The problem with instant replay isn't really a problem with instant replay. It's a problem with baseball -- if it's even a problem at all.
We're only half a month into the 2014 season, but going into Tuesday's games, there had already been 84 instances where games had gone into a delay to consult instant replay. Given the system that's been put in place, it's unsurprising that 62 of these replay reviews were initiated by managers using the challenge system that was modified and ported over from the NFL, while the remaining 22 were initiated by umpires themselves. It's also unsurprising that managers have been far more successful in their reviews, with a 40.3 percent success rate of overturning a call on the field to a 13.6 percent for the umpires. A manager challenges a call because he believes it to be incorrect; an umpire initiates a review because he wants to double-check.
To date, 28 of those 84 calls subjected to review have been overturned. Objectively, this is good for the sport; it means 28 blown calls that would have influenced the outcomes of regular-season games were corrected, and baseball is healthier for that. Why, then, is there still so much controversy surrounding the instant replay system?
Part of it is that we don't really want instant replay; we want the umpires to get the calls right. (Of course, we have certain sliding definitions of "right," depending on how we feel about the teams that are playing and what month of the season it is.) That's what we've always wanted -- for blue to get his head out of the various places he's accused of sticking it and call the game properly. And unlike football, where referees are seen as a necessary evil, or basketball, where they're seen as an outright evil, baseball fans generally assume incompetence: This isn't that difficult, that's obviously a strike, just do the job.
And from that baseline assumption -- that instant replay is just a grudging half-measure between the reality we have and the reality where the umps do their damn jobs -- comes an attempt to have our cake and eat it too. We say we're all for replay, so long as it doesn't delay games. But this is a farcical argument. Baseball doesn't keep time.
Baseball tracks progress by outcomes, not minutes or seconds: an inning lasts until three outs are recorded, whether that takes three minutes or thirty. Baseball has double headers, because it doesn't particularly care what else you need to be doing with your workday. And baseball says, with a straight face, that the game doesn't end until one team has scored more runs than the other after nine innings -- and the bottom of the 22nd is just as legitimately "after nine innings" as the bottom of the 10th. Remember when we all threw a fit when they called the All-Star Game a tie? We wailed so loudly about an exhibition game being called a draw that baseball changed how homefield advantage worked in the World Series.
So, no -- sorry -- you and me and everyone else who watches this sport knew what we were getting into. If we're willing to follow a sport whose managers double-switch and use one-out relievers, and whose extra-inning games stretch deep into the night before starting up again at 1:05 the next afternoon, and whose cable networks have camera guys whose only job is to find fans in the crowd to fill the downtime between the action, then we can tolerate a few extra minutes to make sure the reason we're watching -- the outcome -- is as close to correct as possible. The national audience that's tolerated seven years of Daisuke Matsuzaka's pitching without staging an armed revolt doesn't get to choose instant replay as the hill it's going to die on.
The few pacing concerns in baseball stem from home plate umpires letting veteran pitchers work at whatever tempo they please, regardless of how slow that is -- and in all honesty, that's more about being fair to hitters than it is about ensuring games get finished in three hours and 30 minutes. The sport is what it is. If we were supposed to care how long the game takes, there'd be a time clock.
Even the replay delays themselves are a product of a baseball culture that fans have long embraced. There was this idea in some corners over the offseasons that the instant replay system was going to lead to fewer manager arguments and ejections. We've had two ejections after reviewed calls so far, and we're only halfway through April. A number of other games have been delayed due to continued discussions about calls after the replay officials made their decisions. And of course they have; they were always going to. Getting a call correct never stopped a player or a manager from yelling at an umpire before, so why should it start now? Baseball not only permits guys to wander out of the dugout and tell whomever's in charge he can't do his job so loud and for so long that he's told to leave and not come back -- it embraces them for it. When was the last time you saw an NFL coach standing out at midfield for two minutes screaming at the head referee while the other team tried to set up for kickoff?
It's true that there are ways to improve the system and shorten the drag. Removing challenges altogether and leaving reviews up to the umpires would be best, especially since it would theoretically allow the replay team in MLB's New York office to be more proactive about deciding what gets a second look. But even without changes, the process will shorten naturally over time as umpires learn where the review equipment is at each stadium, managers develop better systems for deciding whether or not to challenge a call, and the team in New York gets more comfortable with their jobs. They've been at this for two weeks. How good were you at your job two weeks in? Two weeks after I started with Sports on Earth, the St. Louis Cardinals were up 3-1 over the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 National League Championship Series, and I wrote 3000 words about how well the Cardinals matched up against the Detroit Tigers. Very few people are on their A game after two weeks.
Things will get better. The process will improve. But there will always be delays as managers bicker and players argue and umpires confer, and that's how it should be. That sort of time-wasting showmanship has been a part of baseball long before moving pictures, let alone television, even existed. The sport would lose something if it were to go away -- something much more important than a couple minutes in the sixth inning on a Tuesday night in April, anyway. The length of a game of baseball is determined by its outcome, not the other way around -- and if that means spending a few more minutes making sure the outcome is correct, baseball's fine with that. Baseball is prepared to be here past 3 a.m. with the fourth outfielder on the mound if that's what it takes. Baseball can deal with instant replay.