Perfect Umpire

The many controversial calls in the ALCS have led some to call for expanded use of instant replay in the playoffs.

Count me firmly in the “no” column.

Tim McCarver made an excellent point during last night’s telecast. How far does it go? Strike zone calls? Checked swings? Balks? A failure to call a balk? How’s about that phantom double play call at second base when the infielder usually gets the call if he’s “in the vicinity”?

And what about obscure rules like coaches standing in the coach’s box, or how high on a bat pine tar is permitted?

MLB has allowed instant replay for home run calls, and so far it’s been rarely used — because home run calls are rarely disputed.

A situation like Game #4 where Mike Napoli tagged two runners who were not standing on the base would seem like a valid situation.

But how do you write into the rulebook the controlled use of instant replay so it doesn’t become abusive? And how do you address errors that might occur in subjective decisions such as strike zone?

Years ago, when I was pursuing a career as a full-time writer, I noodled around with an idea for a novel about professional baseball several hundred years in the future. One idea I had was that technology had come so far that baseball had eliminated human umpires and implemented a system called Perfect Umpire.

Perfect Umpire was an integrated technology woven into the literal fabric of the game. Uniforms were made of tiny filaments that would sense position, contact and movement. The same with baseballs. The fields were artificial surfaces made of the same material. All of it was instantly transmitted into a computer server that would always make the right call.

In theory.

In the opening scene, the primary character dives for a ball and catches it — only Perfect Umpire rules he trapped it.

Ballplayers — and unscrupulous owners — have figured out ways to hoodwink the technology, the futuristic versions of the corked bat and sandpaper.

It was all tongue in cheek, of course, but the point was that no technology is perfect when human beings are involved.

All instant replay does is inject human judgment at a different step in the process. Will it improve the number of correct calls? Hard to say. The track record with instant replay in the NFL, in my opinion, has been somewhat mixed. I’ve seen replays that are inconclusive. Then what? Stick with the ruling on the ground? So all you’ve done is validate the original ruling, or at least shown the technology isn’t any better than human judgment, which meant it was a waste of time.

Instant replay might have reversed blown calls like the two runners on third in Game #3. But do we really want to see managers call for instant replay over and over again when an infielder is in the neighborhood on a double play turn at second? Technically, yes, he’s supposed to touch the bag. But neither do we want to increase the number of injuries to infielders.

It seems to me that instant replay complicates things, and removes a certain charm unique to the game.


Extra for experts … “Perfect Umpire” was a homage to the long-defunct Perfect Writer, the first word processor software I ever used. It came with the Kaypro II, a CP/M computer I bought circa 1984.

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