Upon further review, limited system needed

The Baltimore Sun

Major League Baseball reportedly is preparing to experiment with video replay to affirm or overturn disputed home run calls, which got me to thinking.

What if a system like that had been in effect Oct. 9, 1996?

If that date doesn't ring a bell, it should. That was the infamous night when young New York Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier reached over the fence in right field to deflect Derek Jeter's long fly ball into the stands at Yankee Stadium. Umpire Rich Garcia ruled it a home run - which cost the Orioles an eighth-inning lead in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series - though replays and still photos seemed to prove the ball would have been caught by O's outfielder Tony Tarasco and, therefore, the play should have been ruled fan interference.

The play was so controversial that Orioles owner Peter Angelos ordered team lawyers to draft a legal appeal in an unsuccessful attempt to get commissioner Bud Selig to overrule the call and replay the game from that point.

Think of the possible revision of history if there had been a limited instant replay system in place at the time. Presuming that kind of play was reviewable, the Orioles likely would have gotten the call reversed and held on to win that game. If they also had gone on to win Game 2 (which, admittedly, requires the fallacy of the predetermined outcome), they would have been in very strong position to change the eventual outcome of the ALCS and advance to the World Series - essentially postponing the beginning of the new Yankees dynasty.

The possible ripples from that historic little pebble should pique the imagination of any Orioles fan. Would the team have evolved differently from that point? Would Angelos have bought enough goodwill to weather the difficult years that turned him into a villain for a large segment of the club's fan base?

We'll never know, of course, but video technology has advanced to the point where the outcome of a key regular-season game or a big playoff series should not have to turn on an obvious umpiring error.

That's why I've changed my opinion on instant replay in baseball, as long as it's limited to rare instances of significant import and can be implemented without undue impact on the flow of the game.

The Alex Rodriguez "double" that cleared the fence and bounced back onto the field during Wednesday's game against the Orioles could have been reviewed and correctly ruled a home run in a matter of seconds after the initial call. Two other times over the past week - at Yankee Stadium and Minute Maid Park in Houston - umpires misjudged home runs.

Soon thereafter, ESPN.com reported that MLB officials are tentatively planning to experiment with replay during this year's Arizona Fall League and could also test a replay system during the World Baseball Classic and next year's exhibition season. The decision follows an overwhelming vote by the game's general managers (25-5) in November in favor of test driving a replay system for disputed boundary calls.

"The times are such that our fans are used to seeing all the high technology and they're used to seeing the other sports that use these systems to make determinations, and the fans are clamoring for all the sports to look at that," Jimmie Lee Solomon, the sport's executive vice president for baseball operations, told ESPN.com.

Selig has long been opposed to instant replay for a variety of reasons, and I generally agree with him. I don't want to see an umpire run for the replay closet every time there's a bang-bang play at first base or a trapped ball in the outfield. But a limited boundary system that determines whether a ball is a home run or not will only come into play on rare occasions in which one or more runs hang in the balance.

When you consider that four of the six division races were decided by two games or fewer last year, there should be no debate about the importance of getting those calls right. Orioles fans know that from their painful playoff experience at Yankee Stadium in 1996.

Though I realize the situation is ripe for theoretical hair-splitting (Why not include miscalls on the bases? The Cardinals might have lost the 1985 World Series because of Don Denkinger's famous first base flub in Game 6), it's not necessary to go all the way down that slippery slope to a total replay system. The NFL restricts the kind of plays that can be reviewed, and that system works all right, though Ravens fans are still scratching their heads over that game-tying field goal in the Browns game last season.

I'm all for maintaining the human touch, but this one isn't a tough call.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Saturdays and Sundays.

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