(Don’t) Play it Again, Sam

The expansion of instant replay has been a hot topic in baseball over the past couple of years, and it appears as if the proponents of expanded instant replay are winning, by a large margin. It’s not just casual baseball fans, either: according to Fangraphs, the online baseball statistics Bible, those that describe themselves as watching twenty or more baseball games a month are significantly more likely to support instant replay than those that watch five or fewer.  Perhaps the issue is with Fangraphs’ viewer base, but it still resonates that only fourteen percent of respondents were neutral to or in opposition of the idea of instant replay. It appears as if the use of expanded replay is an inevitable outcome. Expanded replay, however, is a bad idea for the sport. There are two main concepts that proponents of instant replay refer to: fairness, and general enjoyableness of the game.

The issue of fairness is justifiable. In 2010, Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning due to a blown call. Ask him what he thinks about limited replay, and the response is unlikely to be positive. Ask a manager what he thinks about instant replay after a blown call loses him the game, and you are guaranteed a similar reaction.

The thing about instant replay, though, is that it is not inherently fair. The better team does not necessarily win every game, nor does the lesser team necessarily benefit from instant replay. This is why baseball is played out over a 162-game season: to reduce variability in outcomes. This is also why baseball conducts its playoffs over multiple series rather than in single games.

Furthermore, baseball has not necessarily been moving toward a “fairer” system. Before the 2012 season, the very owners that voted in favor of expanded replay also voted in favor of expanding the playoff field from eight teams to ten, implementing a new wild card in each league. This serves only to dilute the playoff field and make it easier for inferior teams to win in October. The new system implements a play-in game between the two wild cards in each league, whereby the winner advances to the traditional division series and the loser goes home. By foregoing the series structure, this gamebecomes nothing more than a toss-up between the two teams, with luck playing a managerial role in determining which one ends up in the division series.

This new system is not, in and of itself, fair. And yet, baseball decided to make the move toward it, because the new system offered far more drama than the old. When asked about the new system during the 2012 playoffs, Commissioner Bud Selig said he didn’t know “how it could work out any better than this.” Indeed, the excitement created by the new system more than offset any arguments about “fairness.”

Instant replay, at its heart, undermines the integrity of the sport. This applies to more than just baseball—in 2005, the then-general secretary of FIFA Urs Linsi said about expanded replay in soccer, “football’s human element must be retained. It mirrors life itself and we have to protect it.” At their hearts, sports are controlled by human nature. For that reason, we have banned performance-enhancing drugs: We want our competitions to reflect the best and worst of human performance. Though we don't tend to give umpires the respect they deserve, their role as impartial arbiters does not imply they be correct, or anything more than simply human.

Part of the joy of debating about baseball is that you can’t always reach a sensible conclusion. We can reasonably state that the Houston Astros are probably worse than the Washington Nationals, but we cannot definitively state that the Baltimore Orioles were a better baseball team than the Tampa Bay Rays last year, even though we know for a fact that the Orioles made the playoffs and the Rays did not. Banning instant replay adds another layer to mystery: if it hadn’t been for that blown call, what would have happened? What team was better?

We can’t know for certain. And that’s the thing: we love sports, but we love talking about sports just as much. When our team wins because of darned luck, or a blown call, we don’t care, because we’re the champions. But if we lose, we feel vindicated by luck or other factors. The Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs because of Bobby Valentine, and the infield fly rule cost the Braves their season.

Yes, ideally we would like the best team to win every year. But that’s boring. Besides, if umpires can view instant replays, who are we going to blame when we lose?

Julian Atehortua ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House.

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