Fan Interference.bmp

Joe West’s maverick replay review: a wrong that was ultimately right

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By now you’ve probably heard about the big Joe West/replay/fan interference call that took place in the sixth inning of the Phillies-Marlins game yesterday. This was a wonderful set of occurrences because it marries at least three of my personal hobby horses: Joe West bashing, instant replay and Phillies fans. If steroids were involved somehow I probably would have had to have been hospitalized yesterday.

So here’s the video of the play. Probably worth watching it first so we can all agree — and I think we can all agree — that yes, that was a case of fan interference.* But the fan interference itself was not really the critical thing here. Joe West’s use of instant replay to overturn the original call of a double is what really turned this into an argle bargle/foofaraw.

The replay rules say that home runs or potential home runs are reviewable. As the play went down, no one — and here I mean the announcers and the people watching the game live and tweeting about it — thought this was a potential home run call being reviewed. Nor did Charlie Manuel. They all thought this was a defensive play (i.e. a double or a fan interference call) being reviewed, which would seem not to be a reviewable call. So, Joe West reviews it, calls Hunter Pence out and everyone freaks about Joe West cowboying his way into a call that should not have been.

Except after the game West told reporters that this was, in fact, a potential home run call being reviewed. He said that home plate umpire Chad Fairchild thought that the fan interference could have prevented the ball from being a home run, thus rendering the review appropriate. Manuel contends that no one was talking about it being a potential home run when everyone was arguing about it on the field, suggesting that the potential home run contention was a post-facto thing by the umps in order to validate their call. The Phillies have protested, of course. But given that an umpire will be on the record in his report saying that the review was of a potential home run, I’m pretty sure that the protest will fail.

But the protest is not terribly interesting to me. It’s not going to change the fact that the Phillies will win the division. And even if it succeeded, it may be a bad thing for Philly given that they’re already playing 26 games in the next 24 days. Sure, everyone would love to get Roy Halladay another win if possible, but when are they supposed to replay this one if the protest is upheld?

No, what really jazzes me about this is how clearly it illustrates the lame artificiality of the current instant replay rule.  About how the umpires are technically allowed to look at a play if X, but are not allowed to look at and review the very same damn play if Y.

From what I can determine, the validity of this call is based on whether Joe West thought he was reviewing a defensive play or a potential home run. But on what planet is a sane replay system governed by what happens to be in Joe West’s head the moment before he looks at the video monitor?  Why should a call that was ultimately correct even be considered improper based on the premise of the review? Right is right, right?  This rule is akin to one that says a police officer assigned to traffic duty can’t do anything about it if he sees a robbery happen on the corner 20 feet away.

Baseball can’t continue on with this kind of silliness. The calls should be correct, and if a video review can help the umpiring crew make the correct call — even if it’s not a home run call — that’s all that should matter.  And if it takes Cowboy Joe West being Cowboy Joe West for someone in a position of authority to finally own up to this and expand replay, I’m just fine with that, thank you very much.  Only Nixon could go to China, and only an umpire of Joe West’s particular charms can show the ridiculous inherent in the system.

 

*Interference by a Phillies fan, it’s probably worth noting. And I note it because some folks who were sending me tweets about this yesterday were saying stuff like “fan interference on the road screws the Phillies!”  No, my friends, if the Phillies were screwed here it was not by some Marlins fan. It was because of an event that was kicked off by a Phillies fan who couldn’t resist messing with a ball in play.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.