Adults have long felt the need to interfere with youth sports. (Don't ask why, kids. Just be glad we take an occasional break from snooping around your Facebook pages.) So it shouldn't be surprising that the no-doubt-well-intentioned grown-ups in charge of the Little League World Series, which began last Friday in Williamsport, Pa., have given the tournament an unnecessary tweak by expanding the use of instant replay to confirm or reverse umpires' calls on the base paths and on hit batsmen, as well as on questionable home runs. With 12 ESPN cameras at every LLWS game, umps can now scrutinize disputed plays from a variety of angles. Games could feature more squinting at evidence than an episode of CSI.
Doesn't that sound like fun? Children need instant replay when they're playing ball about as much as they need Vin Scully to do play-by-play when they're swinging from the monkey bars. If adults want to put their meddlesome tendencies to better use, they should target the big league version of baseball. Maybe an overzealous group of Little League parents could finally convince commissioner Bud Selig that replay isn't some alien phenomenon out of a science fiction movie, threatening to suck the humanity from the sport.
Nothing else seems able to budge Bud, not even the should-have-been-a-perfect-game fiasco in June, when Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's masterpiece was ruined by umpire Jim Joyce's mistaken call. Several umpiring blunders in the playoffs last year—including a would-be 11th-inning double by Twins catcher Joe Mauer in Yankee Stadium that was erroneously called foul—did nothing to persuade rule makers to use replay for more than just home run calls.
"I talked to a lot of players, talked to a lot of fans, and there is little appetite for more instant replay," Selig said during the All-Star break last month. "At this point in time I agree with that. I think where we are now is a very good balance." Surprisingly, most players and managers confirm Selig's assessment. In an ESPN poll of 100 major league players taken after Joyce's blown call, only 22 of them were in favor of using instant replay on the bases and just 36 felt it should be used on fair/foul calls.
The resistance to replay is inexplicable. It's not as if the use of technology to help officiate sports is anything new. The NFL didn't come crashing down when referees began ducking under those black curtains to consult the replay cameras. Tennis hasn't suffered from using an electronic eye to make line calls. And it can't be concern over delays, because baseball is a game of delays. Fans who can wait for a hitter to adjust his batting gloves after every pitch or for a pitcher to circle the mound several times an inning are clearly the patient sort. "I think we have to trust the umpires," says White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "We don't want to turn this into a game for computers. We have umpires out there who do their jobs the very best they can, and no matter what the call is, we have to respect that."
Respect it, yes. Trust it, not necessarily—at least not blindly. There is too much at stake in professional sports to simply accept correctable mistakes with a shrug. Championships hang in the balance, and unlike Little League, livelihoods are on the line. Last month Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa slid home in the bottom of the ninth against the Mets with what would have been the winning run if umpire Phil Cuzzi had not incorrectly called him out. San Francisco eventually lost in the 10th. If the Giants, who are in a tight wild-card race, miss the playoffs by a game, they will have a long off-season to think about the call that replay could have corrected.
And yes, they will also remember mistakes they made themselves. Replay opponents like to remind us that errors—by players and umpires—are part of the game. The difference is that players' mistakes arise out of competition. They are part of what determines which team is superior. Umpires' mistakes are random events, outside influences on the competition that neither team can possibly prepare for. Those mistakes take the results out of the hands of the competitors; the more they can be kept to a minimum, the fairer the competition is. On some level baseball seems to recognize this: Why else put additional umpires on the outfield foul lines in postseason play if not to reduce mistakes?
The aversion to replay is even more illogical when you consider that teams use technology in almost every facet of their operation. They use videotape to find flaws in a hitter's swing or a pitcher's delivery. They use computerized analysis to determine where to play hitters defensively or how to pitch to them, as well as to break down statistics in countless ways. They leave as little as possible to chance—and then they accept a bad call that can undermine all that investment of time and sweat and money.
What we're left with is a bizarro world in which a 12-year-old shortstop in Williamsport can't get away with missing second base while turning a double play, but Derek Jeter or Jimmy Rollins can. Everything is backward. The major leagues should expand replay, and Little League should stick to child's play. It doesn't take a look at the videotape to see that.