Tradition and Accuracy Clash in Baseball Umpiring Dispute

While the 2009 MLB postseason has been layered with great stories, ranging from A-Rod’s impeccable slugging to the Phillies’ prowess, the most consistent playoffs headlines have been tales of bad umpiring. If you have been paying attention, you know the laundry list of mistakes keeps getting longer.

Remember Joe Mauer’s double that was fair by a foot being called foul in the Twins-Yankees series?

Or umpire C.B. Bucknor, who made numerous controversial calls at first base in the Red Sox-Angels series, including perhaps two of the worst calls in postseason history back-to-back?

How about the particularly notorious call in Game 4 of the Yankees-Angels series, when Angels pitcher Scott Kazmir caught Nick Swisher in no man’s land off of second base?

In the fourth inning, Kazmir threw a strike to second baseman Erick Aybar, who clearly put the tag on Swisher’s hand several inches before Swisher reached the bag. He was called safe. A few plays later, with Swisher now on third base, Johnny Damon hit a deep fly ball to center fielder Torii Hunter. Swisher tagged up and scored, but was called out because the same umpire said he took off for home plate before Hunter made the catch. Television replay showed conclusively that Swisher had in fact tagged up, but the call was made and umpires are not allowed to consult a replay in such situations. It got worse.

One inning later, third base umpire Scott McClelland again made a mistake. With one out and Yankees players on second (Robinson Cano) and third (Jorge Posada), Swisher chopped the ball back to Angels reliever Darren Oliver. Attentively, Oliver threw the ball home to catcher Mike Napoli, who caught Posada in a rundown. With nowhere to go, Posada ran back to third base, but Cano was also approaching third base after running over from second. Napoli, thinking quickly, applied the tag to both players. Replays showed that he tagged both of them when they were off the base, making it a double play. The umpire, however, only called Posada out, deciding that Cano should be safe at third.

Such mistakes are heating up the debate over whether it is time to institute a more complete use of instant reply in Major League Baseball. This debate has been raging in recent years, ever since the technology has been made available. The league has already instituted the technology for close home run calls, but refrained from an all-encompassing instant reply policy.

Umpires are only human, and because so many calls this postseason have been blatantly and embarrassingly wrong, many believe it is time for instant replay—and some want it now. On the ESPN show “Baseball Tonight,” analyst Buster Olney stated that, “If the Yankees win Thursday night, there will be five days until the World Series starts, and MLB should use that time to define the parameters of expanded replay use and determine how the communication will work.”

While we will not see instant replay in this year’s World Series, it seems possible that the plethora of bad calls this postseason could be the tipping point that leads to instant replay in the future.Traditionalists such as Angels outfielder Torii Hunter would protest Olney’s conclusion. When asked by writer Anthony Castrovince about the possibility of instant reply, Hunter protested, “This is the way it’s been forever. Why would we change it? Human error is good sometimes. Trust me.” In other words, some calls go your way and others don’t—this is baseball.The debate between relative “tradition” and “modernity” doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon and should be something to keep an eye on, but for now the league will throw its best umpires into battle under the pressure of the World Series.

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