Instant replay in baseball

Count me as one who thinks instant replay in baseball is a bad idea.  Call me a ‘luddite purist’ if you must, but I resist the imperialism of technological thinking.  You can read George Will’s (whatever you think of his politics, he is a good baseball writer) recent column on the matter here:

This might seem at best tangentially related to philosophical questions.  But I think there are lots of interesting philosophical/ethical questions concerning umpires.  I friend of mine recently raised a number of them, I will parrot him here:

– How much of the human element do we want in sports?  Would a game (baseball, football, etc) be a better game if we had perfect referee robots instead of humans?  In such a game, let’s imagine, all the calls are right.  The outcome of the game would really be determined by the play on the field, right?  But then players and fans would no longer be able to influence the game by influencing the refs.  Is that influence an essential part of the games?  So would we damage the game?  Or would we just lose someone to yell at and blame things on?  Is there a hard and fast line to be drawn here?

– How important is it to always get it ‘right’?  How do we discern where and how the demand for precision and accuracy should be applied and where a more lax epistemological attitude is not only permissible but preferable?

–  Is it morally permisible to treat refs worse than we’d normally treat humans in other circumstances? 

– Is it permissible to deliberately try to influence them to make bad calls? 

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

12 thoughts on “Instant replay in baseball

  1. Alex

    I am not willing to address your friend’s philosophical questions – at least not yet. For now I’ll offer my own view on this – perhaps it can be fleshed out further with more time (I’m at work now).

    My Dad was a pitcher in the Braves’ AA organization before being told to go back to school. Inherited from my dad, I would be considered a baseball ‘purist’ as well. I love the human element that is so crucial in sports, the decision to allow referees and umpires to ‘perfect’ their calls, to me, takes away from the game.

    Although the West Germans might disagree, Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ play in the 1986 World Cup is a perfect example of the human element.

    Perhaps it’s dangerous to reference a play that was (now known to have been) obviously called wrong… Maybe it’s the Nietzsche in me, but I only want to participate in and watch a sports-world that contains the human element, or more specifically, a world that contains mistakes. The presences of mistakes only makes the beautiful shine more brightly.

    Although, again, I doubt the West Germans would agree with me! :-)


  2. Doug

    I dont know if I agree with Alex. As a former football player I feel like I can take a first person perspective. Imagine you are in the Super Bowl (or any other championship for the fake sports) and in the final seconds of the game a call is made by the referee that is not only wrong but ultimately gives the game to the team that did not actually win.

    Now, imagine that you have worked your whole life, not just your professional career to make it to accomplish your dream of winning a championship game. You have finally made it and should have been a champion, but an incorrect call deprived you of your dream. Does that seem ethical?

    Certainly, mistakes are apart of all games, and it is certainly great to do what you can to influence games as a fan. However, should the integrity of the game be jeapordized because a referee did not make the right call? I dont think so!

    Fans can influence games in many different ways: Make it so that quarterbacks cannot hear the plays called in, distract players shooting, hitting, catching, etc. However, fans should not be allowed to be the deciders of who should win a game; otherwise sports should just become another version of the WWF. Make sports entertaining and fun to watch, but they are not really competitive since the outcome is already decided.

    I love sports! Sports allow fans around the world to live vicarioulsy through the men and women that have perfected the sports we all played as kids, teens, and even adults.

    That is just my opinion, but I know that if any one of you were professional athletes you would certainly want to maintain that instant replay is beneficial because it ensures the integrity of the game; which to them is their living.


  3. Kleiner Post author

    Doug does a nice job of presenting what is probably the best argument for instant replay – the argument that ‘getting it right’ is incredibly important because (for better or for worse) we – the participants and the fans – take our sports to be incredibly important.

    I am going to respond a bit off the cuff here (I’ve not thought this through as well as I could).

    1) I worry about a slippery slope. In baseball they are mindful of this, so are planning on restricting the demand for absolute accuracy to home run calls. But where do we draw the line? Here is a football example: I have no doubt that games have been won or lost based on the spot of the ball. In some situations you can review that now (though those reviews hardly eliminate the subjectivity of ball placement calls). Are we going to review every ball placement, every pitch?
    I would think that in the not-too-distant future we could put tiny GPS monitors in the football to get an accurate ball placement to the millimeter. Or perhaps sensors in the ball to decide if it touched the ground (was trapped, etc). Don’t we start to lose something here, as we push on relentlessly toward ‘progress’? Isn’t it the case that progress is not always progress? Shouldn’t we ask, with Strauss, ‘progress or return?’?

