Before the events of Monday night are completely overtaken in our minds by the drama of What Comes Next, I’d like to return here to a play in that game, and a subject we’ve discussed here recently, namely the institution of an instant replay system of some sort for MLB. I’m opposed to replay, as I’ve repeated here ad nauseum. And another good example of why came in Game 4 of the ALDS, when Chien-Ming Wang came in high and tight to Kelly Shoppach, who was trying to bunt with 2 men on. Shoppach, with the ball coming at him, retracted the bat, but not quickly enough. The ball hit either his hand or the bat or both in some combination. Had it just it the bat, obviously, it’s just a foul ball. But in either of the other two cases—and this is what the umpire ruled—Shoppach was to get first base. TBS, as ever a bit slow on the draw, finally put up a couple of replays. The best view was, predictably, blurry and inconclusive. To me, it looked like the ball definitely hit the bat—and the distance the ball traveled on rebound suggested as much—but it’s certainly plausible that it also clipped a bit of hand. Impossible to tell. In my opinion, the replays were absolutely inconclusive. That, in itself is an argument against replay—that a single, blurry image is always going to be inconclusive. But that’s not what draws this post. What shocked me was the response of TBS commentator Bob Brenly, who upon seeing what to me was clearly inconclusive, stated with absolute firmness, “That ball clearly hit his hand.” And therein lies the problem. Even with replay, there is always a human and quite fallible umpire doing the interpretation. I don’t know why Brenly made that statement—perhaps, as has been suggested—he has an innate bias against the Yankees. And, as Errol Morris has so effectively argued, we tend to see what we want in an image, even if we’re not cognizant of that fact.
I should add that I’ve watched just a few downs of NFL football this season, and in that short span came across a similar situation. I can’t quite recall the game. I believe it was the Jets or Cowboys playing. Maybe the Pats. A play at the goal line. The running back dives into a pile. In the footage, it’s impossible to tell whether the ball has crossed the line or not. On the field, he is ruled down before the end zone. The offensive team appeals. The replays are inconclusive—entirely. Al Michaels, who is doing the commentary, says something to the effect of “That may or may not have been a touchdown, but there’s no way you can overturn the call.” But then the ref did just that. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps he was wrong. Who knows? Meanwhile, time marched on….