By Ross Newhan
There is growing and widespread opinion among major league managers, general managers and players that a replay system designed to produce the correct call on close plays is being undermined by hesitancy among umpires manning the New York review facility to overrule their colleagues on the field.
Over a three week period I talked with four general managers, three managers and several players, and while all were reluctant to speak for attribution on a subject that could be interpreted to impugn the integrity of umpires, they all suggested the process could be improved with fundamental changes that removed any hint of a "buddy system" among the umpires rotating through New York and those on the field.
"I want to be clear," said a National League general manager. "The umpires do a great job generally, and the replay system for the most part has been beneficial. However, the system is still relatively new and it's natural to consider it a work in progress with a definite need for some fixes. We have simply reviewed too many of our own challenges (to calls on the field) that were not overturned despite clear (video) evidence the call was wrong."
Among the executives, managers and players with whom I talked there was general unanimity that the umpiring staff should be removed from the review process, alleviating any perception of overriding allegiance between those doing the reviewing and the umpire who made the call.
They generally suggested three major changes
--The hiring of independent personnel to man the replay facility.
--No longer informing the replay personnel of what the call on the field was and, when possible, reviewing only close ups of the play in question rather then wider shots showing the umpire making the call.
--A time limit of possibly two minutes on all reviews that would do away with the three minute-plus delays that have become prevalent in a series of recent games and which have impeded the pace of game initiative. If the replay evidence is simply not clear in that time the call on the field would stand.
"I am reluctant to get into this even on an off the record basis," said a second NL general manager. "because I don't want it looked as if I am criticizing the umpires. They do a terrific job and they have embraced the replay system. If a bond exists between (those on the field and those off the field) that's only natural. I also tend to think they would embrace being removed from any process in which they may have to overrule one of their own."
The current system allows umpires on the field to initiate their own challenges, and they have. However, one American League manager said "there is a lot of dismay over the number of calls not being overturned" in the face of clear video evidence "they should have been." Mike Scioscia, the Angel manager, spoke publicly about his head-shaking dismay after a game with Oakland this week in which two calls were not overturned despite his contrary view of the video.
"We clearly need to sit down and discuss changes," he said.
Any changes in the current format and the umpires role in it would have to be collectively bargained with their union. They accepted the expanded system when convinced the NY facility didn't expand their work load but merely represented another stop on their rotation through the big league cities and that the umpiring staff would be increased to help handle the assignment.
An MLB executive said he was unaware of any discussions to put the umpires strictly on the field and not in the review facility.
"I don't care what the sport is," he said. "You are always going to have two views of just about every decision. We are in year two of this system, and before last season, we described the roll-out as a three year process. We made some modifications before this season based on our experiences of last year. We also have been pretty candid about the fact that while the system will not be perfect, it will ultimately correct hundreds of calls throughout the season."
The percentages from this year's reviews are similar to last year's
As of Monday, there had been 480 reviews this year. Of those, 113 of the calls on the field had been confirmed by replay, 225 had been overturned, 138 had been "let stand" because the replay was inconclusive in the view of the umpires monitoring the replay facility, and there had been four rules checks. The average interruption was one minute and forty eight seconds compared to 1:46 last year when there were 1,275 reviews of which 310 were confirmed, 603 were overturned and 352 were "let stand".
It is unclear as to how loud the current grumbling will become, but it seems to be loud enough and coming from enough factions that it won't be allowed to simply "let stand."