April 15

From the desk of Al Clark: Instant Replay in MLB

ClarkAl Clark was a professional umpire for thirty years, working more than three thousand games, including two All-Star Games, seven playoff series, and two World Series. Called Out But Safe (May 1, 2014) is his autobiography written with former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg. Below, Clark writes about the new “instant reply.” 

One of the great powers baseball holds for all its fans—from the little leaguers to the major leaguers—is continuity and consistency. From year to year and even decade to decade, the fans know not many changes will occur. Sure, some changes come in order to enhance fan interest, like holding more playoff games, or holding night games at Wrigley Field, or even league realignments to create regional rivalries, like the change made by the Houston Astros when they joined the American League to create a natural rivalry with the Texas Rangers of Arlington.

But seldom do the Lords of Baseball—the commissioner and the owners—change the rules of the game and parameters as they have done this year. The last time a baseball rule was changed was in the 1970s, when the American League adopted the Designated Hitter (DH) rule. This year “Instant Replay” has been adopted to ensure against certain plays being decided incorrectly by the umpires, and it has altered how a runner trying to score can “attack” home plate when the catcher has possession of the ball or how a catcher can position himself when waiting to receive a throw from another fielder.

Let’s chat about the Instant Replay Rule first. A little history is in order. I started my career in the American League during the 1976 season. A few years before that, network television devised initial instant replay, slow motion replays, and stop action for its viewers.

The veteran umpires “back in the day” told stories how initially they didn’t think very highly of what the networks were planning to do. They actually were a bit intimidated by the mere fact they might be exposed to major criticism because of their fallibility. It didn’t take long for that feeling to change. The instant replay didn’t show how wrong umpires were in their judgment decisions on the field, but quite the opposite: for a large majority of calls, it proved how right they were. Instead of taking respect away from MLB umpires, they instead earned more respect and raised their own feeling of competence to a level never achieved before.

In today’s world of technology, where high definition television can show grains of dirt, the color of shoestrings, and even how a pitcher’s fastballs and curves spin through the air, why not use the technology to make the game of baseball even better than it’s ever been? The players are better (bigger and stronger) than ever; why not give umpires the same consideration in order to be as good as they can be?

I know major league umpires concentrate each and every day while on the field. I believe there is not a single umpire that wants to judge a play incorrectly. With that in mind, I think the new rule that allows an ump to review plays during the game will make all umps even better than ever. The really good umpires, if it’s possible, will be “in the game more” even more. As the old proverb says, “A high tide raises all ships.” I think all umpires will follow the lead of the top umpires by concentrating even more and being more in the game—and the number of correct calls will go up.

Not using instant replay for ball and strike decisions is also a good move by the baseball fathers. I think using the television “box” to show where pitches are is absolutely incorrect, to the point of near hilarity. Think about it: how can one tell the location of a pitch on a two-dimensional television screen when the strike zone has three dimensions? Without depth definition, one simply can’t.

The new rule that addresses collisions at home plate between the catcher and a runner trying to score is quite interesting. Of course, any rule that will protect the players and possibly eliminate injury should be studied, and studied hard. However, I do see some issues with this rule change. First, let’s acknowledge that rarely does either the catcher or the runner get hurt to the extent of lost playing time. Of course, some examples to the contrary do exist: most notably, Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in an All Star Game many years ago. Fosse, it’s said, never played up to his potential after that collision. And it was just a few years ago that Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, who had his leg broken in a home plate collision, missed substantial playing time. But I believe those examples are rare and the exception rather than the rule.

Despite the fact that the rule is written so that the umpire is the sole judge as to whether the rule should be invoked, nothing has changed dramatically. At no time can a defensive player block any base, home plate included, when not in possession of the ball. The difference now is that the words “while in the process of making a play” are eliminated from the reading and interpretation of the rule.

Now, if a runner is attempting to advance and score from third base and he sees the catcher is in possession of the ball, he may not create and promote a collision. If he does, he will be declared out by the umpire. He must avoid a collision-like contact at all cost. In my opinion, that does take something away from the game and how it has always been played. Conversely, by taking the words “while in the process of fielding the ball” out of the interpretation for the catcher, it removes the catcher’s ability to block home plate before the runner arrives except for when he is reaching for a thrown ball to attempt to make a play on an advancing runner.

The excitement and drama of a close play at home plate has been taken away from the fans by taking away the anticipation of a good home plate collision.

I am for the most part a baseball traditionalist. Our game has thrived for more than a hundred years with very few changes. Since the game is played by human beings, with mistakes we make and highlights we create, why not primarily live by the assumption that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it?

In spite of the changes being made, the fibers of our game are so good, and have proved to be so strong for generations, that the sport will continue to thrive. Even the people who make the decisions in the game can’t screw it up.

-Al Clark