Seeking perfection in an imperfect world.

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Refs have decided games for decades. Perhaps it is the fan that needs to be ‘fixed,’ not the game processes.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

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Foul on Noah, game over.
No need for replay tonight.

I’ve been sitting on the germ of an important post for a couple days now and I’ve been struggling to tighten it up.  Last night helped.  Anyone catch that Bulls-Heat game?  If you did, you lost count on the number of poor officiating calls.  But let’s say it was about a dozen.  And this, I think, helps to set up today’s point:

After watching the game-butchery referees are capable of prone to, what an absurd notion it is that sporting events should employ video replay under the canard of ‘wanting to get it right.’  Wouldn’t we all be better served through re-calibrated thinking that acknowledges that sports, like life, is not always fair?  That elements of risk and imperfection are part of the fabric of the human experience here on Earth?  That chasing the ‘getting it right’ Utopia is a fool’s errand?  Are these concepts too sophisticated for today’s sports fan?

Well.  You can see why I’ve been challenged to get my arms around this thought.  So hang in there and let me build a case.

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The Indians seem to be the beneficiary of missed call Wednesday night and umbrage is rampant.  In ninth inning of a 4-3 game, Adam Rosales hit a fly ball off Chris Perez that was ruled a double on the field.  The umpires retired to review the play using video replay and determined there was insufficient evidence to award a game-tying homerun.  Most people watching replays at home saw it as a homerun and expressed this point of view on social and regular media vigorously.

Oops.

I too thought it looked like a homerun.  And even with the game-lengthening technology of replays out of New York with every angle available, a mistake was made.

But the incident calls into question a larger issue:  how has the acceptance of human frailties, bad luck, rub of the green become so culturally foreign?  We all hate when bad calls happen.  But they happen and will happen so long as games are adjudicated by other imperfect humans.  Wednesday night showed that with all the game-slowing safeguards in place, even the best technology cannot assure the utopia of perfect referee-ing.  The reminders happen frequently but yet when a crack in the matrix is revealed, it’s met with indignity and proposals to ‘fix’ the ‘problem.’

The world is an imperfect place, and we’d all be better served by a more realistic perspective on this.

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Bad calls are part of the game.

Ben Dreith’s roughing the passer on Sugar Bear Hamilton is linked up top.  It lives on among Pats fans almost 40 years later.  With New England holding a late 21-17 lead, referee Dreith flagged Patriot lineman Richard Hamilton for roughing Raider quarterback Ken Stabler on a third down and 18 play, even though replays showed minimal contact. Shortly thereafter, Stabler ran in the winning touchdown from the one-yard line in the final 10 seconds.  The Raiders went on to beat the Steelers and then the Super Bowl over the Vikings.  Ironically, in today’s NFL it’d be a legit call but back then it was specious and cost the Pats a trip to the next round, allowed the Raiders to win a Super Bowl.*

That’s just one of many bad calls enshrined in sports history.  Here’s a one list from ESPN:

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A player strike?  Really now.

  • Denkinger calls Orta safe
  • Colorado’s fifth down
  • Soviets get extra time in 1972 Olympic hoops
  • Jeffrey Maier assists Jeter home run
  • Brett Hull’s skate in the crease
  • Maradona’s “Hand of God”
  • Thanksgiving Day coin flip flap
  • Mike Renfro ruled out of bounds
  • Eric Gregg’s wide strike zone
  • Charles White’s TD and fumble in 1979 Rose Bowl
  • Jerry Rice is ruled down
  • Michael Jordan pushes Bryon Russell
  • Bert Emanuel’s apparent first-down catch
  • Bottlegate

This list doesn’t tell the story because bad calls happen in just about every game in just about every sport.

But instead of a level of acceptance of the bad call as part of the fabric of the game; instead of greeting this truth with grace and even sportsmanship…  the reaction tends to be to hurry off and ‘fix’ the unfixable.

The saga of NFL replacement refs provide a great example.  See the headlines at right.  Those headlines were not outliers, they reflect the prevailing consensus among the ‘fair-minded’ at the time.  My mind boggled.  Like:  have you all been afflicted with referee amnesia?  It seemed to me then that the reporting on the replacement refs was one of the sorrier recent performances by the fifth estate (and that is really a strong condemnation).  There was little sober reporting about the grounds for the ref lock-out (Did you know the average pay for an NFL ref is ~$170K and it’s a part-time job and the refs were holding out to keep it part-time and thus maintain their other employment?).  But in addition to utter indifference to management’s position, there was the stunning hyperbole about preserving the sanctity of the game!!   MY GOD THE REPLACEMENT MISSED A CALL AND COST SOMEONE A GAME!!!  THE CARNAGE!!!    The replacement refs were precipitating the downfall of pro football as we know it.  Thank goodness the real refs came back… but oh wait, damn:  they make mistakes too.  The only difference is .. oh wait there’s no difference except the replacements made their mistakes cheaper, were presumably happy to be honing their craft full-time, and it didn’t fit the odd narrative that’s been established of blindly bashing rich owners.

