TOWER GROVE • Imagine if all of this had happened a year from now. Cardinals second-year first baseman Matt Adams scalds a line drive down the right-field line that to you, me, Adams, and the guy seated in the lower bowl down the third-base line looks fair. The first-base umpire issues a dissent. Foul ball.
At this moment, his is the only opinion that matters.
Until … out comes the challenge flag from the Cardinals’ dugout.
Maybe Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will carry the flag in his back pocket. Maybe there will be a flag holster built into the big-league dugouts, and it will be the responsibility of the batboy to fill the holster with one flag for the first six innings and two flags for the later innings. Maybe the flag will change colors based on the charitable endeavor underway. Light blue flags for Father’s Day. That kind of thing. Maybe there won’t be a flag at all, and Matheny will only have to emerge from the dugout – as he did last night in the second inning – and officially issue his challenge.
He would have challenged that call, to be sure.
The Cardinals, who were being no-hit at the time by the Milwaukee Brewers starter Marco Estrada, would have had runners at the corners and no outs. A groundball to the right side or a fly ball to the outfield would have scored the team’s first run. As the inning played out, Adams reached base – but a double play sabotaged the inning. It was a double play that all things being equal could have also brought home the runner from third. With all that on the line, there would be no reason to wait to challenge. Even though it was the second inning – and there were four more innings to play with only one challenge – that was the moment to challenge.
And that highlights the silliness of having to make that call at all.
Why would Matheny even have to consider using his challenge in that spot when before he stepped foot out of the dugout, all of us in the press box – the chattering class – had seen a replay that clearly showed the ball was fair.
It took one replay.
It took less than a minute for anyone with a television screen to see the ball was fair, and if any of those people with a TV screen had the power to send a message – say to that height of 1980s tech, a beeper – to an umpire, then the call would have been correct. No challenge. No huddle. Just correct.
Last night’s second inning and the wrong call on Adams’ base hit – which remained a wrong call even after the umps huddled up to discuss – show why the challenge approach misses the point. There’s no need to bog the game down with the manager wondering if this is the moment to challenge. A play like that happens, there’s a call, and within 30 seconds there’s a beep to the crew chief that they need to reconsider. Before Matheny would get to the umps to argue, the official in the booth would have already had an answer and Adams would be at first.
Obviously there has been ongoing discussion about the official scoring at games, just as there has been about umpiring the game. It's just not out there for as much public scrutiny. At least among the Cardinals' press corps and officials scorers, we've talked about tighter definitions for official scorers, more standardized calls from ballpark to ballpark. One of my colleagues even suggested an NHL-like Big Brother operation, where baseball monitors the game from a bunker in, say, New York for official scoring the same way the NHL watches officiating and can make goal calls from a room in Toronto.
Why not combine these issues, these calls for change? Why not expand replay by expanding the role and the authority of the official scorer? Make that position part of the umpiring crew and move replay up into a booth at the ballpark.
The official scorer would not only score the game, but also, when needed make a call.
Official scorers, all of whom are certified by Major League Baseball and most of whom do an exceptional job, already use video to take a look at plays that could be errors or not. It's not a rarity that a call will be made on a tough error only to have it reversed in the next inning because the scorer had a chance to check the tape. It is illogical that the person scoring the game has more access to video than the officials calling the game.
Seems to me there's a hybrid here that keeps the human element in play, advances the use of replay and won't evolve into HAL* behind the plate.
* It's a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. Google it.
Major League Baseball has protocol in place to allow the media to interview the umpires after a call or a game like Wednesday night’s at Busch Stadium. Over the years, this process has become better and the umpires, in my experience, have been more and more forthcoming with their comments and their thought process. This has become a learning process for the media and the umpires, and it feels as if they’re welcoming the accountability.
As the pool reporter last night at Busch, I had the chance to talk with crew chief Tom Hallion after the game about that call, and he was cordial, professional, and enlightening. He was honest. He helped explain the situation in great detail, and also, inadvertently, gave a window into how an off-field replay system would be far better than a challenge-flag system.
Here is the transcript of Hallion’s comments, including his opening answer to my general comment about the call and then my questions that followed:
“Obviously Chris (Guccione) had made the call down the right-field line. We huddled together and we asked Chris what he had. He said it was a bastard but he thought it was just foul. We all got together to see if any of us had a clearer – first of all, we all went through what we thought happened. We were looking for somebody who was conclusive, 110-percent sure that it was different than what Chris had called. We could not come up with that. It was a whacker of a play. Obviously, looking at it now on the replay it looks like it hits the fair-foul line. But when we get together and we huddle, we’re looking for 110 percent assurance that if we’re going to flip it that we can tell that it was the wrong call. With that type of play we just were not able to do that.
“From third base, yeah, I thought it looked fair. But I can’t convince the crew that that’s what it was. We had to stick with Chris’ call and die with it, basically.”
Q: The second base ump and yourself at third – is that a hard angle to truly see?
“It is. If you look down the right-field or the left-field foul line you’ve got the fence is angled and it is a very difficult call. Certainly, we’re sitting in the huddle saying we want to get this right. Every one is giving their opinion of what it was. I just don’t feel that we had 110-percent assurance that that’s what it was. It was just that tough of a call. Obviously we got the call wrong. We also didn’t want to flip it and come back here and watch it on replay and see that we were wrong doing that. It’s just one of those calls.”
Q: How many different angles did you see on the replay? How quickly?
“Whatever feeds they had. I don’t know how many feeds they had. From my angle, there were two different feeds that I saw on it.”
Q: On the replay, it was clearly fair?
“It looks like it hits right into that foul line.”
It took the umpires only a few minutes and a few replay angles after the game to review the film of the hit and come to a conclusion that they couldn’t – with the “110-percent” certainty that Hallion describes – on the field. Again, they didn’t need many angles. They didn’t need much time.
They didn’t need to do it all.
Under the challenge-flag change that baseball plans to install next season, the process would be this: Adams hits, Guccione calls, Matheny challenges. The crew chief then goes to a secure phone to let New York know that there has been a challenge. Officials in the video room in New York may have already seen those replays and had an answer for Hallion, or the officials there at MLB HQ may have to quickly review the tape again. The official ruling would be relayed to Hallion, who would go out and say, “Adams is safe at first. Base hit. Matheny, you still have one challenge for the next four innings. Play ball.”
That’s not using replay technology.
That’s a Rube Goldberg machine.
Last night shows us the whole process could be streamlined.
If we can see in the press box what the right call is within 60 seconds of the ball touching down fair, then why shouldn’t the officials on the field be given that same information? No New York needed. It’s absurd that they had to huddle on the field talking about what everybody in the box or at home with a television already knew and the umpires eventually did.