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Q&A: Do the umps need glasses—or some electronic help?

The annual rite of October, the Major League Baseball post-season, has been marked this year by a number of umpiring calls so obviously wrong that they’ve become as much of the story as anything the players have done. We asked Richardson Professor of Law Roger Abrams, an authority on sports law who has served as a scholar-in-residence at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to call ’em as he sees ’em.

We presume you’ve been watching the games. Do you agree with the sportswriters and broadcasters that the umpiring in these playoffs has been about the worst in memory?
It is always difficult to determine “the worst.” Unlike home runs, the record books do not contain statistics on “worst calls.” On the other hand, the umpiring this post-season has been dreadful.

Give us some historical perspective. Have there been umpiring calls in the playoffs or World Series so controversial or just plain bad that they’ve become part of baseball history? Assuming there have been, recall one or two for us.
Folks will remember the 1996 blown call involving Jeffrey Maier, the 12-year-old who reached over the right-field fence to interfere with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s fly ball in the first game of the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles. It was ruled a home run, and the Yankees went on to win the game.
However, every year there have been some doozies. It is not by chance that in the nineteenth century, fans (then called cranks) began to chant, “Kill the umpire!” Frankly, I like the system used in the earliest days of the game in the 1850s. Then, each game had only one umpire and when he couldn’t see a play, he would ask the spectators for advice.

We know that umpires are chosen to work the playoffs on merit, to ensure that the quality of the umpiring is equal to the quality of the baseball being played. If these are the best umpires in the majors, what’s going on here? Why all the glaringly missed calls?
Although they claim to be infallible, umpires are only human. The recent contretemps is the result of the latest technology, which allows us to see how wrong the umpires were. They have always been wrong on occasion. As my torts students in the law school know, we can only expect them to act as “reasonably prudent umpires.”

Is it true that when umps know they missed a call, they’ll try to even things out by making the next judgment call in favor of the other team?
I don’t think this happens in baseball, although it does happen in basketball.

This has given rise to a great debate over instant replay. Some commentators, and even a few players and coaches, have called for extending it beyond the current review of home runs. The commissioner, Bud Selig, is dead set against this. What’s your opinion?
I would like to see instant replay extended to “boundary” issues—whether a ball is fair or foul. It is currently used that way on the outfield boundary to determine whether a hit was actually a home run. I would not like to see it used for balls-and-strikes or on the bases. In the long run, the calls even out. On the other hand, as economist John Maynard Keynes wrote: “In the long run, we are all dead.” That applies to the Red Sox this year—but wait until next year!

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