How Baseball Might Start Making Sense (Some People Might Have to Die First)

Everyone with access to one of the Internet’s 9 trillion sports websites knows that this season, Major League Baseball has decided to expand replay reviews to include manager challenges, not unlike the system that’s been in place in the NFL for most of the past two decades. Baseball has had the same ability through all of that intervening time to add replay to its much more slowly paced games. The reasoning for this ludicrously long delay is, on some level, the same as it is for anything baseball decides to do: upholding the all-important values and traditions of the American pastime. The traditions of the game dictate that umpires make every on-field call. Their call is final, but then the manager sometimes comes out to plead his team’s case to no avail, to “stand up for his guys.” If we’re especially fortunate, we’ll get an Earl Weaver-level meltdown, and if we’re IMPOSSIBLY fortunate, we’ll get a dude-tearing-the-bases-out-of-the-field-and-throwing-them tirade.

Despite their fetching baby-blue outfits, Major League umpires are sometimes wrong. It then follows that the angry managers are sometimes right about controversial calls. Since before the dawn of recorded history, calls had been left to the umpire, and that’s all there was to it. This made sense for most of that time, because people were too busy foraging for berries and hunting woodland creatures to invent high-definition video cameras which could be used to tell if a guy’s foot hit a white square before a ball entered a glove worn by another guy standing on the white square. This is fully understandable, but as a result, the manager never had any recourse to get a bad call corrected. We’ve had the technology to do this for a while now, and the Major Leagues have simply refused to commit to fixing a glaring inefficiency in how games are officiated. This is because the institution of baseball, even still gets a cuddly feeling from the concept of the “human element,” the silent and unseen hand that guides the game away from being a mechanized and soulless experience.

The current generation of young-adult baseball fans consumes the game in a manner measurably different from their predecessors. The analytics movement has led legions of kids with sub-50-mile-per-hour fastballs to dream of being the Nate Silvers and Theo Epsteins of the world. It’s likely that their fathers couldn’t have named a single baseball executive of the 1970s or 80s, let alone distinguished differences between their team-building strategies. This is very much a generation which grew up on Moneyball and Baseball Prospectus, but not Casey at the Bat, or even Bull Durham. The romanticized Ken Burns-conjured image of the game is still an important part of its public perception, even to twenty-somethings. However, this image is fading from view as more and more fans start to see the 162 games of the regular season as a series of observations in a data set, used to prove the veracity of preseason forecasts or inform future ones, and every lineup as math in action instead of people actually playing a game. Obviously, there is still a lot to be said for the drama of a nail-biter in the midst of a pennant race, or watching the last outs of a no-hitter. The difference today is that the feelings that baseball evokes are no longer the only things keeping people entertained by the sport.

As the current batch of younger fans age and begin to assume roles in the league’s management, they may bring with them a mindset that views objective reasoning, which helped attract them to the game to begin with, as superior to nostalgic remembrances and diatribes about “what makes the game great.” I’m confident that these future decision makers would have made the replay decision in a heartbeat. This bodes well for the evolution of America’s most stubborn game as the 21st century progresses, especially as new technologies continue to emerge. These may help to quantify those things which still haven’t been adequately funneled into easy-to-read statistics. Baseball can be at the forefront of innovation in sports if it curbs its emotional baggage, even if it’s too late for Armando Galarraga.