A few answers (but more questions) on in-stadium replay

By Nathan Petrashek

Miller-Park-scoreboard_display_imageWe’re tardy by a couple weeks on this, but earlier this month, @akschaaf from Ron Roenicke Stole My Baseball got busy handicapping a JSOnline chat with Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt. It’s always fun to watch a trainwreck, and especially fun to watch it with the RRSMB guys, so make sure you check out their continuing series of posts.   But one question in particular caught my eye.  Steve in Cedarburg wanted to know who’s in charge of replay at Miller Park, and complains that there’s “never a replay of a close play-ever!” And he wants to know if this is because the Brewers are just stingy, or part of some MLB-imposed mandate to obscure the truth.

A few years ago, Brewers Chief Operating Officer Rick Schlesinger (then Executive Vice President of Business Operations) addressed this topic at a Marquette University Law School forum (video here).  It’s a long interview, but there’s some fantastic inside baseball stuff there.  Anyway, at the time, the Brewers were getting ready to debut their shiny new 5,940 square-foot marvel of a scoreboard, and Schlesinger was asked about replay:

Q: When you’re talking about the scoreboard and instant replay, having gone to Bucks and Packers games, you can always see controversial plays on their scoreboard, but you can’t for the Brewers. I’m guessing that’s the umpire’s union?

A:  That’s one of the areas where I think Major League Baseball rules are antiquated, and behind the times, and need drastic reform.  Think about it, you go to another sporting event and you can see replays of controversial plays. You go to a baseball game, and because of MLB regulations, very restrictive guidelines about what we can show, we’re not allowed to show controversial plays where the umpires made the wrong call.  It’s really a vestige of the old “Kill the Ump!” mentality, which I think expired in 1947 or 1948 but still exists in the minds of some of those in baseball.

The other thing I find somewhat funny is that you have people at the game watching our game feed; if there’s a bad call by the umpires, you’re seeing it 7 or 8 times on replay on Fox Sports Wisconsin, whether you’re in your seat on a handheld device,* or in a suite, or in the concourses.  So you already have a segment of our market in the ballpark, seeing what other people can’t see, and now I have this 5,940 square feet of high definition scoreboard, and we’re restricted with what we can show.  I have talked to the Commissioner, and I know other teams have as well.  There’s sensitivity because of the umpires, but I think technology doesn’t really care about sensitivities, and I expect those rules to be reformed. I’ve also told our people candidly that we can push the envelope.  I mean, we want to play by the rules, we’re in Milwaukee two miles from the Commissioner’s office, and I don’t want to get fined, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sort of go right up to the edge of what’s allowed.  And if we get a warning letter from MLB that we’re being a little too aggressive with replay, well … okay.  So I totally agree with you, I would love to change the rules.  It will happen, it’s just not happening as fast as I would like.

Naturally, you might be asking, “What are those rules?”  Truth be told, we don’t know.  According to Schlesinger, they’re not for public consumption, but he told me they try to balance the “fans’ interest in seeing replays of close plays while protecting the safety of the umpires and avoiding inciting arguments on the field.”  Don Walker from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel appears to have gotten his hands on the MLB rules in 2010, but it’s not clear if this is the official guidance given to clubs or if these rules are still current.  In any case, he wrote:

The Brewers rely on MLB policy, which states, “Clubs must continue to use good judgment not to ‘show up’ the umpires, incite the crowd or distract players, but this admonition does not preclude showing close plays. Close plays may be shown, using good judgment and all plays must be reviewed by the scoreboard operator prior to being replayed on the scoreboard (and video monitors).”

Additionally, MLB won’t allow certain plays. They are: replays showing called balls or strikes from the current game or series; brushback pitches; or any instance where an umpire has clearly made an incorrect call.

Close plays can only be shown once and no close plays may be shown in slow motion or freeze frame.

If that is official MLB policy, it seems to leave plenty of wiggle room to show controversial plays at Miller Park.  The universe of absolutely prohibited replays is pretty small.  No balls and strikes, no pitches designed to move the batter off the plate, and no replays where the umpire has “clearly” made an incorrect call.  But “clearly” implies discretion and should be read hand-in-hand with the directive that a replay only be shown once and at game speed.  Say, for example, the runner is called out on a close play at first.  The scoreboard operator could replay if, at game speed, it appears the catch arrived simultaneously with the runner – even if super slow motion would show the runner beating the catch by a hair.

So, are the Brewers just stingy, or is it a massive MLB cover-up?  The answer seems to be “both.”  MLB doesn’t want fans at the game to see what *really* happened because they’re afraid of fan (or perhaps even player or manager) retaliation. But despite Schlesinger’s calls for increased latitude, the team just doesn’t seem interested in pushing the envelope as far as they could.  Based on my own personal experience, as an attendee of a good 30+ games every year, any play that could reasonably be called controversial seems to be off-limits at Miller Park.  Of course, without some system to compare the use of in-stadium replay to the television feed, it’s impossible to evaluate whether the team is appropriately blocking bad calls or taking a more expensive view of the rule.  Then again, if the team only refused to replay clearly incorrect calls, it’d be pretty obvious when there was an umpshow.

Even if the Brewers could do more within current policy, though, the underlying justification for the policy in the first place seems to have eroded.  Perhaps the rule made sense when there was a real fear of fan retaliation.  But as anyone who checks John Axford’s Twitter timeline can tell you, today’s fan is just as likely to be incited by a blown save as a blown call.  Yet I don’t see anyone lining up to prohibit road teams from hitting walk-off home runs.  Hell, I barely see anyone brave security to have their 30-second run on the field anymore.  Games are a very tightly controlled environment and fans just aren’t likely to risk their own well-being to physically engage an umpire or player.

But more than that, today’s high definition world values more information.  What fans won’t get at the game, they can get on TV or online instantly – and why would any team want to make attending a game less attractive?  Everyone knows umpires are not infallible, and most fans will understand (if not forgive) an occasional lapse in judgment as long as the umpire shows some sign of humility.  That’s exactly the trait Jim Joyce demonstrated when he apologized for blowing one of the biggest calls in history a few years ago, depriving Armando Galarraga of a perfect game with one out remaining.

So what is MLB really protecting with its restrictive replay policy?  Nothing more than the right of the umpire to be wrong and arrogant.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of those types already in baseball.  Let’s not encourage them to remain that way.

*Mr. Schlesinger was perhaps unaware of MLB.tv’s draconian blackout policy.

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