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A Film Critic Ponders Baseball's Instant-Replay Cameras

The surveillance state comes to the ballpark

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport

With the scale of foul play mounting in every sport, it is apparently time to add a spurious note of fairness: Instant replay has come to Major League Baseball. The reasoning seems to be that if so many of us are having such fun watching sports on screens, why shouldn’t the officials get screens, too? All of this began in the name of “accuracy” and “being true to what happened”, but you only have to think back to November 22, 1963, to see the problems in that. Abraham Zapruder’s film was a moveable nightmare; it imprinted tragedy and it spurred melodrama, but it did not show exactly or all that had happened. The emotion that the frames aroused was no aid to coolness.

There was a time when kids played games and settled the “calls” themselves. If a hand-ball was in doubt, there would be argument, but it could lead to one 12-year-old or another stalking off with his ball. End of game. So the kids agreed to disagree. Unless some short-sighted vicar happened to be watching and called out to the players, “I say, I fancy that was a knock-on”. Whereupon a heathen lad might snarl back, “We’re playing soccer, reverend, you git. Not fucking rugby.” I was that heathen.

A principle was there to be observed: the game was not fair; some of its calls were wrong, a few insane. But the calls let you play on. The game was played to teach failure, frustration, and the proper uses of “fuck!” Deep emotions could creep in. At Wembley, in 1966, England and West Germany were tied 2-2 in the final of the World Cup. The game was in extra time. Whereupon an English player, Geoff Hurst, fired a fierce shot at the German goal; the ball struck the crossbar and bounced down. Had it crossed the goal line or not? The result might turn on this judgment and a white-haired Soviet linesman, Tofif Bakhramov, in the best position to see, determined it was a goal—3-2 to England. Decades later, on his deathbed, so it has been said, Bakhramov admitted that he wasn’t sure, but his heart had deciding reasons. “Stalingrad,” he is supposed to have said, and most Europeans still understood that in 1966. England went on to get a fourth goal, but who knows what would have happened?

In much the same period there was a story in England that a great but pompous English batsman had been given out by an umpire, caught behind. After this man, call him Boycott, had registered dudgeon he strode slowly away passing the umpire, and hissed, “I were never out.” To which the umpire replied in a dry way, “Read the papers tomorrow.” Every kid playing cricket understood that philosophy: you can’t play cricket or whatever unless you’re prepared to accept the bloody stupidity and near blindness of those in charge. British politics and military history had worked that way for centuries.

Well, cricket is a shambles now and there are many reasons for that. But the Ashes series this summer between England and Australia, has helped explain why. Both sides now have a limited number of reviews when an “out,” often leg before wicket or caught behind (you don’t need to understand those conditions), is examined closely by audio-visual analysis that takes several minutes and seems to settle only a fraction of the doubt. Whereas, as the new Premier League soccer season started in Britain, a Chelsea “goal” that might have crossed the HullCity line was ruled out in a second by an electronic system that was communicated to the referee. This was part of a reform that followed another World Cup match in 2010, still England v. Germany, when a Frank Lampard shot bounced a couple of feet inside the German goal, spun back and the referee waved play on. Maybe some German players murmured, “Wembley.” In 50 years or so, if you’re patient, these things even out. It took 60 years for the U.S. to admit it had cheated Mossadeq in Iran.

Now contemplate what is happening. The “instant” review system as used in the NFL since 1986 is coming to baseball. You can repeat the orthodox wisdom that there have been too many ugly, disputed calls in recent years, and television’s multi-camera technology only exposes errors. You can add that the baseball umpires generally have the manner and bearing of a casting call for The Sopranos. Similarly, you can recall that top umpires get $250,000 a season, whereas A-Rod’s last contract worked out at about $45,000 an at-bat. You can feel the pressure of the Players Union arguing that performance stats and future contracts can be affected by these things. And you can feel the mortification in Bud Selig that just as he seems to be sucking PEDs out of the game, he needs a new gimmick.

But we have to see what it will mean. British soccer has its goal-line miasma clarified for now—but how long before inventive players start dropping mylar strip on the field to screw the machines? The technology of enhancing drugs has often fooled tests: ask Lance Armstrong. Baseball has so many passing decisions: a ball or a strike? Did he hold up or did he swing? Was he tagged out at second? Did a fly ball hit the chalk or was it foul? And of course those profound puzzles of depth perception, the foul pole homers. In theory, I suppose, the screening of these instants on seven or eight different cameras can be decisive.

What we’ll lose are those scurvy, obese, belligerent umps (one of our last contacts with the world of Mantle, Gibson, Gehrig, and Ruth), and I think we’ll miss them. The fallacy of correctness may scatter human vagary. I may prefer that in my surgeon, but game-playing isn’t surgery, and how did I get sick? Did it have anything to do with the loss of human vagary? The way the game is going these days, I think less attention to accuracy and more to undignified fights is in order. With the new system, you’re going to have screen disputes over which player throttled which one first and who threw the most adroit elbow. Do we think the average player is going to bow down before technological accuracy? “No way,” one of the great athletes of our time said (or nearly said—he played it as a silent star), I wasn’t out and this glove doesn’t fit.That attitude matches a culture that disowns global warming numbers and passed over the culpability of the banks in our first great crash of the twenty-first century.

Sport is a silly source of delight, as much as some people ever get in life. But it has a way of becoming a metaphor for larger things. So technology, as in all fields, is irresistible: think of one substantial technological advance that the world has declined. We can feel we are in touch with Egypt, say, when for a few nights precious young Egyptians were kissed by their cellphone screens. In the big Egyptian game Mubarak had been their best striker, but was he offside? Truth to tell, for 30 years he looked a dodgy player, inclined to go in with the boot, and a rather nasty shirt-tugger. But for 30 years it was his ball to be played with, and so we went along with him, until all of a sudden some Egyptians said he’d been yards offside all his life. Born offside! They had stuff on screens to prove it. Old Mubarak was suspended for life, and the world fell in love with the new ball skills of Morsi. But then Morsi turned out to have been fixing some matches. Tahrir Square had looked like liberty and democracy on screen. The commentators were crying “Goooooal” in that jubilant Latin way. But when people are playing on the screen, the dynamics of screen language take over. Egypt’s new history will be written by those best at running that technology. So a day will come when we remember bad umpires who make mistakes, but teach fatalism.