Major League Baseball Continues Play Catch-Up with New Technology

Since John Hodgeman of "The Daily Show" apparently doesn't have the time to fix Major League Baseball's myriad problems and controversial issues, I supposed I'll have to step in and get it done.

Contrary to what you may imagine, I'm pretty busy myself. I could list all the stuff I have to deal with on a daily basis but I just can't lose any more readership at this point. So even though it's a big pain to have to deal with baseball's problems, which, I might add, other people are paid large bucks to fix, for the sake of the game I'll step up.

[A simple statue, maybe on the outskirts of Cooperstown, is sufficient recognition for my contributions. I mean, let's not get ridiculous about it. If there could also be some type of amusement ride for the kids there, maybe a "Pablo Sandoval Unlimited Buffet Superslide", that would be nice.]

So let's permanently fix a MLB problem that is rooted in baseball's longstanding aversion, mistrust, and utter lack of understanding of new technology. 

Major League Baseball's Long, Rich History of Dropping the New Technology Ball
(With Lengthy But Valuable Historic Bonus Material)

A great man once said, "When in doubt, look to history". Actually, I think this might be the first time I've actually said that. Well, no matter…

The issue of MLB instant replay and the reticence of the baseball establishment to adapt to new technology is hardly a new phenomenon. It reminds me of two other Big Changes that baseball owners were terrified of and resisted, thinking it would harm their product (i.e., cost them money).

That would be, 1) the advent of radio broadcasts in the 1920s and 1930s; and, 2) the arrival of television in the 1940s and 1950s.

Baseball's monied establishment was smugly adamant that only an idiot would give the game away free on radio or TV. In fact, all three New York teams banned radio broadcasts in 1932 and even prevented visiting teams from "recreating" games on the radio.

It took a while for the owners to get smart about radio's potential. It was the visionary Larry MacPhail who changed all that when he made baseball's first radio deal in 1933, as the GM of the Cincinnati Reds, and then again in 1935 as the GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Eventually light bulbs went off over every MLB owner's head and radio became a ubiquitous cash cow for every franchise.

Currently every MLB team makes huge profits on the local radio broadcast of their games. The Boston Red Sox, for example, make $18 million a year on their local radio broadcast contract alone.

Not learning their lesson, baseball's owners resisted televising ballgames even more. Imagine showing a game for free on TV when what you really want is for fans to come to the ballpark, pay to get in and buy your hot dogs.

It took decades before they got this one right. Even up to the 1970s, the San Francisco Giants were broadcasting only about a dozen games per year on TV.

Today, each MLB team makes tens of millions of dollars every year in television broadcast revenue. First are the three huge national TV contracts which get split up among the 30 teams and the Commissioner's Office:
> a $500 million a year contract with Fox Sports for Saturday and post season games, and the All Star game;
> a $700 million a year deal with ESPN for Sunday games and specific post season games;
> and, a $300 million per year contract with Turner Sports (TBS) for specific post season broadcasts.

And when these contracts run out and get renewed baseball owners make even more money.

Add to that, each MLB team also has a separate multi-million dollar contract with Fox Sports television (or a team-owned network like the Yankees' $3 billion YES Network) to show all their local broadcasts and other sports programing. The Texas Rangers, for example, make an additional $150 million a year just for those local TV rights.

Adding up all the radio, national TV, and local TV media revenue numbers will give you an idea of why owning an MLB franchise is as close to legally printing money as you can possibly get. And to think the owners resisted all of it at first.

Back to Instant Replay
So here we go again with more new technology available to improve the game and its value and once again the MLB establishment simply doesn't get it.

Baseball currently allows one kind of instant replay– on borderline home runs. That's it. Further extention of instant replay is currently being discussed but, as usual, the baseball ruling class is dithering on yet another critical issue.

So here's what dedicated fans and the national audience are supposed to believe: it's acceptable when umpires make incorrect calls– hey, that's part of the charm and cultural history of the great American game.

Baseball is telling us that it's OK when a runner beats the throw to first base and is called "out". Everything's good when trapped balls are called "fair" and caught balls are called "trapped". Did you see that super-clear slowmo TV replay showing the runner safe at home plate? Hey, that ties the score! Oh, sorry fans, the umpire mistakenly called him "out". So that makes him out.

Everyone cool with that?

Two things going into this issue I do agree with: 1) Baseball's rich history should never be casually messed with; and, 2) umpires are critical to the essence of the game. Professional baseball can only be played with the skill and expertise umpires bring to it.

So instant replay isn't a substitution for umpires, and it isn't a way to correct umpire mistakes. It should be a tool that umpires use to make the right calls. Many have suggested this solution before: a fifth umpire in a special TV replay booth that would allow that umpire to quickly see the deciding angle of a close play and wirelessly relay that information to the umps on the field.

Would that unnecessarily delay games and make them longer? You can answer that yourself by, a) recalling there are relatively few "too close to call" plays in an average game; then, b) ask yourself what takes longer, a 30 second replay call from the ump in the booth or five minutes of managers ranting and raving, players getting thrown out of games, and fans throwing crap on the field?

The Baseball Commissioner and MLB owners should not limit instant replay to specific plays or situations– let's have instant replay decisions on any "too close to call" play whatever it is and whenever it happens. A team manager can call for an umpire replay review, but the umps must approve that request– so they still retain complete control of the game. 

It's time for the Commissioner and the owners to get this done. The smart use of universal TV instant replay will ensure the continued integrity of America's pastime in an era when the game can be "made right" through modern high definition television technology.

Richard Dyer

About Richard Dyer

Writer, bass player, carrot juice wrangler. His Twitter following is limited to one person at a time. "My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music." --Vladimir Nabokov