    2) Point is, and this is my most ‘philosophical response’, that I am not sure I am moved by the ‘integrity of the game’ argument. This is why I asked the quidditive question above – is the human element (in both the play and the application of rules) an essential part of sport? If it is, then it damages the ‘integrity of the game’ to remove that element. If it is not, then it doesn’t. For my part, I think it is an essential part. I don’t want injury-free robots playing the games, and I don’t want mistake free refs calling them.

    3) While people (fans and participants alike) put a lot of emotional/physical/financial investments into their teams, we need to remember that sport is entertainment. Part of the fun of sport is being able to second-guess the umping. Now this can go too far, the NBA ref scandals are a good example (I think that ref conspiracy theories are pretty widely held with respect to that league). But as a Colts fan, I will never let my Pats* friend live down the ridiculous muggings on the Colts’ receivers that were not called in the 2004 AFC title game. It adds to the rivalry, the bad blood, and the enjoyment of being way too into sports. With robot refs, would McEnroe have been nearly as entertaining?

    4) Life is not always fair. The human element is part of sport just as it is part of life, and sometimes things won’t cut your way. Besides, it is almost never the case that a single call loses or wins a game. Usually the losing team had other opportunities that they should have capitalized on.

    5) I think we are tinkering with ‘the gods’ here. The baseball and football gods just have a way of working these things out. I’ll never forget game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. There were two calls that the umps initially got wrong but, after conferencing without replay, got right (the infamous A-Rod ‘hand-slap’ and the Bellhorn home run). When those two calls went the Red Sox way, I thought to myself, ‘This is it. We are actually getting the calls, the baseball gods are finally going to set the world right.’ This year’s Super Bowl is another fine example. That last ridiculous catch by the Giants (the off the top of the helmet catch) was obviously a play where the football gods intervened, finally – and perfectly – delivering cosmic football justice to the cheating Patriots*.

    I take my sports way too seriously, but I think there are life lessons in them. Sometimes you get dealt a tough or even an unfair hand. Sometimes you feel like you got punched in the stomach. I had a serious existential crisis during the 2004 ALCS, and again at half-time of the 2006 AFC title game (Pats*-Colts again). Sports fans – REAL sports fans – suffer mightily when their teams lose. It may be because of bad play, it may be because of a bad call. In either case, can’t we learn something from it (all Red Sox fans believe suffering can be redemptive, otherwise they would have drank themselves to death decades ago)? Do we rob ourselves of important life lessons from sport if we insist on making sports just another mechanically precise exercise? After a tough call or a horrid loss, don’t you have to repeat the Socratic line – ‘a good man cannot be harmed by a worse man’ – in order to fall asleep? Isn’t a bad loss or a bad call, then, in some ways good for your soul?


  4. Doug

    First of all, I must say to Kleiner “WE CAN BE FRIENDS”!! I am a huge Sox and Colts fan, long before it was popular to be one.

    I really dont like the slippery-slope arguments. I have heard them with gun control-if you take my ouzi then you will take my rifle kind of arguments. I believe you can set up specific times (like the NFL has tried to do) to limit challeges and replays, but use them sparingly when coaches, players, or fans believe a game changing call was wrong.

    Certainly we take sports too seriously! Why not, its fun, exciting, and allows us to be a part of something bigger then our small lives. Sports gives us the out we need for agression, competition, and social play. However, again I would like to point out that those that play the game are playing for a career. If they receive an unfair call that actually ruins their season, they not only lose a championship, but monetary gain and benefits as well.

    Anyway, I think a REASONABLE rule on replay would be bad. I believe the rules should be agreed to be the players union, and maybe a players union could be formed to help decide!


  5. Kleiner Post author

    Yes, I was on the Colts and Sox wagons before they both became tragically hip too (I lived in both places for a period of time). Most ‘pink-hat’ Sox fans have never suffered with the team, and many Colts fans don’t remember the times when the games would be blacked out in Indy because home games didn’t sell out. Anyway, it is high times these days for our two favorite teams.

    I think the slippery slope argument, at least in this case, is better than you give it credit for being. If we should use instant replay to decide ‘game-changing’ plays, well then what are those? Home run calls, for sure. But wouldn’t we also have to include ball/strike calls? And bang-bang plays at a base, etc etc?
    I’m probably in the minority here, but I don’t really care for even the NFL’s carefully regulated replay, I find it annoying. But I am willing to deal with it in football because tradition is not nearly so important in that sport as compared to baseball. I also think it works better for football, which is by nature a more ‘precise’ and ‘technological’ (militaristic almost) game. Baseball is not either of these things. Some guys (like Maddox) earn bigger strike zones, hitters known for having a great eye (like Manny) will often influence the umps calls, etc.

