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It Is What it Is: Video Replay Is a Part of the Game

Legend has it that Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem, in a World Series game, once asked the spectators beyond right field if a batted ball had flown into the stands for a home run or bounded into the stands for a ground-rule double. That, I suppose, is yesterday’s version of the instant-replay rule recently instituted for the Little League World Series; a rule I came to know intimately as I umpired this year’s series.

A lot of debate has come about as a result of this rule. Questions have arisen regarding whether the rule should be limited as it has been in years past to whether a batted ball is a home run or foul ball, or a thrown ball should have been ruled dead but was not, or whether is should be expanded, as it was this year, to include out and safe, tag and no-tag, missed bases, and whether a pitched ball hit a batter or not. Some have suggested that the rule should not be in place at all. That it takes away from the human element of officiating the game and it will change the game forever.

The fact of the matter is that instant replay has already changed the way the game is called. Prior to every game being televised the way umpires called the game was quite different from the way contemporary umpires call it. Prior to widespread televised games, if the ball beat the runner, that was the primary factor in determining whether a runner was ruled out or not. A swipe tag did not necessarily have to touch the runner, it just had to beat the runner and look good. And, if a middle-infielder was close to the keystone and the throw did not pull him off of the base, nobody argued that he was not on the base. It was established that this was the way it would be called and it was a part of the game.

As television grew and more games were televised, color-commentators would talk about “phantom-tags” and “neighborhood plays.” This led to many umpires changing the way they called the game. As time passed and replays were analyzed more closely, tags had to be nearer to the runners and the fielders had to be closer to the base on the front end of a double play until now, phantom tags and neighborhood plays are things of the past.

In this year’s World Series, I had one call reversed: a very close play at first during the consolation game between the teams from Ramstein Air Base, Germany and Toms River, New Jersey. In the four replay angles that captured that play, three were inconclusive and one, when slowed to, I am told, 1/120th of a second, showed that the runner was safe. That call bothered me for much of the day following that game. But, by the time the night game rolled around, I had set aside my anguish and worked a plate game wherein I re-doubled my efforts to get the calls right.

I cannot say for sure that it was being overruled that bothered me or the fact that I had kicked the call. But the world continued to spin and I believe I had a great series, eventually working the plate for the United States Championship game.

Whether or not instant replay should be part of the game or not is a decision better suited for those wiser than me. I can say for sure that, regardless of whether instant replay is used to uphold or reverse calls or not, the networks who televise the games will be showing the replays and the world will know if each call was right or wrong. It is what we do with the information gained from replays that is the question.

I know what it feels like to have the world see that I missed a call and to have that call reversed in front of millions of viewers. What I don’t know is how it would feel to have missed a call in front of millions of viewers and know that my mistake cost a team a chance at a World Series Championship.

Bill Klem is famous for, among other things, saying that he never missed a call in his heart. Would he have liked having his calls reviewed by someone in a small room under the stands? One can only speculate, but I think the Old Arbiter would have liked that there was an effort going on to get the call right.

Jeffrey Knoebel
2010 Little League Baseball
World Series Umpire