Last month, Major League Baseball adjusted what had become known as "the transfer rule," which had become perhaps the single most disliked new rule in the history of baseball. (It didn't even last a month.) The rule concerned the transferring of the ball from hand to glove after a catch; several high-profile plays -- including one involving Josh Hamilton -- ended up being overturned, even though it looked obvious that the fielder had total control of the ball and just fumbled it when they were about to throw it.
I couldn't find a single person who liked this new interpretation of the transfer rule (which applied to catches in the outfield as well), and it very well could have broken the game itself. It was impossible to tell when a play was actually over; conceivably, if a fielder never took the ball out of his glove, an umpire would have to follow him into the dugout to make sure it never fell out. Fangraphs' Dave Cameron pointed out that a logical defensive strategy, in the wake of this interpretation, would be for outfielders to drop the ball on purpose in order to get sneaky double plays. MLB obviously had to make a change, and they did.
But it is worth examining why this interpretation became the rule in the first place. The rule -- "The ball must be controlled in the bare hand for a catch to be ruled" -- was a logical extension of adding instant replay. Instant replay, the slowed down version of reality that tells us all the small truths and few of the big ones, does not account for convention, or tradition, or The Way We've Always Done It. It only knows what happened. And the only way to definitively tell that a catch has been made -- in the absence of tiny cameras inside players' gloves offering frame-by-frame proof that is the lifeblood of instant replay -- is to see that the ball is in the non-glove hand, and that it is not moving. Otherwise, you're just guessing.
In practicality, it just didn't work. Not only that, but the transfer rule also exposed the imperfection of a system that was created to be perfect. To make the game better, we had to accept that replay was sometimes a little too smart for its own good. We would choose the right call, rather than the correct one. The goal of replay is not to adhere to some arbitrary set of bureaucratic rules. The goal is to get the call right.
Which brings me to the end of the Oklahoma City-LA Clippers game last night.
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With 12 seconds left in the pivotal Game 5 of the Thunder-Clippers Western Conference semifinals last night, Chris Paul made the next in a series of mistakes that would cost his team the game, turning the ball over under pressure from Russell Westbrook with a two-point lead. Thunder guard Reggie Jackson, streaking up the court, dribbled toward the basket and appeared to be fouled by the Clippers' Matt Barnes. You can see the whole play here:
In the span of about half a second, the referees made two mistakes. First, they didn't call the foul on Barnes, though he clearly fouled Jackson; Jackson wouldn't have lost the ball otherwise. Second, they called the ball out of bounds off Barnes even though Jackson had touched it last.
It is very possible that the second call was meant to offset the first. This is common in all levels of basketball. This is an extremely fast game, and sometimes, a referee will make a placeholder call, one that honors the spirit of the play without nailing down the exact details of it. That play happened too quickly for the referees to tell precisely what had happened. All that they knew was that Barnes challenged Jackson, and the ball went out of bounds afterward. The whole momentum of the play implied that the Thunder should keep the ball. The call was made to hold down the fort until they could figure out exactly what had happened. This is why replay is here.
The problem is that under the specific rules we have set up for instant replay, the second mistaken call can be reviewed, but the first cannot. You can use replay to figure out who touched the ball last, but not whether or not there was a foul. This is generally a smart idea. If we started using instant replay to determine fouls, well, every play would have about eight different foul calls. Thus, there's rule that fouls aren't reviewable. We would have chaos otherwise.
But in this situation, it is clear that Barnes fouled Jackson; even more clear, perhaps, than that the ball was off Jackson last. At this point, the referees had a decision to make. Should they follow the rules of replay to the letter and award the ball to the Clippers? Or should they make the right call, which was to give the ball to the Thunder? (A call that's actually less advantageous to the Thunder than it should have been, considering Jackson should have been at the line rather than having to throw it inbounds.) If you are a pedant (or a Clippers fan, obviously), you want the rules followed to the letter. No foul, ball off Jackson.
But that is the wrong call. That is not what happened on that play. What happened is that Barnes pushed Jackson, causing him to lose control of the ball. If we want to get the call right -- the point of instant replay, remember -- you split the difference. The goal is not rule-following. The goal is justice. And that call, ultimately, was just.
Is it a little vigilante officiating? Definitely. But instant replay shouldn't exist to create a whole new set of confusing rules meant to back us into a corner rather than make the call everyone watching knows has to be made. The goal isn't to assert some vague video authoritarianism. The goal is to get it right.
I understand why Doc Rivers and Clippers fans are upset this morning (we won't even get into the foul called on Chris Paul that subsequently sent Russell Westbrook to the line for the game-winning free throws). But they are arguing on the margins. The right call was made, even if it wasn't correct. In the age of replay, we're going to have to start learning how to deal with these issues when they come up. (And they're going to come up all the time.) We can spend hours yelling at each other about what's reviewable, what isn't. Or we can just accept that sometimes, what's in front of our eyes is far more important than what's in some rulebook somewhere. Instant replay hasn't gotten rid of the human element. It has made it more important than ever.