    Before Huenemann (no sports fan!) scolds us for not doing philosophy on the usu blog, here is the philosophical point and my chief argument: What we have here is another instance of sacrificing an ‘art’ for a ‘technology’. This is the ‘poesis vs techne’ point Heidegger is fond of making, and it is a principle critique of ‘modernity’ (its obsession with precise measurement and quantification and method). It also reminds me of Bacon’s ‘conquest of nature’ – it is a move toward precise technological mastery of all things. There is a kind of idolotrous eschatology built into it – that we can perfect ourselves and remove error (sin?) from the world so long as we just apply the right ‘technique/method/science’. Absurd as this connection may seem, I am concerned about instant replay for the same reasons I am concerned about genetic engineering!!
    Anyway, I agree with CS Lewis when he argues that this leads to the ‘abolition of man’ and I agree with Heidegger/Gadamer that we lose sight of other approaches to truth when we allow technological thinking to dominate. In a world where technological thinking has come to so dominate so many aspects of our lives, can’t we keep it out of sport and let our games remain poetic (with all the uncertainty, error, and ambiguity that comes with poetry)?!


  6. Alex

    I think Kleiner has summed up what I was aiming for, ‘art’ being sacrificed for ‘technology.’

    Kleiner, always the sage, wisely brings up Maddox’s strike zone. If instant replays were allowed, I truly doubt Greg would have achieved all he has. Baseball, as my dad has always tried to show me, has hidden aspects to it – Maddox’s strike zone, the intricacies of lineups and strategies, and the ever popular (though frightening) reasons to throw some ‘chin-music.’ Perhaps instant replays would not damage some of these hidden ‘arts,’ but they could (slippery slope). (Assuming Greg Maddox could make it 9 innings (he’s 42! retire already), if instant replays were allowed, you can bet the opposing team would ask for a replay on the 80-mph, strike three fastball (hah) that barely dusts the outside corner.)

    Let football have their replays, just keep the important games untouched! (Soccer, Baseball.. I guess that’s it?)

    PS – Sorry for the cheap-shot Doug…

    “If they receive an unfair call that actually ruins their season, they not only lose a championship, but monetary gain and benefits as well.”

    Although I understand the West Germans were devastated, among countless other teams throughout history, it’s the end of that sentence that gets me… ‘monetary gain and benefits as well.’ Perhaps it’s a bit silly we are even discussing the moral implications of instant replays in baseball. We SHOULD be discussing the fact that Dwayne Wade is rolling in cash (not only from basketball, but from those tedious T-mobile commercials) while playing on the most pathetic basketball team in recent memory. All-the-while, I drive past hispanic men and women in blistering 110 degree heat in Scottsdale, AZ trimming millionaires’ hedges – just to make a life for their families.

    (PPS – I’m down here making more money than I need, so I am no better!)


  7. Huenemann

    I wish I were a sports fan! But I’m not. Still, I enjoy watching from time to time, and even have a preference about who wins the NBA championship thingy.

    I’d like to just go with nontechnological, human calls, mostly for Kleiner’s #4 — life’s not fair, calls don’t always go your way, and that’s a valuable lesson to learn. On the whole, I’d like to see sports admired, played, watched, but somehow not taken so seriously as to have people even raise the question of instant replays.

    The reality, of course, is people get really wrapped up in pro sports, and millions upon millions of dollars are at stake. So, hell, I figure, go whole hog and put the GPS chips in the pigskin and use satellites and microwaves and whatever else you need to get the call right. You could even apply AI programs and get the refs off the field, someday. And while we’re at it, why not legalize steroids and genetic engineering, so long as the health risks are known and signed off on? The only thing holding you guys purists is some ill-advised nostalgia over a romantic era which probably never really existed in the first place.


  8. Kleiner Post author

    Huenemann – I think you are a bit of a cycling fan. So, are you not the least bit disappointed or do you not feel at all cheated when you find out that riders doped? Would you really be just fine legalizing doping across the board?

    Cycling is a good example, for this reason: you and I can go ride those climbs in Europe. (This works for other sports, we can run, play catch, hit a ball, etc). If the competition turns into an all-steroid affair, an important link to the everyday activity (for children and adults alike) is broken, and with that break some of the enjoyment and appreciation for what these special athletes are capable of doing is lost.

