John McGrath: Change in baseball doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comFebruary 9, 2014 

Spring training baseball games, by tradition, are leisurely tuneup exercises for everybody but the poor, unfortunate souls attempting to keep score. By the eighth inning of a Cactus League exhibition, when the minor leaguers replace the subs who went in for the starters, a scorebook page is cluttered with enough scribbled names of obscure prospects to make a brain explode.

Spring training this year will not be the same, thanks to baseball’s most radical rules change since the American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973.

Ready or not, a replay-review challenge system has been installed to change wrong calls into correct calls. The challenge system won’t solve all disputes, and some future tweaks are inevitable, but, hey, perfection is a lofty ambition.

This is a start. As Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz said last month: “It’s the first time in the history of the game where the manager will have the opportunity to change the call of a play that may have cost ’em a game.”

Schuerholz, along with Hall of Fame managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, designed the replay-review system, which appears to be a copycat version of the NFL’s format. Commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement that owners had approved replay came on Jan. 16 — three days before the Seahawks took on San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. It’s quite possible Selig’s words went in one of your ears and out the other.

In any case, managers who used to kick dust and go nose-to-nose with umpires now will be required to make another strategic decision fans can second-guess. For the first six innings, most (but not all) calls can be challenged from the dugout. Each team will be allowed one challenge reviewed by a replay umpire monitoring from MLB headquarters in New York; if the challenge is upheld, a team will be allowed an additional challenge, but no more than two. After six innings, reviews will be left to the discretion of umpires.

Managers will be advised on the propriety of issuing a challenge by club staffers watching from an upstairs booth — same as head coaches are in the NFL — and if it sounds like the job of managing has become more complicated, it’s because the job managing has become more complicated.

La Russa doesn’t feel their pain.

“We told our managers during the Winter Meetings, ‘You have tough decisions during a game. That’s what they pay you for. If those bother you, you’re in the wrong job,’ ” he said last month.

Balls and strikes won’t be up for challenge — thank you, heaven — and neither will the “neighborhood play.” (A middle infielder’s foot is supposed to touch second base for a force out, but he’s often credited with the out if his foot is within an inch or two the bag. It’s one of baseball’s unwritten rules, implemented to prevent injuries.)

Otherwise, nearly everything else is eligible for a second opinion, which could make long games even longer. But maybe not: A key difference between the review systems of baseball and football is the assurance umpires won’t leave the field to hunker down in front of a screen for half an hour.

Judgments figure to be rendered in a New York minute. We’ll see.

An ancillary benefit for fans will be the lifting of the ban on video-board replays. The umpires union, fearful of hooligans disinclined to just say no to that ninth high-octane beverage, long prohibited video-board operators from showing bang-bang plays to spectators.

While the policy made some sense, it prevented those who spent $75 on a ticket from a perspective available to Joe Couch Potato watching at home. A compromise would seem in order: Fans are allowed to see a play disputed by the home team once, and only once.

Replay review wasn’t the only change Major League Baseball considered for 2014.

It also moved to restrict a baserunner’s freedom to charge home from third base and attempt to dislodge the ball from the catcher by way of a collision.

Precise wording of the no-contact rule is still pending, but it will happen. Home-plate collisions are terrific theater. (I was in Fenway Park on a balmy May night in 1976, when the Yankees’ Lou Piniella crashed into Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, inciting the bench-clearing brawl that stoked a smoldering rivalry.) But terrific theater is no justification for serious concussions and ruined careers.

The 2014 spring training season will serve as a dry run for both the replay-review system and a rule intended to safeguard catchers from blindside assaults.

I hope baseball, the best and most comprehensively difficult of sports — the sport that humbled Jim Thorpe, Michael Jordan and yes, Russell Wilson — becomes an even better sport.

I know it will be different.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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