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Only football can get away with eleven minutes of football per hour.  Not you baseball.

Since the NFL adopted replay, the game length has not been too drastically affected.  From Slate, we see this data on game lengths:  3:10 in 2002, and a brisk 2:59 in 1992; and NFP tells us that a decade later game length still hovers around three hours:  during Week 1 of the 2011 season, games averaged 2.98 hours. During Week 1 of the 2012 season, games averaged 3.05 hours.  Replays are still tedious and the ole extrapoint-commercial-kickoff-commercial crap still sucks.  But football has always sucked in that way.**

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You’re going the wrong way baseball.

But baseball?  Drag-ass baseball should slow itself down even further for more replays?

You can see for yourself that baseball’s game times are going in the wrong direction.  Two hours and 30 minutes looks to be the game time to work toward.  Game lengths need to be shorter MLB wants to save itself (without addressing the economics).  We offered an easy first step toward this end earlier this week.

But yet there we were Thursday dissecting the missed replay and Rick Manning talked about the play and suggested that more replay is is the direction he’d take.  Because the main thing is to get it right.

Wrong answer.

The main thing for baseball is to improve the pace of play and the larger main thing for sports in general is to acknowledge that shit happens.

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Acceptance of Rub of the Green is the key.

One of the reasons I’ve had a hard time constructing this syllogism is because it transcends sport and -somehow- speaks to a cultural issue.  Here I’m thinking of Tiger Woods.

Rub of the green. Own it.

We all saw Tiger’s flagstick wedge shot.  Leaving the rules question aside, I noticed some responses on my twitter timeline decrying the un-fairness of having hit a good shot and being punished.  Not a lot but enough to take notice.  Perhaps from people who don’t golf but that doesn’t matter since it is the casual fan who is sought after by pro sports marketeers.  In other words, you might be able to write off the reactions I saw as trivial… but then again you might not.

The suggestions proposed included varying lunacies such as the golfer should get a second shot if hits a flagstick or the ball should be placed where the ball would have landed had it not hit the stick or just count it as in the hole.  I don’t remember all the suggested solutions to the problem.  That is because I was dumbfounded that it was viewed as a problem in need of redress in the first place.

We’re outlawing bad luck now?  Under a specious pursuit of fairness?

Cripes.

I’ll allow that my timeline is a small sample, but how pussy-fied have we gotten?  Maybe it’s nothing to get worked up about but then there’s this…

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Helmets for baseball coaches.

Unsafe at any speed.

Have you noticed that baseball coaches on the first and third base boxes now wear helmets?  Do you know why?

In 2007 a coach for a minor team was hit in the neck by a foul ball and died.  Thus MLB created a rule where all coaches need to wear helmets.

In other words, one fatality over the course of 10,000,000 games? 50,000,000 games? required an immediate ‘fix’ with a solution that fails to protect the area (neck) that killed the coach.

The problems are two-fold.  First is the idiocy of implementing an ineffective symbolic response that doesn’t address the problem that doesn’t exist.  The second is the quiet complacency with which such actions are accepted.  Because if there’s been anyone calling out MLB for this silly reactionary helmet rule, I’ve missed it.

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What’s my suggestion?

I’d ban replay outright.

It’d be fine to say, “Let’s make replay work better, just do it faster.”  But that’s not happening and it’s only going to get worse.  Because if ‘getting it right’ is the goal, then why should the NFL limit replays to three-per-team-per-game?  Why should basketball limit replays to the final minute (or whatever it is)?  Why shouldn’t baseball use technology to call balls and strikes?  After all, ‘getting it right’ is something we all want, yes?

Nope.  Getting it right is a trail without an end.

The better move for all is to adopt some philosophical perspective to the nature of sport (and life).

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Updates (5/17):  ESPN has a pro and con point of view on replays.  

Ex-player Glanville cautions:

We can force systems to get better, and sometime worse. We can overrule, overturn, overthink, and even overreact and delete that last post. But let’s be careful because we may not want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes when we try to make perfection.  Maybe a missed call will be a thing of the past. Maybe that is a good thing. But I get the feeling we may actually miss a missed call, no matter what we say in 140 characters or less.

