Tucked in at the end of the press release announcing Major League Baseball’s new instant replay system - MASNsports.com’s Steve Melewski has the full rundown here - is a paragraph announcing the return of one creative use of technology that has been absent from big league ballparks for 38 years.
“Clubs will now have the right to show replays of all close plays on its ballpark scoreboard, regardless of whether the play is reviewed,” reads the passage.
Though it makes little sense, in-stadium scoreboard replays have been banned since an Aug. 8, 1976 game between the Orioles and New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. You think you’ve seen some Earl Weaver tantrums on YouTube? The mood in the Bronx was so nasty that day that the Yankees’ decision to repeatedly replay a controversial call that went against them forced one of the ugliest crowd reactions I can recall.
The play in question occurred during the eighth inning of an eventual 8-5 Orioles victory over the Bronx Bombers. With the Yankees behind 6-5 and and the potential tying run on third base, first base umpire Bill Kunkel called New York pinch-hitter Gene Locklear out on a close play at first. But Yankees skipper Billy Martin protested long and loud that Baltimore first baseman Tony Muser both juggled the throw from third baseman Doug DeCinces and did not have his foot on the base.
An on-the-field argument ensued, and it became clear that Kunkel (a one-time Yankees relief pitcher who had become a man in blue) had no interest in reversing his call despite Martin’s protestations. But while this transpired, the Yankees repeatedly broadcast the TV feed of the call in question on their giant video board (ahead of their technological time, those New Yorkers). Each time they did, and each time it appeared as if Muser didn’t have control or might have missed the bag, the crowd became more and more agitated. It was baseball’s version of lather, rinse and repeat - minus, of course, the rinse.
As if that weren’t enough, the Yankees decided it would be a good idea to later post the names of the umpires on the video board. Suffice it to say and already angry crowd just became more incensed. I distinctly remember Chuck Thompson, on the O’s TV broadcast, pointing out how the pinstriped faithful pretty much booed from the time of Kunkel’s controversial call until the umpires left the field after pinch-hitter Otto Velez grounded to short to end the game.
Mind you, this was the era during which George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees, and Steinbrenner didn’t shy away from controversy. Embracing the opportunity to tweak the league office, the owner accused the umpires and the American League of a cover-up and vowed to continue to broadcast disputed plays on the video board, even though the team was fined $1,000, according to a story by The Associated Press in the days after the incident. Hard to believe in this era of $30 million-a-year contracts that $1,000 was once thought to be a hefty fine, isn’t it?
“Irresponsible action of this sort could result to physical harm to an umpire, and it has been reported to me that, on this occasion, a bottle was thrown on the field, possibly from the upper deck, landing near the umpire,” wrote American League president Lee MacPhail in a telegram to Steinbrenner. “I have also read a copy of a publicity release given out by the Yankees containing inaccuracies and demeaning to league officials.”
The Yankees’ response?
” ... we have only the fans in mind when we use our scoreboard for instant replays. The board cost us $3 million and we see no reason, with this great innovation, why fans at the ballgame should see anything less than the fans at home, where instant replay has become a way of life,” the Yankees said in a press release. “The so-called ‘policy’ of the league to cover up controversial replays is only a recommendation of the league president, and not as far as we know, a league rule. It is a recommendation we, on behalf of the fans, do not happen to agree with.”
Well, the league won. The call stood and, from that time on, controversial replays were no longer allowed to be shown on in-stadium video scoreboards. Instead, as grainy video images gave way to the JumboTrons of the 1990s and then the high-definition video boards of the 21st century, only television viewers were treated to replays and commentary on whether umpires had ruled correctly. For a generation or more, all a manager had to do was to utter the word “replay” to an umpire and he was immediately ejected.
Highlights, significant achievements, blooper reels - all were fair game on stadium scoreboards, becoming staples of the ballpark experience. But anything that might cause an argument was verboten, under penalty of ejection, fine and any other harsh punishment the commissioner’s office might determine was appropriate. As technology advanced years later, if there was a controversial call, the tableau that unfolded on the field starting in the last decade of the last century was a like some sort of Shakespearean comedy - well, maybe a tragedy, depending on which side of the call you were on.
While a manager argued on the field with an umpire, the crowd roared at the arm flailing and head bobbing, imagining the expletive-laced tirade pouring forth from the skipper’s mouth. At some point, if the brouhaha lasted long enough, TV monitors positioned throughout the ballpark eventually showed slow-motion replays of the disputed play, often from multiple angles. And as the replays were shown, the crowd would either gasp at the thought that an umpire had missed an obvious call (safe/out, fair/foul, ball/strike, catch/trap) and then follow with a chorus of boos, or say pretty much nothing at all, a sure sign that the home team benefited from a clearly blown call.
All of that will change in 2014, when managers will simply stroll to the field and tell the home plate umpire that they would like to challenge the call. Those wild histrionics of world-class baseball debaters like Weaver and Martin will soon become a thing of the past, another once popular element of America’s pastime lost in the ongoing effort to speed up games. I’m not sure, however, this qualifies as an advancement.
But at least we’ll finally be able to see, pretty much instantaneously, whether the right call was made because the plays will be shown in glorious high-definition on scoreboards so tall they should be measured in stories instead of feet. Everything that happens on the field will be clear.
Well, I hope.