While so far, baseball’s newly implemented replay system has met or exceeded all of my expectations (it’s boring, unnecessary, doesn’t improve the accuracy of the calls), over the past month I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by a vague weight of malaise, an unsettling cloud seeping into my heart and mind whenever they go to the tape. I couldn’t figure out why. Sure replay is shitty, but hardly worth this degree of despair, disgust, of hopelessness…
Then last night the voice of a commentator touting “Finally, we’re getting the calls right, and the right team is winning the games,” unveiled the source of the darkness. This is the promise of an apocalyptic disaster. This is John Kerry threatening to bomb everyone. This is George W. and Pat Robertson and the American Taliban. This is jihad. This is beating the shit out of somebody for wearing the wrong jersey. This is straightedge violence. This is that pernicious, idiotic belief that “right” and “wrong” exist independent and transcendent of human construction, floating in the firmament.
To support replay in baseball is to agree that without it, left to our own paltry devices, we run the intolerable danger of failing to recognize the True winner of a baseball game. Of a fucking baseball game (Remember when full-grown adults spent a month debating the morality of Jeter faking getting hit by a pitch). As if the book has already been dictated, and the best we can do is simply avoid fucking up the translation. And to accept that, don’t we have to assign an asterisk to every game that’s been played over the past 150 years? How do we know whether or not the correct team won any of those games? How many times in our blind primitive past have we unwittingly crowned a “wrong” World Series winner? Did Ted Williams truly, in whatever section of heaven or the universe houses the ultimate objective reality of baseball, cleansed of clumsy human interpretation, bat .406 in 1941? Did DiMaggio hit in 56 straight? Did Maris genuinely hit 61? Might not some of those so-called base hits have landed a couple of millimeters foul, a “homerun” failed to nick the foul pole, imperceptible to the human eye but clear as day in high-definition slo-motion?
Replay is deadening. If my team scores on a close play at the plate, catcher and baserunner sprawled in the dirt, umpire slashing his hands screaming “Safe!”…dare I cheer? What if moments later it turns out I didn’t see what I saw? Suddenly my cheer’s been perverted, given over to the enemy. Even if my experience is upheld, now I’m no longer cheering for the play, I’m cheering for the way the play looked on television to a bunch of old guys in New York. It’s the forced, deflated cheer of subjugation, of obsequence. My reality has become subservient to the edicts of the machine.
It’s called The Big Show because it’s a show. A performance. A collaborative piece of art. There’s this weird pandemic misconception that sport occupies some utility outside of entertainment (such as when an athlete (see Bryant, Kobe) says he wishes the media would just leave him alone, as if ball-playing is an industry that exists independent of media and pathologically interested fans). That the only important part is the end result, the accurate ledger, and since humans are fallible, we need to bring in the robots, impervious to the vicissitudes of emotion and environment. Replay is sad and soulless. An expressed aim is to obviate lengthy umpire-manager arguments. That’s a good idea. Who wants to see Lou Piniella throwing a base, Earl Weaver frolicking like a demented Chihuahua? A managerial tantrum is a tactic, a strategy used to kill or foment momentum, to galvanize the troops for tomorrow and beyond. I would argue that faking an impossible play is more virtuosic than actually making an extremely difficult play. The outfielder who, along with getting a great jump and taking the perfect angle and laying out parallel to the ground also twists his body to block the umpire and snaps his mitt to obscure the short hop and leaps up rolling his neck, stone-faced, lobbing the ball into the infield, transforming lie into truth. The fact that a screaming crowd or a good reputation or a well-placed complaint delivered in a manner appropriate to the specific umpire’s temperament can send a 50-50 call one way or the other isn’t indicative of a human flaw within the system of the game. It’s evidence of humanity within the system, proof that the game consists of an unquantifiable, complicated nexus of protean dynamics that morph and fight and pull with each passing split second.
