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Selig’s way: Deceive, “an inch at a time”

In the realm of geopolitical mischief, the notion that if you give a determined aggressor an inch he’ll end up demanding a mile every bloody, dang time has been affirmed and re-affirmed by much unfortunate history. Like in the last messy century when Germany was allowed to grab the Sudetenland and immediately demanded the rest of Central Europe.

Now admittedly the realm of baseball is relatively minor, even trivial, and I deplore the use of serious historical analogy to illustrate a silly point about a little game. But where that “give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile” axiom is concerned, the effect is essentially the same in these otherwise so disparate spheres.

It was just five years ago that the inveterately meddling commissioner and his henchmen – a collection of corporate hustlers and barristers who have no real sense or feel for this game yet are determined to “reform it” – demanded television instant replay be used to put an end to the increasing controversy over whether some balls smote for apparent home runs were actually foul balls, or vice versa. It would only be used for this one relatively small but nagging issue, Czar Bud Selig promised.

To many it seemed reasonable, concerning only the matter of where exactly the ball leaves the playing field and having nothing to do with basic interactions on the field. Who would dispute that under variable lighting and weather conditions from distances up to a hundred yards no human can be infallible in making this call, least of all a merely mortal umpire. Nor does anyone seriously yearn for a pennant, let alone a championship, being determined on such whims, although it had always been a necessary element of the risk and thereby acceptable.

It was a responsibility that umpires bore well, all things considered, for roughly a century and a half and if mistakes were undoubtedly made now and again, the game survived them quite nicely. Moreover, there are those steeped in what you might call “the magic” of baseball who might even argue that uproars over occasional calls that might have been blown have only added to the game’s rich texture, romance, and mythology.

Did that alleged home run Gabby Hartnett hit into a fogbank at Braves Field – the one everyone else present but the ump  believed was 20 feet foul – actually rob the Pirates of the pennant in 1938? Did that kid who reached out and caught Derek Jeter’s pop fly in the playoffs six decades later hand the grasping Yankees an undeserved championship while screwing the poor Orioles out of one?

Countless calls all over the field have had comparable impact. There was Don Denkinger’s infamous first-base muff that determined the outcome of the 1985 World Series. In St. Louis, they still grumble about that. Another less important but little less dramatic example would be Jim Joyce’s blunder that cost the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010.

Mistakes? For sure! And all of them would likely have been rectified by instant replay, thus rather dramatically altering sizeable chunks of baseball history. But would the game be better for it?  In the end, are not these fabulous controversies – about which we can, and do, bicker for generations – the very spice of baseball and the bedrock of its legendry?

You have to wonder. The human factor has been a wonderful force in this amazingly complicated game which is, after all, entirely about people making mistakes. In every game there are countless mistakes, from the bad pitches hitters swing at to all the bad ones pitchers make, and including all the big and small blunders of commission, omission, choice, chance, judgment, and mis-judgment that account for every run, hit, error, win, and loss. It has further always amazed me that whereas mistakes determine the outcome of every game, the umpires are not supposed to ever make any. Say this for them. Those they’ve made have been honest. No MLB ump has ever been accused of making one that wasn’t.

The human factor is the game’s precious wild-card. And they don’t make factors any more human than umpires. Do we really want to totally diminish or even purge them from the equation by rendering them moot, robotic, or totally governed by electronics?

Let’s put the question another way. Do we really desire in yet another of our precious human institutions – even if it is “only a game” – to surrender human control to the suffocating embrace of high tech in all of its dispassionately icy perfection?

Alas, Czar Selig and his nerdy cronies neither understand any of this sentiment nor have any patience with it. But they do have a passion for high tech and a reverence for almighty television, the mightiest influence on how this game is played since Alexander Cartwright devised its fundamental arithmetic. In greatly expanding the role of instant replay as they now propose, they are selling themselves still further to the television beast on whom they’ll be totally dependent to make it work. Talk of your Faustian bargains.

Of course, when Selig pushed for homer-replays in 2008, he righteously protested that’s all he wanted. It was calculated deception, mere strategy. It’s the way Bud operates, being a devout believer in the “inch at a time” modus operandi.

Now, he promises, it will be extended only for calls on the bases, pick-offs, trapped-balls, and other minor items, with the managers being regulated on how many protests they can make during a game. You were warned the last time and he conned you. Do not believe him this time.

Balks will be next. Then checked swings. Then fan interference. Etc. Eventually those restrictions on the managers will be scrubbed. And inevitably, rather sooner than later, there will be computer- or laser-driven systems that will either handle balls and strikes or correct them. If we can devise computers to control the works of satellites roaming the outer edges of the universe, we can develop rather perfectly one that can umpire a baseball game.

And that’s the alleged goal, or at least the excuse. The “perfection” of our grand old game! Ain’t that grand!  What amazes me is how many of the game’s more alert characters find the prospect of this poppycock beguiling. Joe Torre and Tony La Russa were on the committee that implemented Selig’s latest scheme. Tampa’s Joe Maddon, arguably the most erudite of the managers, is another ardent proponent.

“Of course, I like it,” snorts Maddon. “I like flat-screen TV. I like air-conditioning in my 1956 Bel-Air. I like computers. To just bury your head in the sand and reference old-school all the time is a poor argument.”

That’s admirably progressive, old Sport! But not everyone in this game, let alone on its sidelines, is quite so “now generation,” nor do they trust Bud Selig. As time runs out on his reign, and with his determination to complete the remaking of baseball according to his very own divine plan, the czar is in high gear with every step of it proceeding resolutely, an inch at a time.

He promised that inter-league play would be “limited.” Just two weeks a season, he said. This year we had inter-league games every single day, necessitated by Bud’s latest, needless re-structuring of the two leagues, which he also orchestrated an inch at a time. Having the all-star game determine home-field advantage in the World Series was termed “an experiment.” A decade later, it remains firmly in place with demands for revocation being scrupulously ignored. We were assured there’d be only one post-season wild card. Now there are two in each league with still more post-season expansion deemed inevitable. For all that, his good buddies are sure to reward him with a profoundly undeserved berth at the Hall of Fame.

Bud Selig presided over the ugliest labor dispute in sports history. His was the “honor” of having to scrap the World Series. He blissfully ignored egregious drug problems until steroids became baseball’s gravest crisis since the Black Sox Scandal. For all that, he will depart with his fingerprints on every aspect of the game as he crawls toward Cooperstown “an inch at a time.”

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