By Nick Straatmann
This April, baseball history was made, but not by any finely-muscled, superstar athletes. Instead, the record book has crowned men with expanding waistlines, a receding hairlines, and eligibility for senior discounts. I’m talking about the first major league managers to challenge an umpire’s call via video review, and the umpires who are the first to be called out, so to speak.
“I went into it with not the most open mind,” admitted manager Bill Richardson, who became the first manager in the minor leagues to challenge a call during the 2013 season, “but they put a lot of thought into the process, and they made it quick.” Richardson’s comment exemplifies the slowly but constantly changing attitudes that have altered baseball so much in the past 20 years. Expanding replay review is only the latest evolutionary step in a game defined by imperceptible change, but it will create controversy in ways that only baseball can. Fans will get their cleaned-up calls- but an unresolved debate endures regarding the tradeoffs of expanded replay review.
Umpire Bill Haller hooked a microphone to himself the afternoon of September 17th, 1980 before the start of a game between the Orioles and Tigers, and in so doing, captured one of the aspects of the game that will soon be ushered out by instant replay: the manager tantrum. After calling a balk against pitcher Mike Flanagan in the top of the first inning, Haller got an earful from Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, who would add to his record string of ejections that night (he would finish his 17-year career with 98 tossings). The microphone, which was being used to record material for a documentary on the life of an umpire, picked up Weaver’s colorful array of f—s and bulls—s and personal insults. Among the most hilarious was the exchange prompted by Weaver’s accusation that Haller had touched him.
HALLER: I didn’t touch you.
WAEVER: You pushed your finger on me!
HALLER: I did not! Now you’re lying! You’re lying!
WEAVER: No you are!
HALLER: You are lying.
WEAVER: You’re a big liar!
HALLER: You are a liar, Earl-
WEAVER: You are!
The scene was childish, but Haller’s microphone picked up something else during the argument that night— the raucous cheering of the crowd. Each time Weaver would renew the argument with a fresh string of cussing, the fans responded with a lively outburst of applause. Weaver was exercising a hallowed baseball tradition that dated back to at least the 1890’s, to players like John McGraw, who regularly became “overindulgent in conversation” with umpires (soft terminology for someone who was reported to have called an umpire a ‘low-lived son-of-a-b—h of a yellow cur hound’), and as recently as managers like Bobby Cox, who set the new standard for grumpiness with 159 career ejections.
Come April, the Earl Weavers and Bobby Coxes of the baseball world will no longer know what to do with themselves. In a game where discrepancies are now decided by slow motion video review instead of dirt kicking, there can be little reason for managers and players to throw the kinds of tantrums that have been an accepted and entertaining part of the game since its creation.
Phillip Wellman is a man with an all-too-intimate knowledge of the manager meltdown. With more accessible instant replay, he may never have been known among the general population of baseball fans. Today, however, he is a Youtube star and the widely-recognized creator of the “rosin bag grenade.” Back in 2007, Wellman exploded over a call and created one of the most over-the-top displays of manager displeasure ever seen. After engaging umpire Rusty Barrett in a classic shouting match, he took the show up a notch by kicking dirt over home plate and drawing an oversized version of what he felt was home plate umpire Brent Rice’s strike zone. He then began ripping up the bases, but the climax of the scene came when Wellman dropped to his stomach, crawled to the pitcher’s mound, and threw the rosin bag at Rice’s feet.
Wellman was already known for his temper before throwing his most famous fit, but he may not have realized until that outburst that the manager tantrum is marketable. “We were in Carolina playing the Mudcats,” he said of a later game, “and there was an elderly woman sitting right above our dugout in a wheelchair. I came in after the fourth or fifth inning. I ran from third back to the first-base dugout, and this woman stood up out of her wheelchair and looked at me and said, ‘Wellman!’ And I looked up, and if it had been somebody else I wouldn’t have acknowledged her, but she was an elderly lady in a wheelchair, and I said, ‘Yes ma’am?’ And she said ‘Do something!’ And I thought to myself, ‘This poor woman probably paid $5 to come out here to see if I was going to make an ass of myself.'”
Sure, the event will follow Wellman for the rest of his career, and yes, it was childish, but it would be impossible to ignore the popularity that the blow-up has garnered on youtube (there have been approximately two millions total views of the various clips of Wellman’s tirade). There’s also the fact that Wellman received a standing ovation from the fans in his first home game after finishing a suspension for his belligerence.
Wellman has toned down his act in recent years. He is now only one example of fans’ historical love of razzing the umpires, whether it is coming from the manager or the crowd itself. From 1939 to 1957, the Dodgers played host to a collection of fans known as the “Sym-Phony,” who would bring instruments to games and, among other antics, play “Three Blind Mice” after close calls that didn’t favor Brooklyn. The famed poem “Casey at the Bat” captures a similar, if more threatening scene:
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
To this day, there are few events that illicit more noise from a crowd than a close call at a crucial moment. These realities then beg the question: If the umpires and the possibility of a mistaken call are an important factor in bringing fans through the gates, what will happen once instant replay shows up?
