The Cutoff Man: Play it again, Bud

The actual misquoted line that Ilsa Lund uttered at the start of Casablanca was, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

Play it once, indeed.

Maybe it’s just a bad year, but as Mets announcer Ron Darling so bluntly pointed out, this year has featured some of the worst umpiring I’ve ever seen. Aside from replay-aided home run calls, which have still been potentially wrong at least once, TV replays have shown fans innumerable missed calls on judgments that prove to be both trivial and important.

Perhaps none was more important, or fueled more debate, than the call umpire Jim Joyce missed on June 2 this year in Detroit. Joyce, a 24-year veteran, called Cleveland’s Jason Donald safe on a close play at first that would have otherwise completed a perfect game for the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga. Replays, as well as most naked-eye views, showed that the call should have been out. Galarraga got imperfection, Joyce got infamy, and the debate about expanding replay grew from a small fire to an inferno.

In 2007, the Mets’ David Wright had a double overturned to a home run after the scoreboard showed a replay for all to see. After a plethora of missed home run calls found the spotlight in 2008, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that after much deliberation and planning, the use of replay would be instituted for any close home run call, whether the debate be fair or foul, over the fence or in play (or interference). Cameras were installed at “strategic” locations throughout every ballpark in baseball and by September that year, the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez was awarded the first official replay-assisted home run call in baseball history.

The introduction of replay for home run calls was shunned by some but welcomed by most. As a longtime follower of baseball and a fan of the human element of the game, I warily approved of the move based solely on the principle that close home run calls would be the only instances in which replay would be used. The slew of missed home run calls that year had been too much to overlook, and minimal use of replay seemed to be a rather unobtrusive solution.

It was. Momentarily.

With “the imperfect game” leading the way, the charge for a more extensive use of replay has baseball fans screaming from both sides of the debate. Those in favor have a rather large pool of evidence in their favor, as archives of almost every game can show any missed call from decades of baseball past. With no missed calls, the yeasayers yell, the game will be rid of much frustration and many what-ifs.

But what of the pacing of the game? That is one of the main arguments on the anti side. Currently, similar to the guidelines set by the NFL, any manager can ask that a home run be reviewed via replay if he believes the umpire got the call wrong. A typical video review takes around two minutes, though some have taken almost 10. With extended replay usage, some say, a manager could use that right to challenge any somewhat close call and potentially delay a game far more than necessary.

Such a situation could rarely happen, though. Any manager who can see a close call is correct from the naked eye wouldn’t argue for the sake of arguing. Moreover, according to a survey conducted by ESPN’s Outside the Lines earlier this year, a close call happens about 1.3 times per game — hardly enough to make a significant dent in a game’s timing.

More importantly, the survey revealed that in the 184 games included in the survey — every MLB game played from June 29 to July 11 — umpires called 66 percent of the 230 close calls correctly. Furthermore, 14 percent of said calls could have gone either way, and umpires got 20 percent of the calls wrong. What wasn’t included was how many of those 230 calls, and more specifically how many of the incorrect ones, pivotal plays in the game were, like Joyce’s.

That could be the exception to the rule. What if only game-changing calls like Joyce’s could be reviewed? It would potentially keep replay in the wings unless absolutely necessary, perhaps pleasing both sides of the debate.

But any call can be potentially game-changing. Factors like how many outs there are and how many runners are on base change both the pitcher’s and the batter’s approach; they change a manager’s approach and a baserunner’s approach. In short, there are too many things that could determine whether a call is game-changing or not.

Frankly, what the debate boils down to is how much people value the human element of baseball. Growing up, missed calls were always a part of the game. They always have been. My grandfather loves to talk about how at Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “Three Blind Mice” used to be played as the umpires were being introduced. “Kill the ump!” has been a favorite cry of baseball fans throughout the world and throughout history. Love them or hate them, umpires have always been there to try to get the call right.

As far as I’m concerned — and as far as history is concerned — missed calls have only become a hot-button issue in the past few years. Before the griping really began, missed calls were just accepted as a part of baseball, and for many, a part of what made baseball great. I agree with what Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew said when interviewed by Outside the Lines: “To me it’s the human element part of the game, and I think it should stay that way. Maybe I’m from the old school, but I think that is the way it ought to be played.”

So here’s looking at you, umps. Call ’em like you see ’em. Play it once — in real time — and let baseball be baseball.