And Jayon Stark does what he does, MORE REPLAY:

Well, there’s good news. More replay is coming. A lot more replay. Like next year. It might not all kick in at once. But at some point, it’s possible nearly every type of call except Ball one … Strike one will be reviewable. And that will solve everything.  All right. No it won’t. But it’s a start. As Angel Hernandez proved last week, even with replay, some calls will still get hopelessly messed up. But not nearly as many. And Angel will be happy to hear that an important byproduct of expanded replay will be better technology.

Finally, the best piece on the subject that I’ve seen.  From Kiszla of the Denver Post:

Tulo gets it.

More replay in baseball? To determine whether a ball raked down the right-field line is foul or a double? Really?

“I have mixed emotions about it,” Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “I think baseball has been known for so long by the respect for the umpires and the calls they make. Right or wrong, you just go about your business and play.”

Way to rock it old school, Tulo. I 100 percent agree.

This just in: Life’s not fair. Why should baseball be any different?

It’s only a game, not to mention a game that already takes three hours to play way too often.

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* The Tuck Rule play is often incorrectly conjoined to the Sugar Bear play as having squared matters.  It did not.  The Tuck Rule play was called correctly.

** The only way this changes is if the NFL gets serious about going global because good luck selling the sport to five billion soccer watchers who are accustomed to two 45 minutes of commercial-free activity.

  • i watch that karlis FG and i can’t swear to it being missed or not. i have to think the ref under the upright had a good look at it.. but who knows?
    anyhoos… replay wouldn’t have helped unless cameras were rigged under each upright. the current camera placement on the curved stanchion behind the center of the crossbar doesn’t give a great angle on balls that sail north of the uprights.

  • If only people would be better about sucking it up and accepting obvious injustice, the world would be a better place for _______________.

    Way to keep staying hard after all those “pussies” out there, Jim.

    • never-ending injustice-fighting is working so well for those you purport to want to help.
      i’m clearly a paste-eater to suggest a different line of thinking.
      got it.

  • Gary Collins

    It’s the sports betting that drives this. If millions are lost on a bad call, it’s not just an ooh, my bad, the whole back room wink and nod between sports and gambling is at risk. No replay, less betting, less interest in sports and less money. It has nothing to do with some poor sap of a Tigers pitcher missing his shot in the record books. Legalized gambling in virtually every state – follow the money.

  • zarathustra330

    Also, you are so right about the replacement refs. That was so fucking frustrating. Every bad call was treated as an injustice that had never plagued the game before. It was as if nobody had watched the league before.
    I think there was a political subtext that colored the issue. I have to opinion on the issue whatsoever, but it seems like the backlash against the replacements was an expression of solidarity with a union at a time when some perceived an anti-union sentiment in the country.

  • zarathustra330

    This is good. I can be really hard on officials, but at the same time I think the difficulty of their jobs is mostly lost on the majority of fans. So yes, collectively we should do a better job of accepting that human error will always be a part of officiatiating. The problem however is not that bad calls are a part of the game, but that too often the integrity of the offical should be legitimately questioned. Putting a side possible corruption, these officials have tremendous power and too often abuse it. Instant replay is imperfect, but it provides a check against abuse of power.

    • i was agree-ing with your ‘keep em honest’ point until i remembered that joey crawford and joe west exist even _with_ replay technology.

      but you jogged my memory on another bothersome part of replay: refs become less assertive in making their call. something about having an auditor looking over your shoulder the entire course of your work day will exact a toll, i imagine.

      hey, and another: since in the replay era there is no worry whatever in maintaining a game’s pace (getting it right is the important thing; therefore maintaining the excitement of crescendo-ing game flow is not important.), even the non-video-reviewed calls will create group-huddles among leading to,,, you ready? referee-ing by committee!

      here are two great hockey refs. i doubt they’d be great if they worked in the era of replay. something to think about.

      • zarathustra330

        Very fair point. Joey Crawford is exibit a for dishonest actors amongst officials. And you are definitely right about it making officials more tentative in some instances. But thay can be a good thing with some of the more arrogant officials. At least it is an attempt to keep them honest.
        The nfl system seems right to me. It doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game and it tacitly acknowledges that there will be bad calls, but it provides the coach some redress. It is then on the coach’s judgement as to how important a bad call is.
        The previous nfl system was terrible and that same approach is applied to the end of basketball games. It sucks. I watch a lot of nba and don’t know what the best system would be.
        I don’t watch baseball anymore so don’t know anything about their replay system. But one overlooked good from the Indians game is that angel hernandez is drunk with power and should be fired. He absolutely saw that wasn’t a home run on the replay and didn’t care because he doesn’t believe in replay–a rule. He should be fired. At the very least we now know who he is.

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