent injustices such as the one suffered by the Orioles. Leave the calls on balls and strikes, balks and plays at the bases in human hands. But even stiff-necked and large-bellied umpires should admit the benefits of replays on balls that may have been fair or foul, caught or trapped, or interfered with by fans. There is no good reason that baseball shouldn't barge into the 21st century even if it has skipped the last two decades of the 20th. It's a game without time restraints, so there would be no harm done if umps occasionally took an extra two minutes to review videotape and get a call right.
As NBC's replays of Maier's glovework demonstrated, at the very least video review would short-circuit some on-field rhubarbs. No other sport allows its players or managers/coaches so much leeway in confronting authority, in dishing out—or in the age of the argumentative ump, accepting—abuse. If baseball had an immediate, electronic court of appeals for certain situations, it would make the game a little more civil. Let a manager take up his beef with a few feet of videotape. By reducing the time-consuming, profane bickering that leaves fans spitting mad, replays would be a welcome encroachment on baseball tradition.
The NHL, which once stood for Neanderthal Hockey League, has been with the program for five years. In 1991-92 it began using video replays to verify goals. The number of goals reviewed increased from 133 in the first season of replay to 257 in 1995-96. And while it might seem as if replay has gone from being a referee's tool to being his crutch, those 257 reviews worked out to an average of one every four games. "Gee," one NHL official said self-deprecatingly, "even we use replays."
Of course the pioneer in instant replay was the NFL, which used it for six seasons until abandoning it after the 1991 season. The NFL decided to kill instant replay for a highly complex reason: 60 Minutes kept coming on late. The problem was not in the concept but in the NFL's decision to allow officials to replay everything except Jeff George's sideline tantrums and to entrust the system to the last 50 men in America who have rotary telephones. After spending the next four years like an ostrich with its head in the sand instead of helping the zebras get it right, the NFL tiptoed back to the future last summer. It used instant replay in 10 preseason games, limiting the categories of reviewable plays and limiting coaches to three challenges per half. The results: 13 challenges (a far cry from the approximately 570 reviews in 1991), three reversed calls and an average time of two minutes and 18 seconds to address each challenge. Upon further review, instant replay looked even better than Mike Wallace and could be voted back by team owners in time for the regular season next fall.
In basketball the NCAA allows replays for questions involving shot clocks and scoring errors, and the NBA has kicked around replay to judge buzzer-beating shots, although the league's competition committee has been reluctant to get wired. But replays seem certain to find a niche in the NBA, the most progressive of leagues, which regularly sends representatives to play in international tournaments and has developed worthy initiatives, such as the Stay in School program.
Maybe Jeff Maier should be forced to attend.