Baseball is a literal game, with clear rules and plain, easy-to-understand results. A pitch is either a ball or a strike. A runner is either safe or out. It is not a game built for interpretation.
But we don't play it that way. Sometimes we consider a man out when he might not be. Sometimes we call him out because he should be out. And everyone agrees, even the man who is out.
Two examples, from the National League Championship Series.
First: Game 1. Top of the 10th Inning. The Cardinals and Dodgers are tied 2-2, runners on first and third, one out. Michael Young hits a fly ball to shallow-ish right field. Carlos Beltran calls off Jon Jay so he can line up a throw to home plate. He catches the ball and throws a one-hop bullet to catcher Yadier Molina. The throw beats Mark Ellis to the plate. Ellis is, as they say, dead to rights.
Except: Are we sure Molina tagged Ellis? I mean, it's close, he might have tagged him, but it's far from certain, and I'm not sure I've seen an angle on the video that makes it obvious he tagged him. Watching the play in real-time, as the umpire saw it and as the players all played it, it seems clear that he was out. We have years of watching baseball that tell us that he's out: The ball beat him, the tag came in, he ran into the catcher, the catcher held onto the ball… out. It's obvious. Except when you watch the replay, it isn't obvious. If that were replayed, they might have overturned it.
And you know who would have been angry about that? Mark Ellis. Here's Ellis talking after Game One: "I was out. It was pretty obvious. I think everybody saw that. "It was pretty obvious I got tagged out. There was a collision at home plate. They're going to call you out every time. You run into it, you're out. That's how they're going to call it."
Here's what his teammate A.J. Ellis (no relation) said:
Mark Ellis probably wasn't tagged. It's a play that could have won Game One of the National League Championship Series. And that's the way they wanted it called.
Second example: NLCS Game 4, last night. The Dodgers are down 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh. With one out, Nick Punto smashes a double over the head of center fielder Jon Jay. The crowd is roaring. The Dodgers have the tying run at the plate. Carl Crawford, who already has three homers this postseason, is batting, with the meat of the Dodgers lineup right behind him. This is probably the best chance, the last chances, the Dodgers are going to get.
Punto sneaks off second base … and Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez spins and fires.
Punto is clearly caught leaning. (The wide angle shot shows Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach frantically waving his arms and screaming for Punto to get back.) Martinez clearly gets the ball to shortstop Pete Kozma ahead of Punto's dive. Kozma clearly gets the tag down. Punto is called out because of course you call him out there. The ball beat him. The tag was there. As AJ Ellis described the Molina home plate play: "In the history of baseball, no one has ever been called safe on that play because they didn't tag them."
But did Kozma really tag Punto before he got his hand back on the base? I'm not sure that video is any more conclusive than the last one: You can make a solid case that Punto sneaks his hand back in before Kozma gets the tag down.
The whole game changes if Punto is called safe there. The crowd stays crazy. (Maybe that bear comes back.) Perhaps Crawford singles him home: Maybe the rookie Martinez gets antsy and starts walking people. None of that happens, because the umpire calls Punto out. When it's not clear that he was.
Is Punto angry? Does Punto demand a public apology from Major League Baseball for this potentially ruinous call? He does not.
"It was a bad baseball play," Punto says, plainly distraught. "I got a little too aggressive there, trying to anticipate something in the dirty, maybe get to third with less than two outs. A little too aggressive. It was a big play in the game. I kind of put us in a bad spot. It was definitely a tough one for us. … That's a lonely place to be. It's a lonely jog off the field."
Punto made a mistake, he knew it, and he was punished for it. Whether he was "out," technically, strikes him as beside the point. The same goes for Mark Ellis: The throw beat him, he tried to jar the ball loose, he didn't, he's out. This is the way baseball has been played for a century. It is ingrained in the game. Nobody even stops to think about it: It's just the way it is.
And next year, it is going to change. There are many questions about the installation of instant replay in Major League Baseball next year. Is the challenge system fair? Is the responsibility for bad calls being transferred from umpires to managers? Should there be an extra umpire off-site watching every play or should we keep the "umps have their own TV just off the field" model? Are there plays we should be looking at that we're not? How long are these replays going to take?
But the biggest question of all isn't about whether replay is going to help get plays right. It's whether getting those plays right - a theoretical, objective "right" --- is something that baseball actually wants. There are plays like the ones above, in which the right call might not have been the correct call. There is the neighborhood play at second base, which could potentially go extinct in the age of replay. There are surely hundreds of other plays, in which facts might not necessarily support truth. Players want replay to get the plays right. But not, you know, too right. Sometimes, to borrow a phrase from basketball, ball don't lie. Sometimes the truth is less fair than we want it to be.