How Baseball Gets It Wrong, and Hockey Gets It Right

The sports world is  atwitter over Major League umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call in the ninth inning that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a well-deserved perfect game.  The play at first base was made to end the game.  It would have been the 27th out on the 27th batter, but Joyce called the runner safe.  But he was wrong, as instant replay showed.  The game will go down in the books as a one-hit, complete game, as those are the rules.  Only an asterisk will show it should have been recorded as a perfect game.

This was not the only big blown call last night.  There was another in the middle of the second period during game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers.  The game was tied 1-1- and the Flyers were on a power play, and it appeared Scott Hartnell deflected Chris Pronger’s shot past Blackhawk netminder Antti Neimi.  The siren sounded, but no call was made, and play continued — for another minute-and-a-half.  Yet at the next stoppage, the refs asked the video booth to review the call.  The video was unmistakable, and the call was corrected.  Score a goal for the Flyers, reset the clock, and pick up the game as if the proper call had been made in the first place.

Professional hockey, like most professional sports, uses instant replay to help ensure that game-changing calls are made correctly. Accommodations are made to maintain the integrity of the game — such as waiting until a natural stoppage before reviewing the tape — but instant replay is still used to make sure saves are saves and goals are goals, and it works.  Indeed, during overtime there was another close call, a shot that could have been called a goal as the puck skated along the line.  This, too, was reviewed, and properly ruled a save.  And so the Flyers would have to take more shots before finally winning the game.

The outcome of the game should turn on the performance of the players, not the performance of the referees.  Not every call is reviewable, and some amount of human error is inevitable, but instant replay can reduce the scope of potential error and help ensure the proper outcome.  And, as last night’s hockey game shows, it need not come at the expense of the game.  The refs review the tape when they can; they don’t stop play just for the sake of a review.  What’s out about the relative lack of instant replay in baseball is that replay poses less of a threat to the flow of the game than in virtually any other sport.  Stoppages in baseball are constant, and many calls — such as who tags a base first — are easy to review.  And yet some cling to the tradition of relying upon the on-field umpires to make the calls, as if this is somehow makes baseball more “authentic.”  Hardly.  The fact is Galarraga did pitch a perfect game last night, but he won’t get official credit for it because baseball won’t allow instant replay to help make such important calls.

UPDATE: Yes, I am aware that baseball uses instant replay for one very limited purpose — to determine whether balls are home runs or not.  But baseball does not use replay for something for which replay is very well suited — the timing of tags — that could affect the outcome of a game.  (And, to be fair, football uses replay for some calls for which replay is of little help.)  There is very little judgment involved in such a call — unlike, say, calling balls and strikes or a balk — and replay can often provide a definitive answer.  Some argue in the comments that the missed call last night did not affect the outcome of the game.   We know that now, but there was no assurance at the time that the erroneous call would not have allowed a comeback. (Okay, it was Cleveland, so a comeback was very unlikely, but you get my point.)  And the same could be said of an erroneous call on a home run.  At the time a call is made, there is no way to know whether it will alter the outcome of a game.  It all depends.  My ultimate point is that there are some situations for which replay is very well suited — such as who reaches the base first — where it is not used and should be.