“We no longer spend time arguing,” Rob Manfred, chief operating officer for MLB, explained during a press conference in November. “In return, you have a right to challenge [a play]. What we want to avoid is, ‘You argue for awhile and then you challenge,’ because it’s obviously cumulative at that point.” Both Manfred and Commissioner Bud Selig took the opportunity to address the media after the team owners approved the motion for video review. Manfred made it clear that managers would lose the opportunity to challenge a play if they chose to argue a call with an umpire. The notion makes sense. After all, what would be the purpose of arguing when a dispute can be resolved without blaring tunes from a “Sym-Phony” or a show of impotent rage from a manager?
Interestingly, Manfred’s and Selig’s primary concern regarding the use of replay during games was not a diminishing level of entertainment in baseball. They were instead concerned with instant replay’s effect on the length of games. “The current thinking is that if a manager comes out and argues, once he argues, he can’t challenge that play,” Manfred said. “Thinking about pace of game, what we’d like to have is a tradeoff.” Tests in the Arizona League have shown that instant replay will have minimal impact in the length of a game- just around one minute (which is often shorter than the typical manager tirade). No mention was made by Manfred or Selig regarding notions of diminished fan entertainment as an unintentional tradeoff created by instant replay.
“Game Sixes are always funny,” said John Meyer, a die-hard Royals fan who witnessed one of the most controversial calls in baseball history on a cool night during Game Six of the 1985 World Series. He had attended the first two games, but passed on an opportunity to buy tickets to games six and seven after back-to-back Royals losses. He instead watched at home on TV during the ninth inning while the Royals and Cardinals traded out one player after another, finally resulting in a matchup between Cardinals’ pitcher Todd Worrell and pinch hitter Jorge Orta. When Orta hit a weak grounder between the pitcher and first base, Worrell covered first and caught the ball a step ahead for the out— according to instant replay. First base umpire Don Denkinger saw it differently, and the call inevitably resulted in an exchange of words between Denkinger and Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog. There was no call reversal. Shortly thereafter, the Royals would score to tie the game, then win Game Six, and then topple the off-balance Cardinals’ in Game Seven by a score of 11-0. For fans like Meyer, the call became the defining moment of the series, and it added something that would have otherwise been sorely lacking. “They would have been just a team that got a base hit when they needed one,” Meyer said excitedly, in the way that only a dramatic turning point can produce in a sports fan. “But the fact that the call was clearly wrong has created all this discussion. Without that, this is just another baseball game. [Without that call] this goes from being in the top ten to just another game.” He paused for a time, then added musingly, “But you never know what would’ve happened if he’d have called him out.”
Despite the excitement created by Denkinger’s call, Meyer’s experience has not turned him against the coming change. “I want those calls to be right,” he said, adding that “People are going to whine and complain about longer games, but if you’re a baseball fan and like to go to the ballpark, you’re just getting more for your money.” When asked whether he’ll miss the tradition of manager meltdowns, he quickly opined that “People aren’t going to stop arguing because there’s instant replay, especially on plays [that] aren’t reviewable… You won’t get the arguing out of baseball.” At the moment, he is right. Even video review will still have some limitations in 2014. It will be used primarily for reviewing plays on the bases and in the outfield, which still leaves managers the opportunity to explode over calls on balls and strikes. Fans are left to wonder, however, if it is only a matter of time before every decision is reviewable. 2014 will push forward the original limits set in 2008, which restricted video review to homerun calls. The upcoming changes support the idea that MLB’s decision to incorporate video review in 2008 was simply the opening of a Pandora’s Box that will eventually result in a game where no umpire’s decision is beyond question.
Although fans like Meyer have occasionally rallied around video review, recent evidence suggests that the majority of players and fans are still happy with the old-fashioned approach. In 2010 ESPN polled 100 major league players regarding instant replay shortly after umpire Jim Joyce made a call that deprived pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game (instant replay later showed that Joyce had blown the call). Still, only 22 percent of players favored replays for calls on the bases, and only 36 supported replay on fair/foul calls. In fact, 53 players even named Joyce as one of the three best umpires in baseball. Those numbers suggest that the players were content with the game just as it was. The same could be said of the fans according to Commissioner Selig, who announced during the 2010 All-Star break that, “I talked to a lot of players, talked to a lot of fans, and there is little appetite for more instant replay.” He went a step further by saying, “at this point in time I agree with that.”
TV ratings also reveal that fans prefer a dash of controversy in their game. During the 2013 World Series, TV viewership jumped by over three million in Game Four after a controversial obstruction call at third base won Game Three for the Cardinals. Were fans divided over the decision? Sure. Were they tuning in as a result? Absolutely. In the entertainment industry, any publicity is good publicity, and occasional controversies like blown calls are precisely the kind of issues that have stirred fan interest for generations.
So what suddenly prompted the team owners to call for expanded replay? TV has been exposing the miscues of referees and umpires since shortly after instant replay was introduced in 1963, and the players and fans appear satisfied. It may be that the real force behind the change is our evolving media, and its influence may have been unintentional rather than directed.
