Major League Baseball has finally approved the expanded use of instant replay for the 2014 season, meaning the sport has officially joined the modern age of professional sports in just about every way that matters.
The new rules, which were approved unanimously by all 30 clubs at the quarterly owners' meetings in Arizona on Thursday afternoon, expand replay review to cover not only whether or not a ball in play was a home run, but a wide variety of factual disputes, such as whether or not a ball in play was fair or foul, or whether or not a runner scored before the third out of an inning was recorded.
As league officials have maintained since the beginning of the process, "judgment calls," which is essentially a euphemism these days in baseball for whether or not a pitch was a ball or a strike, will remain unreviewable -- the only part of that process that can be challenged is the count itself, as umpires and batters forgetting the count is something that happens about once or twice a year (which is impressively low considering there are about 185,000 plate appearances in your standard regular season of Major League Baseball).
The new rules are a welcome, needed change as far as most people inside and outside baseball are concerned, but that is not to say they are perfect. Joe Torre, former manager of the New York Yankees (among others) and recently minted Hall of Famer, has had substantial input over the development of the replay process. He essentially has managed instant replay's implementation in baseball over the last year from his position as MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations -- and the end result shows a manager's touch. The replay system will grant each team's manager one challenge, and if his challenge is upheld, the manager will receive a second and final challenge.
This is a holdover from the professional football version of replay review, which was the first one to go into wide use in professional sports, and its downsides are twofold. First, it keeps the coach/manager at the center of attention for what really should be an internal umpiring decision, and second, it shifts the focus of replay review from its proper goal -- getting the call on the field right -- to some sort of strategy mini-game, where the coach/manager has to weigh the value of the call in question and his likelihood of getting his challenge upheld against any future mistakes that the officials could make in calling the game.
That said, even though the challenge system is being ported over from the NFL, the new replay review system also shows substantial influence from the NHL's process -- all calls will now be reviewed at MLB's "command center" in New York City instead of by individual crew chiefs at the stadiums themselves, and most importantly, there is a limited version of the NHL's official-initiated review. The rules here, too, are a bit too convoluted for the sake of manager involvement. Once a manager has used his challenge (or challenges, supposing his first challenge was upheld), the umpires may initiate a review of a call on his behalf so long as it is the seventh inning or later.
The way the rules read in MLB's press release, this means that if the home team in a game is out of challenges by the seventh and the away team is not, the officials will be able to initiate reviews of plays on the home team's behalf but not on the away team's until the away team uses its challenge. This generally should be fine -- umpires should be less inclined to start replay reviews than managers, not more -- but it's another instance of keeping managers in the spotlight to the detriment of the overall system, adding unnecessary complexity that would be avoided by simply giving umpires the ability to review anything from the seventh inning onward regardless of the challenge situation.
The good news is that as annoying as the challenge set-up might be, it's not likely to lengthen games any more than a pure umpire-initiated system would. In both cases, managers are still going to come out onto the field and yell and point dramatically and so on. They're managers; lengthening games is what they do. It doesn't really matter a whit whether they're out there delivering a challenge or out there screaming at the crew chief to get his [CENSORED] [CENSORED] on the [CENSORED] phone to New York; either way, time is going to be spent focused on things that are not, strictly speaking, baseball. And that's fine, because the sport has tolerated games that spend time focusing on things that aren't, strictly speaking, baseball for over a century, from mound conferences to manager arguments to "fights" to actual, legitimate fights. It's unlikely that this, specifically, is going to be the straw that breaks the back of a camel strong enough to sit through multiple nationally televised Red Sox/Yankees games every year.
At the end of the day this is a win for baseball's front office -- a win they desperately need, considering the other business they've been up to in recent months -- and an even bigger win for fans and teams, and perhaps even for the umpires themselves since now they have someone they get to pass the buck to. Even if there are ways the process could have theoretically been made better, a win's a win... so long as no one starts throwing red laundry onto the field.