100% of the time, we make 50% of the people unhappy.


March 5, 2014 – When I was a boy I loved to play baseball.  It didn’t matter whether I was playing a game, having a catch or swinging a bat; all of those activities sounded great to me.  I enjoyed the smell of my leather glove and the laces of the ball underneath my fingers.  In my impatient and energetic youth I wanted to play baseball, not watch it.

Before Major League Baseball instituted rate of play rules, the games used to trod along lulling most fans into a gentle slumber.  In an effort to make Major League Baseball palatable to new fans the commissioner’s office suggested batters stay in the box between pitches and pitchers deliver a pitch every twelve seconds.  As you might imagine, and if you’ve watched a game recently there haven’t been many delay of game calls.  The average length of game in June of 2013 was roughly two hours and fifty-five minutes according to a Boston Globe article.  With the new instant replay review rules instituted this year those rules will be undermined.

Interrupting the momentum of a game is nothing new to other sports.  NFL football games are made for TV events.  Attending one of these epic events is both tragic and comic.  The NBA is more akin to a rap concert than a sporting event.  There are five timeouts in each half and the last two minutes of the game take forty five minutes to play out.  In-between the intricate malaise of possession and timeouts the lights dim and a voice bellows from the rafters as a spotlight bounces around the arena to find an employee cuffing a microphone and chanting, “Yo, yo, yo we got Michael here about to shoot for his chance to win two free tickets to tomorrow nights’ game.  Make some nooiiissse!”

Baseball doesn’t have that; yet.  The acceptance and implementation of expanded replay on certain calls is Mephistopheles rapping on Faust’s door.

In 2008, the commissioner’s office approved the use of video replay for foul balls and homeruns.  In the past five years the system has worked fairly well.  Pauses have been innocuous and unnoticeable.  But, in 2014 managers will have the ability to challenge one play in the first six innings and three more in the final three innings.  If the manager successfully challenges a call in the first six innings he retains that challenge for the rest of the game.

Major League Baseball presumes the review process will only take one minute and fifteen seconds.  And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.  Besides the cynical notion of cramming more advertising revenue into broadcasts, taking time to review calls will grind down the pace of the game; essentially nullifying any improvements to rate of play.  The commissioner’s office adopted the review policies in the name of 100% accuracy on all calls.  However, an adroit article written by Gil Imber of Bleacherreport.com points out that umpires get the call right 99.5% of the time without video review.

Money makes the world go’round. In 2012, Major League Baseball signed agreements with ESPN, Fox and TBS that kick in this season.  MLB stands to earn $12 billion over eight years, doubling their annual media rights revenue to $1.5 billion.  The deal expands coverage to Latin American countries and culls a wider fan base allowing networks to promote access to consumers.  Combine greater coverage with more available ad space and the MLB and media networks have significantly increased revenue margins.

For example, add five minutes and thirty seconds of commercial breaks at an average cost of $400,000 per 30 second ad (price paid in 2009 for World Series ad slots) and the networks rake in an extra $4.4 million per game.  Let’s assume the average ad sales revenue for each regular season game is a quarter of that sum; $1.1 million.  Multiply that by twelve to fifteen separate games a day, control for differences in market value and ad slots and then extrapolate even further for increased international broadcasts and the money is rolling in.  There’s no way to lose in this deal.  MLB promotes its product and is paid handsomely for it, while the networks gain access on the front and back ends with copyright deals and ad revenues.  A romantic view of baseball is a luxury fans have.  On the inside of the iron gates baseball is a business.

Increasing profit margins doesn’t bother me as much as the damage to the game this will have.  Changing the rules to accommodate perfection in a game where we admire imperfection runs contrary to baseball’s ethos.  Journalists, authors and arm chair philosophers like to highlight that only in baseball can you fail seven times out of ten and be a hall of famer.

In my opinion, the pressure to assimilate comes from other sports and the few game changing mistakes.  On June 2, 2010 Armando Galarraga threw a twenty-eight out perfect game.  Umpire, Jim Joyce botched a call on the twenty seventh out stripping Galarraga of a career moment.  Instead, Galarraga will be remembered in trivia handbooks for generations.  And later, he turned his misfortune into a book coauthored by the antagonist, Jim Joyce.  However, the lesson here isn’t about baseball.  What should be taken away from this historic blunder is the grace of humanity.  Baseball was only the backdrop to a greater narrative that night and serves to remind all of us of our fallibility.

Finally, there are specific tactical advantages to the review rules.  Most alarming among them is using challenges as a surrogate for mound visits.  Coaches are given two trips to the mound before they have to replace the pitcher.  On the second trip the skipper has to pull the pitcher.  If managers can offer a live arm some relief by occupying time with frivolous challenges the complexion of the game can change very quickly.  Often overlooked, momentum is an enormous factor in managerial decision making.  Sometimes, pitching coaches take mound visits just to break up the other team’s momentum.  By offering challenges late in the game MLB has essentially given managers the ability to break momentum three additional times.

Above all, Umpires are in the unenviable position of making 100% of the fans unhappy 50% of the time.  Some may offer that video review will ease the pressure from their shoulders, but what happens to an umpire if they are on the receiving end of a slew of tough calls and they get it wrong?  Overpaid athletes have bad seasons too; why do we hold umpires to higher standards?  In Imber’s article he points out that even in bad games umpires still get 99.1% of the calls right.

As I grew older and learned the subtle nuances of baseball I fell deeper in love with our national pastime.  My short time in professional baseball was an edifying experience and one I’ll never forget.  In my retirement I enjoy participating in the myriad reminiscences with former teammates, rehashing the “good ol days.”  Every year removed from playing offers a new lesson in the game and I am completely punch-drunk in love with baseball.  Every winter, I jones for a game.  In the spring I come home from practice and immediately search for a Cactus League game on TV.  Since I don’t have the youthful spring in my step anymore, watching the human narrative unfold on a baseball field is my own personal heaven.