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Baseball 101: Pon de Replay

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A story you may have forgotten inspired a rule you may still have difficulty understanding.

New York Mets v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Baseball 101 is an ongoing series from The Good Phight’s Allie Foster that breaks down some of the multifaceted aspects of baseball for those fans who might not be as familiar with the ins and outs of the game. In this fifth edition, she explains instant replay and how it came to be in Major League Baseball. You can read other entries here.

The National Football League first started experimenting with instant replay in 1976 and introduced it league-wide in 1985. The National Hockey League introduced instant replay in 1991, and the National Basketball Association started reviewing certain plays in 2002. For the longest time, Major League Baseball refused to join their counterparts in this new era of technology. Former MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth once declared that “Umpires making split-second decisions is part of the flavor of the game.” Instant replay, according to him, should never be a part of baseball.

In 2008, the league instituted replay reviews of home run calls. The change wasn’t a big one, and soon the topic of instant replay was mostly forgotten. But on June 2, 2010, umpire Jim Joyce made a call that brought the concept of instant replay back to the forefront of conversation in the baseball world. With two outs in the ninth inning, Joyce called Cleveland Indians batter Jason Donald safe at first base. The problem? Replays showed that Donald wasn’t actually safe. The even bigger problem? His single-that-really-wasn’t ended what would have been a perfect game for Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga.

Galarraga’s perfect game would have been the third of its kind in less than a month. Four days earlier, Roy Halladay threw MLB’s 20th perfect game for the Phillies against the Miami Marlins. Twenty days prior to that, Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game for the Oakland Athletics against the Tampa Bay Rays. To date, there have only been 23 perfect games in over 140 years in Major League Baseball.

Umpires making split-second decisions is absolutely part of the game, Peter Ueberroth was right. But at what point does a sport have to concede some of that flavor in order to ensure that the calls on the field are accurate and don’t change the outcome of the game? Galarraga retired the next batter he faced after Donald and the Tigers still won 3-0. However, instead of going into the history books as one of the few pitchers to ever complete such a rare feat, Galarraga’s story is one we tell to show that, ironically, no one is perfect.

On the other side of the call, Jim Joyce, one of the most respected and well-liked umpires in the history of the game, was suddenly being painted as a villain in this situation. Joyce, of course, never meant to make the wrong call. He simply made a mistake—an error that comes with having human beings make instantaneous judgement calls.

The following day, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that Major League Baseball would look into expanding the use of replay reviews. The system didn’t change until four years later. In the 2014 season, Major League Baseball finally expanded its replay policy. Under the new system, each manager was allowed one challenge per game. If the challenge was successful, the manager retained it and could challenge another call. In addition to that, the umpire crew chief was allowed to initiate his own review from the eighth inning on. The crew chief was also allowed to initiate a review at any point during the game for a disputed home run call.

The policy was modified again in 2015, allowing managers to retain their challenge after every successful attempt, not just the first. The list of calls that were subject to review expanded in both 2015 and 2016. In 2017, MLB instituted a 30-second time limit for managers to challenge. Previously, managers had until the next pitch was thrown. MLB also implemented a two-minute limit for the replay crew (located in New York) to make a decision.

Plays that can be reviewed are limited to: Home runs/potential home runs, fair/foul balls that initially land beyond the first- or third-base umpires, force/tag play calls, catch plays in the outfield, specified baserunning calls (if a baserunner passes a preceding runner, if a baserunner scores before a third out is made, and if a baserunner touched a base), hit by pitch calls, collisions at home plate, tag-ups, placement of baserunners, and interference on double plays.

If Jim Joyce could have that moment in his life back and do it over, there’s no doubt he would have made a different call than the one he made. Armando Galarraga’s legacy would probably appreciate that change. It’s an unfortunate situation that changed both of their lives, but what’s important is that it also changed the discussion around instituting replay into the sport of baseball. The concept of replay reviews in sports is a tale as old as time, but the application in baseball is still evolving. At least now pitchers don’t have to worry about a blown call ruining their chance at a perfect game.