Even the seemingly worst-case, nightmare scenarios, even the egregious miscarriages make the game richer, better, truer to life. I could probably list all of the perfect games thrown in my lifetime…and that’s where it would end. A list. Except for one. Armando Galarraga. Jim Joyce crying, apologizing without requesting forgiveness, marveling at the fact that Galarraga didn’t protest, just took the ball and went back to work. Galarraga saying “Nobody’s perfect…Everybody makes a mistake.” I’ve seen perfectos before. What I hadn’t seen is that degree of compassion and graciousness, reverberating far beyond anything that would have come out of Jason Donald being called out at first base. If our goal is to construct a clean efficient machine, shouldn’t this apply to the players as well? Mookie Wilson barely hit that ball. The right team didn’t win. However, out of the thousands of ground balls Bill Buckner fielded in his career, I’ll bet your mental highlight reel contains only one. It’s wrong for a ball to hit Jose Canseco on top of the head and bounce over the fence…but I’m glad it did. The other day in a rec league basketball game I threw a pass wide by about forty feet and one guy said “Chuck Knoblauch” (although I didn’t hit Olbermann’s mom in the head) and another guy said “Steve Sax” and I said “Mackey Sasser” and the three of us, strangers, smiled at each other and laughed. A Randy Johnson fastball isn’t supposed to vaporize a seagull. But believe it or not, this is shit that happens. This is life. If I wrote a story where a guy with one arm threw a no-hitter, or an umpire kicked the shit out of an obvious call to ruin a perfect game, or a kid and his dad hit back-to-back big league homeruns, I’d get laughed out of a freshman writer’s workshop. Too maudlin, too loaded, too hack…But it happens. And these are the moments we remember forever.
In addition to furthering the crusade of dead-eyed, totalitarian sourpussery assailing our society, replay serves to reinforce our slavish obsession with useless technology, a collective weakness of character that will undoubtedly, undoubtedly, factor prominently in the aforementioned impending apocalypse. Remember when Curt Schilling smashed the QuesTec? Now if there’s one thing I hate, it’s Curt Schilling (What, the Red Sox training staff didn’t have a clean fucking bandage? Was he planning on pitching with his foot?), but I’m with him there.
If innovation is intended to recruit fans, somebody find me a single person, one, in the world, who had resisted watching baseball due to its lack of replay. If this is part of the oft-mentioned desire to make baseball more exciting for the younger generation, the intrinsic problem is that baseball isn’t, and will never be, exciting unless you like baseball. And if you like baseball, it isn’t because you find it particularly exciting. Telling kids baseball is cool is like telling them that smoking isn’t cool. Baseball isn’t. Smoking is. The reason you shouldn’t smoke is because it eventually kills you and the reason we love baseball is because it’s intricate and cerebral and nostalgic, with a uniquely storied history and beautiful symmetry. Leave coolness out of it. The whole appeal of baseball is that it isn’t like other shit. It’s not flashy or fast or loud or violent or particularly gripping. Guys don’t concuss each other or float through the air or point at their jerseys or beat their chests screaming. Celebrities don’t sit in the front row. Guys score baseball as a hobby, for godsake. Every attempt to pretend baseball is wild and extreme and cool ends in sloppy disaster. You get Jason Giambi looking like a sweatier Ultimate Warrior (Not even chicks, as it turned out, dug the long ball). You get the half-Latin half-geriatric bad acid trip of Marlins Park. You get Macklemore and “My Oh My,” you get Scott Stapp and “Marlins Will Soar”…
Bring baseball into the twenty-first century…Why? What’s so great about the twenty-first century? Who would you rather see play, Sammy Sosa or Willie Mays? Lou Gehrig or Mark McGwire? Roger Clemens or Walter Johnson? Polo Grounds or Tropicana Field? Just because something exists doesn’t automatically mean it’s an improvement over the original version. Refusing to embrace every dumbass thing that comes along doesn’t necessarily make you a Russian peasant or a Kentucky hillperson. I can spray tan and ride around on a Segway and follow iJustine on YouTube, but I choose not to. And you know why? Because there’s no fucking reason to. I already have the sun and legs and respect for the finite nature of my time on earth. None of that shit is better. It’s worse. Just because everyone else is serving some useless machine doesn’t mean you should. On the contrary. It means you shouldn’t. Be the last kid who remembers how to play outside, how to walk to the library, how to talk to a girl.
The root of the problem is that the rules weren’t written for a robotic audience. So I’ve got an easy fix. Just interpolate a few additional words, such as: “7.01 A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he (looks like he) touches it before he is (as determined by the human eye) out.” There. Now everybody’s happy, and the right team can still win the game.