Upon further review

There are unintended consequences to review that take away from the game

Getty Images

Be warned: This is one of those anti-instant-replay screeds that have, for years now, inspired even some of my closest friends to look at me like I’m the Unabomber. I get it. I’m way out of the mainstream on this one. The vast majority of people believe the most important thing is to “get the calls right,” and instant replay helps do that. My constant whining about how replay reviews fundamentally changes and damages the games we love strikes them as ludicrous. Do I want to go back to the days of Don Denkinger at first base and Mike Renfro being called out of bounds? Really?

Let’s just say that during the Royals-Blue Jays game on Tuesday, it again occurred to me clearly why I think instant replay review hurts baseball … and football … and every other sport. And it directly has to do with the seemingly inarguable idea that you want to “get the calls right.”

So, yes, I imagine most of you should probably stop reading now.

* * *

Let’s start with a video you have no doubt seen, a super-slow-motion video of a bat hitting a baseball. If you slow it down to 10,000 frames per second, you will see something that looks like an optical illusion. You will see that the baseball, which seems pretty solid, compresses like it’s a racquetball hitting a wall. It gets smooshed. And, if you look even more closely, you will see that the bat actually bends, as if made of rubber. Similar things are true when you slow down a football being kicked, a golf ball being driven or even a basketball being dribbled.

There is no possible way we would know this — or even believe it — if the cameras didn’t show it to us. I remember listening to NFL Films’ Steve Sabol marvel about how a kickoff looked when you slowed down the film just enough. Everybody at Films just sat around watching in wonder. “It was,” he said, “like seeing a new star through a telescope.”

OK. Hold on to that thought for a moment.

During the Blue Jays-Royals game on Tuesday, Kansas City’s Alex Rios cleanly stole second. It was exactly the same play we have seen a thousand times before. Only on replay, when you slowed down the film, you saw something else. Rios hopped a little bit. He was off the ground for approximately a tenth of a second, something to do with gravity and the awkwardness that comes with sliding into a base.

Ryan Goins had the ball in his glove and the glove on Rios as he hopped.

The umpires went to instant replay, slowed it down, and made the call. Rios was out.

They got the call right.

And, at the exact same time, they absolutely got the call wrong, too.

Something very similar happened in the Royals-Astros series. Kansas City’s Terrance Gore — who I continue to believe is the fastest baserunner in Major League history — stole third base cleanly. As he hit the bag, he sort of bounced off it — again, a repercussion of force and counterforce. Astros third baseman Luis Valbuena kept a tag on Gore.

The umpires went to instant replay, slowed down the replay, and saw Gore was off the bag for an instant. They called Gore out.

They got the call right.

And, at the exact same time, they absolutely got the call wrong, too.

There are many inconveniences about instant-replay reviews in our games. They add dead time to games that don’t exactly lack for dead ball. They interrupt the flow. They take us fans out of the wonderful immediacy of the sports moment — a touchdown isn’t a touchdown, a fumble isn’t a fumble, a game-winning basket isn’t game-winning basket, a home run isn’t a home run until it goes through the appeals process. This stuff has always bothered me more than most other people. Most people will put up with a lot of inconvenience to get the calls right.

But what I realized during those Rios and Gore overturns — and have thought about time and again while NFL people debate grand philosophical question like “What constitutes a catch?” — is that this whole notion of “getting the calls right” is a bottomless pit. We like to think of sports as beings solid, like baseballs. But they are not solid. Slow them down enough and they compress. They are smooshed.

Look: When baseball and football and basketball and hockey and soccer and all the rest evolved into the sports we watch now, there was no instant replay. Heck, there was no television. There certainly was no slow motion.

In other words, the games were invented and adjusted to be officiated in REAL TIME. That’s obvious: There was no other kind of time. You called it like you saw it — and nobody could see a baserunner’s foot bouncing an inch of two off the base or a hopping an inch off the ground when sliding. Nobody could slow down the action enough to see if the quarterback’s arm had indeed just begun moving forward before or after the ball came loose.

So, nobody even thought about those tiny details. On stolen bases, if the throw beat the runner to the bag, the runner was almost always called out — it rarely mattered if he pulled off some tricky “you didn’t touch me” slide. On double-play grounders, the runner was generally called out if the middle infielder’s foot was near the bag, even if it didn’t quite clip the bag. On pass plays, when receivers seemed to have possession of the ball and they got two feet down inbounds, it was called a catch, and nobody worried if the ball was still spinning or if the nose of the ball touched the ground after the reception or the receiver completed a football move or whatever they talk about now.

Because nobody worried about those small, almost imperceptible details, the games had a clarity. That’s part of what we liked about it. Sure, people might gripe when a shortstop abused the neighborhood play (“He wasn’t within three feet of the bag!”) or when there was a particularly egregious football mark. But, for the most part, what bugged people was that umpires and referees were getting the pretty obvious calls wrong.

That is to say, they were concerned with missed calls at first base or whether a receiver stayed inbounds. They were concerned with MISTAKES, and replay was such a solid way to fix MISTAKES. The most famous bad calls in sports history would have been fixed with this magical thing called replay, and that made it irresistible and important.

But, when dealing with replay — and the ability to slow the game down to 2,000 frames per second — the rabbit hole goes very deep. And you can’t just stop with fixing the bad calls. Because the more you slow it down, the more you see things that the eyes could never see before. And once you see those things — like someone hopping slightly off the bag in a stolen base — you can’t UNSEE them. Rios WAS tagged while off the bag. He WAS out.

But that’s not what most of us want from baseball. And the more we slow down this game, the more we’re going to see stuff like that, silly little stuff that should not matter, but in slow motion does matter. We move away from the spirit of the game, I think.

Of course, I have my own solution, one that nobody will like. I say that we have replay in baseball but we don’t let the replay official slow it down. The replay official can watch the ball at full speed from different angles. If, at full speed, it’s clear that the wrong call was made on the field, then you overturn it. If it’s not clear at full speed, you don’t overturn the call.

This way, maybe, we can stop obsessing over microscopic details, and we might stop breaking down the game in silly ways. You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. … Well, OK, I might be the only one.