“Spitballing” is a column by Nathan Ackerman about Major League Baseball.
In a Sunday night fiasco that was a perfect combination of thrilling baseball and inexplicable umpiring, two parties emerged primarily victorious: ESPN and the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies, for obvious reasons. Alec Bohm’s “run” in the top of the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park — you know, the one he scored without touching the white pentagon in between the batter’s boxes — was the Phillies’ seventh of the game. The Braves scored six. That sounds like a victorious happening to me.
And for its part, the ESPN crew, led by USC Annenberg alum Matt Vasgersian and Minnesota Timberwolves soon-to-be-co-owner Alex Rodriguez, got to head the broadcast of a thrilling ballgame that caught the entire baseball world’s attention in a matter of minutes.
Here’s the rundown. A whirlwind of home runs by Ozzie Albies, Rhys Hoskins, Didi Gregorius, Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and the underrated Bryce Harper helped the Phillies and Braves enter the ninth inning tied at six. Gregorius stepped to the plate with one out and Bohm on third and lifted a fly ball to Atlanta outfielder Marcell Ozuna in shallow left. Bohm tagged, was surprisingly sent and, well, see for yourself.
Clearly out, right? No? Yes? Maybe?
Replay seems to show Bohm’s foot popping up and hovering over the plate, only coming down when it was just a nick off the corner, and the tag coming down in time. As the umpires donned the headsets, Braves players walked off the field, preparing to bat in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win it.
But Bohm was called safe. Braves fans reacted by throwing trash on the field (as they do), their team went on to lose and Twitter was lit ablaze.
The reaction from the baseball purists was predictable: “If they won’t overturn this, what’s the point of replay? It adds nothing and just slows the game down. Take your replay review, MLB, and deposit it into the middle of the Pacific.”
OK, Boomer, and thanks for your input. But riddle me this: Are you seriously willing to scrap the entire system — one prevalent in literally every other major American sport — to shave four minutes off a game while simultaneously accepting that the other nine of every 10 blown calls will remain botched, with no mechanism in place to undo them?
No, you aren’t, because you understand that the Bohm play is an anomaly. Replay review is designed to overturn missed calls, and usually, that’s what it does.
So what happened in Atlanta?
Bohm was called safe, even after the lengthy review, not because the umpires reviewing the play in New York City’s Replay Operations Center actually thought he was. He was called safe because the rulebook said he should. The call on the field was upheld because the umpires lacked “clear and convincing” evidence that the 24-year-old third baseman’s left foot never touched home plate.
Watch the play again. It certainly looks as though Bohm missed the plate. Is the evidence convincing? Yes. Is it clear? Can you absolutely, definitively tell me for sure that no part of Bohm’s cleat or metal spikes ever made contact with the plate? You can. But you’d be lying.
The fact that we’re asking that question in the first place is precisely the problem. The standard of absolute certainty and 100% clarity required to overturn a call on the field is ridiculous in nature, and it needs to be eliminated.
The standard trusts the naked eye of an umpire, probably moving around in an effort to achieve the optimal perspective, definitely absent of technology, watching a play unfold at full speed without the benefit of zooming — over those in New York City watching in high definition and ultra-slo-mo from whichever camera angle they want and as many times as they want.
It’s preposterous, and there is no reasonable defense.
The idea is that if you’re not certain the call should be overturned, it shouldn’t be overturned. But not all uncertainties are created equal. Take the Bohm play. No, there’s no definitive view. There’s no certainty he missed home. I wouldn’t bet my dog’s life on it. But it’s very likely he did, and everyone — including probably the umpires making the call — were more than 50% sure he should have been out.
Why not go off that? In a play that close, where those in the replay center can’t even come to a conclusion with the aforementioned viewing enhancements, the call on the field is basically a toss-up. It’s an umpire who doesn’t know what to say, tossing a coin in his head and going with the result, faking conviction in an effort to look cool. Treating his word as the word of God and defaulting to it like the Bible is foolish.
If that standard didn’t exist, and if umpires reviewing the call in New York City were able to side with “convincing” instead of “clear,” Bohm would’ve been called out and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If you’re 50.1% confident the call should be overturned, overturn it. End of discussion.
And to those who would rather maintain the “human element” of the game: To hell with that. The human element is on full display with the humans actually playing the game, which is why we watch baseball. Umpires are there to enforce rules and get calls right. It’s not about them, as much as Joe West might object. You want the “human element” to determine ballgames? You saw it on Sunday in Atlanta.
Was that fun? No. It wasn’t. Especially for Braves fans, and even for Phillies fans, whose satisfaction with the victory was partially (though not entirely) countered by a pinch of bittersweet guilt. I can testify. The Phillies won, but baseball lost.
It seems counterintuitive, but the only way to fix MLB’s broken replay system is to give it more power. Expand its rule. Take its word over anyone else’s. Fight fire with fire.
“Spitballing” runs every Tuesday.