“And he can’t make the catch! It bounced!” shouted announcer Brian Anderson, delivering a verdict on the play even before umpire Bruce Dreckman. This time controversy would take center stage during the one-game playoff eliminator between the Rays and Rangers in 2013. Centerfielder Leonys Martin had just recorded the third out in the seventh inning with a dramatic running catch. Dreckman, relying on only his eyes and the best angle he could get, incorrectly ruled that the ball was caught. As Anderson was able to see, with the help of slow motion replay and multiple camera angles, Martin had actually trapped the ball. Dreckman’s miscue cost the Rays a run that night— and a piece of his reputation. If there was a silver lining to be found for Dreckman, it was that the Rangers didn’t win. Since Tampa held its lead he was spared the agony of umpires whose decisions change the game’s outcome. That didn’t stop Dreckman from being fodder for criticism on sports shows nationwide the next day. By comparison, when umpire Hank O’Day made what is arguably one of the most impulsive calls in baseball history in 1908, it was Fred Merkle— a player— who was castigated. O’Day ruled that Merkle was out at second base, based on an inconsistently enforced ruling and a shady play made by Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (it was never known for certain whether Evers was even holding the correct ball or a subbed-in replacement). O’Day’s call turned the game into a tie instead of a Giants victory, which forced a one-game playoff, which eventually lead to Chicago’s most recent World Series win. The pandemonium surrounding O’Day’s ruling highlights the contrasting unpredictability of MLB’s early days with the starchy organization of the modern game.
Although prolonged attention to blown calls is nothing new, the trend of grudge-holding against umpires is. In Si.com’s own ranking of “MLB’s Worst Blown Calls,” only three of the 13 listed took place before the 90s, and none predated 1970. Such examples highlight the increasing scrutiny brought on in recent years— whether intentional or not— by instant replay. Technology has made it easier to condemn from afar with HD television, digital film, and 1000 frame-per-second slow motion cameras as the standard instead of the exception. As a result, what announcers previously recognized as part of the game during the early years of instant replay is now grounds for a slow raking over the coals.
The next question, then, is why do media outlets and announcers ride these stories in ways that would seem absurd only a few years ago? Because of an increasing demand for material. With so many sports channels available today, it is easy to forget that as recently as 2008 there was no MLB Network to beam baseball headlines and talking points to our living rooms 24 hours a day. When Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive games played in 1995, there was no Fox Sports Network to cover the story. ESPN has been around since 1979, but satellite channels like ESPN Classic and most of the big sports-only networks did not arrive until the 90s.
These channels now form a media giant that satisfies fans across America, but it comes with a large appetite. With so much air time to fill, the networks will milk any story for every drop they can wring from it, and that includes controversial calls. What would have remained a casual observation by an announcer in the early 90s is now a week-long scandal on these 24-hour channels. This spotlight effect has whipped up an increasingly large perception that there is an inherent problem with MLB’s umpiring system.
Still, some fans feel that the issue is more than just a perception of inadequacy. One benefit of modern media is the think tank it has created over the topic of instant replay. As with so many close plays, there are bound to be many viewpoints regarding the use of video review for call corrections. On one side, trumpeters for change have voiced their opinions. Don Denkinger himself has joined their ranks. “There are so many areas you can use instant replay,” Denkinger has told the New York Post. “Maybe instant replay can clean things up.”
On the other side of the fence are the traditionalists. “True,” they would say of Denkinger’s comment, “And paint thinner can clean up a canvas that has been dirtied by Monet’s paintbrush.” The debate surrounding instant replay forces fans to think beyond the issue of replay itself. It asks us to consider what baseball is about at its core. Of course, MLB’s primary goal is to entertain, and that is harder to do if there is nothing to debate or ponder. The outbursts of angry managers might be childish at times, but baseball is supposed to be childish. That’s why it’s called a game. That’s why the men who play the game wear oversized children’s uniforms. That’s why the men who watch the game do superstitious dances around their TV. That’s why hairy men who should never remove their shirt go to those games wearing nothing but jean shorts and a little chest paint. The quest for both the progressives and the traditionalists boils down to finding a middle ground where the tradeoff between excitement and fairness is minimized.
That concept has not gone unnoticed by Bud Selig. “Baseball is a game of pace. We’ve got to be very sensitive and careful in the way we proceed,” he told the media during the 2012 All-Star break. So careful was he that baseball gurus Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre were recruited to analyze the incorporation of video review in a way that would be respectful to both the umpires and the spirit of the game. With the final decision now cast in favor of change, it seems that there is increasingly little value placed on unpredictable variables in baseball today. This is no longer the era when pebbles or clods are an acceptable feature on an infield. It isn’t convenient for score-keeping. It doles out luck unevenly and impulsively. It’s messy (“And exciting!” the traditionalists would remind us). Umpire authority, like a grove of untouched rainforest surrounded by civilization, will soon fall under the axe of video review.
In the long run, it is likely that baseball fans will evolve with their game, much like football fans in the 80s and 90s. In the short run, however, there may be a noticeable hole in fan’s hearts that only a good old-fashioned controversy can fill. No less an authority than Branch Rickey, grandfather of the minor league system and the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the majors, has observed that “baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept new ideas.” So it goes in baseball’s evolutionary march from unpredictability to sanitized precision. Like the game itself, the transition will be complex.