Tuesday, November 6, 2007


They're talking about it down at the GM meetings, and there is support, but that support seems contingent upon it being used only for home run calls:

Several GMs say they will support replays, in at least a limited form. The most likely use being whether home runs stayed fair or went foul, and whether balls went over fences or hit the top and bounced back.

"It depends on how it affects the pace of the game,'' said Padres General Manager Kevin Towers. "If it doesn't draw out into balls and strikes and tagging guys at second base, then it might work.''

Towers, you may recognize, is identifying the age-old problem of the slippery slope. Many may oppose some form of limited replay because, they may feel, it will inevitably result in challenge flags and long game stoppages as some booth ump reviews whether or not King Felix came to a complete pause at the belt before delivering a pitch with a runner on base.

And I have a lot of sympathy for that view. If replay is to be implemented at all, I want it to be unobtrusive. And limited. Having lived in Bush's America for the past seven years, I have come to assume that if those in power are given an inch, they will take a mile, and people will suffer for it. No, baseball replay is not the same thing as waterboarding, but if implemented, you're likely to see more words written about it in the American media than that which has been written about torture, and that's some measurement of its importance, right?

But I acknowledge that to be an emotional reaction, not a logical one. In a logical world -- and I think baseball still qualifies as logical -- one cannot simply rest on the bare identification of a slippery slope and claim it to be dispositive. As blogger/law professor Eugene Volokh pointed out in a really neat Harvard Law Review article a few years ago, you can't just plead slippery slope and be done with it. Rather:

If you are faced with the pragmatic question "Does it make sense for me to support A, given that it might lead others to support B?," you should consider all the mechanisms through which A might lead to B, whether they are logical or psychological, judicial or legislative, gradual or sudden. You should consider these mechanisms whether or not you think that A and B are on a continuum where B is in some sense more of A, a condition that would in any event be hard to define precisely . . . You should think about the entire range of possible ways that A can change the conditions — whether those conditions are public attitudes, political alignments, costs and benefits, or what have you — under which others will consider B.

In other words, a lot of slopes we encounter aren't necessarily slippery. There may, in fact, be many logical and practical footholds that prevent us from sliding from relative high ground that is the review of borderline home runs into the crevasse of video umpires. The point is that those footholds have to be defined, basically to their very essence, in order for us to have a strong enough structure in place to prevent decision A (replay in home run situations) from resulting in decisions B, C, D, and so-on (replay everywhere). We have to decide how, at their core, calls which we feel are OK to review are different from calls we don't think are OK to review. If we can't do that, we slide.

I'm not entirely sure what those footholds are yet. You can't just say only "objective" calls will be subject to replay, because unlike football, baseball doesn't have that many pure judgment calls. The ball either got there before the runner or not; the ball was either fair or foul. What's more, those calls that we do consider judgment calls -- balls and strikes -- have shown that they aren't necessarily unsuited for technological solutions (See Ques-Tec) and really aren't that subjective once we think about it. After all, a strike zone may be an imaginary box, but as far as the rules go, it is just as real as the foul line. You likewise can't say that only those plays that lead to runs (like home runs) are subject to replay, because if sabermetrics have taught us anything, it's that virtually everything that happens on a baseball diamond has a positive or negative impact on runs scored.

I'm not sure where the line can be drawn, but it does have to be drawn, and it can't be drawn arbitrarily. It's not enough to say that plays X, Y, and Z will be subject to replay, and all rest will not be. You have to establish why, at their core, plays X, Y, and Z work for replay and others don't.

If we don't, we will slide, slide, slide someplace we don't wish to be.

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