    There is something romantic about the purist stance, no doubt (and the luddite in me has that tendency). But I don’t think the nostalgia is totally misplaced. Ruth may have been doing some things we are not aware of, but the fact remains that for the most part he did it on hot dogs and beer, not hgh and steroids.


  9. Alex

    I just had a lengthy conversation with an avid sports fan, who is not only in favor of instant replays in baseball, but is even in favor (like Huenemann) of replacing the umpires with precise technology (assuming it becomes available, which is definitely possible in some areas).

    My first take on the instant replays is that they would damage the essence of baseball, but this sports fan (SF from now on) claims that it wouldn’t. SF thinks that instant replays could be implemented without harming the subjective aspects of the game while perfecting the objective areas. I have a feeling this is the argument that most in favor of instant replays use.

    From a baseball perspective, I think it has its merits. Foul-balls and home-runs are not really subjective, they were one or the other… strikes, though there is some consistency among umpires, are somewhat more subjective (Maddox and Manny examples again). If I put aside nostalgia and curb my desire for the ever prevalent human element (read: mistakes, maybe I am a masochist?), it is easy to see that the argument for instant replays SHOULD be explored by the purists – ASSUMING the slippery slope can be avoided (goodluck! I claim strikes/balls are subjective now, but with technology they would cease to be subjective and move into the objective realm).

    When SF was providing me with an ample supply of reasons and examples for instant replays to be used, he brought up soccer. In his example, he claimed that instant replays should not be used for offsides calls. But why? Offsides (in the VAST majority of cases) are clearly objective calls – why should we then not allow instant replays?

    Well, these were some of my afternoon thoughts – perhaps there is more I need to explore. Whether we can make clear-cut decisions on what is subjective and objective (both now, and in the technologically progressed future) and what the true essence of baseball and other sports is (whether it contains the human element that Kleiner and I desire, or whether we are just masochists piling on unnecessary pain).

    Maybe we should just make Baseball 2.0. “Yea, I preferred the older version of Microsoft Word – but they forced me into upgrading. And you know what? It’s not too bad…”


  10. Huenemann

    I’m not really one to talk, since I’m not a fan. So I defer to your better-informed and educated feelings. But I am sort of curious about the principles that say “Being a professional athlete, with super-trainers and handlers and agents and diet experts, etc., is all okay; but stick in some chemists and the whole thing stinks.” Doping in cycling I’m sure is very widespread (and in every pro sport). The legal limits give the docs a challenge: how much dope can I put in before the alarm goes off? (This might be a good sport in itself: “The Pro-Doc Challenge”) If the limits went away, you’d get red-hot performances — but then nasty deaths and wretched retirees, too. And I guess fans would feel guilty about supporting or being part of such a cruel process. But this seems funny, doesn’t it? Even without drugs, pro sports take heavy tolls on mortal bodies (look at Ali). The whole industry is predicated essentially on treating humans as means, not ends — they are devices for our viewing pleasure.

    But I’m sounding crankier than I mean to be. As is the case in many endeavors, humans just have weird and arbitrary limits about how much is too much and how much is not enough. Sports fans, in just the kind of dialogue Kleiner has opened, need to sort out their limits amongst themselves.


  11. Kleiner Post author

    Obviously pro athletes have a training regimen (diet, trainers, etc etc) that far exceeds what most normal people have, though there are exceptions (my brother-in-law is a coach for Carmichael Training (Lance’s old coach) and you’d be amazed at the number of weekend warriors willing to drop thousands of dollars for pro-level training). Equipment-wise the gap is shrinking too, if you have the money you can ride the exact same bike the pros ride.
    Point here, though, is one that Huenemann and I end up disagreeing on in many of our discussions. Just because the lines are a bit fuzzy at times does not mean that there is not a real and principled way of drawing a line. When things get messy (I am thinking back to the life debate) Huenemann seems to immediately assume any line-drawing is necessarily arbitrary. I disagree.
    In the case here, I think there is a principled (and it seems to me fairly obvious) difference between careful diet planning or highly controlled training as opposed to chemical alterations of the body. The former uses the body’s natural processes (natural muscle growth through the ordinary activities of eating and exercise) while the latter does not work via natural means (chemical injections that short-cut the ordinary digestive/nourishment body systems that naturally feed muscles).

    In the end, I tend to make an appeal to common sense when drawing these lines, something that is rather uncommon to the modern philosophical temperament (CK Chesterton remarked that the middle ages were the age of common sense, and that it has been on the decline ever since).



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