I’m sure Jerry Meals is a decent guy. Or at least I have no real evidence to suggest he’s not, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think he made one of the worst calls in the history of professional sports last night because he’s a terrible person. I don’t even think he did it because he was exhausted after 19 innings and just wanted to go to sleep. At least not consciously.
What I do think happened is that, with runners at the corners and one out in the bottom of the 19th, he figured the end was nigh. He visualized making a safe call at home and sending the home crowd home happy (what was left of it, anyway). He figured that if the hitter put his bat on the ball, one way or another this game was over. He figured this so much that when a ball was put in play, he couldn’t see anything else, even though every single other person in the known universe could.
It was a terrible, laughable, sorry excuse for an umpiring call, but I believe it was an honest mistake. He shouldn’t have to apologize today. Well, he probably should apologize, and he sort of has already. But the person who really needs to apologize is Bud Selig. His inexplicable clinging to antiquated ideas about replay means there was no mechanism to overturn Meals’ call. That is far more inexcusable than anything Meals did.
If you want to know why baseball has lost so much ground to other sports, this is a prime reason: It is the only sport where we actually debate whether getting things right might violate some notion of what the game means. Every decision about how to modernize baseball carries with it the weight of history and religious reverence. There are people who fear that any innovation may somehow prevent fathers from playing catch with their sons or grabbing a hot dog at the game. Every other sport–every other sport–changes its rules with insane regularity and nobody bats an eye. Baseball needs to start doing the same, the whining traditionalists be damned, or else devolve into an athletic cousin of Civil War recreation.
Last year, when Armando Galarraga was cheated out of a perfect game because of a bad call at first base, we were supposed to be salved by the grand gestures of good sportsmanship put on by the pitcher in its immediate aftermath. Oh, look at that, Galarraga brought out the lineup card! What a trooper! We’ve all learned a valuable lesson about being good sports! Hurray! We’re all getting pizza after the game!
That’s wonderful fluff for the Mitch Alboms of the world. The rest of us would rather see a game that can reverse terrible calls and have an actual sense of justice. Bud Selig, rather than take this opportunity to press for replay, instead emphasized the Albom-ian cheesiness of it all and let a chance to improve his game fade away along with the outrage. It was like saying that slamming your car into ditch taught you a lesson about not driving so fast into ditches, when the lesson you should take from that experience is to not drive into ditches at all.
Sports are meaningless without an assumption of fairness. The participants have to believe that everything is on the level to put forward their best effort. If you get screwed out of a win and the guy in charge just shrugs his shoulders, that’s not a sport. That’s a shell game.
I’ve puzzled for a while as to why Bud Selig is so hidebound on this issue, when he’s had no problem changing baseball in drastic ways elsewhere. During his tenure as commissioner, he’s added four expansion teams, restructured the divisions, moved one team from the AL to the NL (Brewers) and allowed another to wither and die (Expos), added a wild card berth and whole extra round for the playoffs (and is considering even more), aggressively took on both the players’ and umpires’ unions, oversaw the construction of the most new stadiums in the history of the game, allowed an astronomical amount of ownership changes, made the All Star Game determine home-field advantage in the World Series for some fakakte reason…need I go on? If you look at his record, Selig has done virtually nothing but alter the game of baseball. Why is replay so beyond the pale for him?
And then I figured it out: Every single one of the items I mentioned made Bud Selig and the other owners money. Bud Selig has no incentive to push for replay, no passion for the issue, because it will not line his pockets or the pockets of his buddies. Though he divested his stake in the Brewers a while ago, he clearly retains an owner’s mentality and sense of values, which essentially boils down to What’s in it for me?
There is nothing in replay for him apart from the added cost of outfitting stadiums with video equipment and hiring new umpires to man them. The cost of not adding replay is minimal and ephemeral–basically, he gets yelled at by guys like me when the Jerry Meals of the game fuck up, and that’s about it. A billionaire can handle being yelled at if it means he won’t lose any money.
Of course, there are long term costs to not adopting replay, such as failure to attract new/younger fans who can’t abide such idiocy. How can baseball possibly entice a generation of sports fans for whom the idea of not being able to overturn a bad call is unthinkable? Imagine if the Meals call happened in a football game. There’d be car-fllipping riots in the streets. The survivors would envy the dead.
Outside of Jackie Robinson, baseball has never been ahead of the curve, and it has never changed its worst, most damaging features until it was almost too late. Gambling, for instance, plagued the sport for decades before the ugly Black Sox scandal blew up. It allowed owners’ collusion to continue unfettered, which fostered resentment among the player and may have been the biggest factor in the 1994 strike (even if Ken Burns’ The Tenth Inning didn’t mention it at all). It had no PED policy to speak of for far too long, which both allowed steroids to flourish and made MLB’s response to the problem (once McGwire and Sosa couldn’t “save” the game any more) hamfisted and incomplete.
Baseball doesn’t have to exist. There’s a lot of entertainment out there competing for people’s dollars and attention, entertainment that doesn’t pull the rug out from under people’s feet with no recourse for retribution. At some point, people are going to decide that they can’t watch this antiquated shadow of a sport just because of apple pie and mom. If Selig doesn’t institute replay, and soon, the next terrible call will not generate any outrage at all, because no one will be watching.