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Wishing that baseball was more like the World Baseball Classic is to fundamentally misunderstand baseball

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With the end of the World Baseball Classic comes, I hope anyway, the end of Jon Paul Morosi’s columns shaming baseball and baseball fans who aren’t as into it as he is. If it is, though, he’s saved a good one for last.

After saying that baseball is rarely as entertaining, passionate or captivating as it was in the final round of the WBC — and that this may be because the U.S. team wasn’t there — Morosi lays his cards on the table:

The Dominicans and Puerto Ricans didn’t give us a glimpse into baseball’s future. They showed us what the sport should be right now, with fervor that burned bright even on a cold, drizzly night at AT&T Park: Flags waved. Horns honked. Whistles blew … However briefly, baseball acquired the Did you see that? quality more commonly associated with football and basketball. The kids like that stuff, you know … now that the tournament is over, baseball (sadly) will revert to its default settings: Home-run stylings, excessive celebrations, grand spectacles of individual expression all verboten. The Code, as enforced by managers and players, makes it so.

In saying this — and saying that regular major league baseball should emulate the WBC in these respects — he’s ignoring the fundamental nature of the regular baseball season. He’s ignoring that the WBC lasts eight to ten games, not 162. He’s ignoring that it is utterly impossible for WBC-level intensity to last for six months. He’s ignoring that one the great joys of baseball is the slow build of intensity over time. An intensity which ratchets up once the pennant races get serious and then maintains over the course of the playoffs.

But he doesn’t need me to tell him this. One of the guys he himself quotes — Puerto Rico coach Carlos Delgado — says as much:

“It’s very hard to keep this intensity level over the course of 162 games,” acknowledged Carlos Delgado, the former All-Star who served as a coach for the Puerto Rican team. “I’m not saying players do not play with passion during the season, but it’s hard to do this, day in and day out. There’s a different set of emotions. You’re playing for your country. You’re only playing six or seven games. The fans get into it. It’s a great event, a great competition.

And it is a great competition. I’ll take issue with the relative importance of the thing and many of its technical aspects, but in and of itself it is great fun, it is of great importance to fans outside of the United States and, yes, it is quite intense. I have doubts it will turn into a World Cup level thing, but if it does good for baseball.

But it’s one thing to acknowledge and enjoy (as Morosi clearly does, much to his credit) the unique nature of the World Baseball Classic and another thing altogether to believe that (a) its unique nature should be the norm in regular season baseball; and (b) if it is not the norm, it is to regular season baseball’s detriment. That’s where Morosi is here, and that’s why I take issue with him.

Despite his approving nods to football and basketball in the column, baseball is not football and basketball. Or hockey or soccer for that matter, to which he also alludes. It is not “the national competition.” It is “the national pastime.” It is a game which can and often does fade into the background over the course of months as opposed to demanding that we drop what we are doing and Take Notice. It is the soundtrack or score to the summer for most people. The accompaniment which complements our days and nights, not the concert or main event which demands that we block out those days and nights and refrain from other obligations. It is always there, not as a loud roar, but as a steady, comforting hum that maintains no matter what else is going on in our lives, and thank God for that, because our lives can and often do carry plenty of drama and intensity of their own.

Those who disparage baseball — and there are many — frequently claim these things to be the very problem with the game. But baseball’s calm and steady nature and its, eventually anyway, slowly-building intensity are features, not bugs. To suggest that the very aspects of baseball which make it unique and enjoyable to so many people constitute its essential problem is to fundamentally misunderstand its essential nature.

That is where Morosi seems to be. In a place where he misunderstands that the WBC and regular season baseball are entirely different things, each of which would not be what it is if it attempted to approximate the other. In his efforts to pit the two against one another and, by extension, to pit the feelings and motivations of the supporters of the two events against one another, and in rush to conclude that one side is sorely lacking, is to miss the bloody point entirely.

The idiocy of baseball’s replay system was on full display in St. Louis last night

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 29: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals scores the game-winning run against the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth inning at Busch Stadium on September 29, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Baseball’s current instant replay system, in place since the beginning of the 2014 season, has experienced hiccups, but it has generally avoided extreme controversy or high profile failures. Last night in St. Louis, however, the replay system failed in spectacular fashion, potentially costing a team a playoff berth.

We wrote about the play last night: bottom of the ninth in a tied Reds-Cardinals game, Matt Carpenter on first base, Yadier Molina at the plate. Molina hits a ball which should’ve been a ground rule double, halting Carpenter at third. The umpires missed the ball bouncing out of play, however, and Carpenter was allowed to run home, scoring the winning run. Due to the noise and confusion of the Cardinals’ apparent walkoff win, Reds manager Bryan Price could not hear the phone call from his video coordinator telling him to challenge the play. By the time the message got to Price, he was told his challenge was too late. Game over.

The lack of a replay review in that situation was huge. The call would’ve, without question, been overturned if it were reviewed. If that had occurred, there is a possibility that the Cardinals would’ve lost that game, putting them two games back of the Giants with three to play. Instead, they were gifted a win and are now one game back with three to play. At the very least, this will cause the Giants to have to play one more meaningful game this weekend than they might’ve otherwise had to, in turn giving them one less game to rest players and set up their pitching staff for the Wild Card game. It could also, of course, prove to be the difference between them making the Wild Card game and going home after Sunday’s finale against the Dodgers.

If this comes to pass, Major League Baseball will no doubt characterize Thursday night’s events as a freak occurrence. Just one of those things that you could never predict and thus could never prepare for. If you don’t buy that they’ll admonish you that this outcome would’ve occurred the same way had it happened before replay was instituted in 2014 and, hey, we’re doing the best we can. If you’re still not satisfied, baseball will ignore you and pivot to the fans who care less about it, casting the replay failure as a charming and memorable historical event, a la Merkle’s Boner, the Pine Tar Game or Don Dekinger’s blown call at first base in the 1985 World Series. One which, however bad it seemed at the time, is poised to become just another chapter in baseball’s grand history, ready for highlight reels and preroll ad-sponsored video clips. Baseball will turn the page on this, so why can’t you?

Don’t buy any of that. Not for a second. Don’t buy the notion that this was some sort of freak play because freak plays are, by definition, unforeseeable. And while the narrow specifics of last night’s replay failure in St. Louis may not have been predicted, the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of instant replay as implemented were foreseeable from the moment baseball idiotically decided to use a challenge system to initiate replay reviews.

We sharply criticized the use of a challenge system for instant replay in baseball at the time it was adopted in August 2013. Indeed, we sharply criticized a challenge system almost a year earlier when it was merely suspected that baseball would go in that direction with all of this. The reasons were pretty straightforward. Conceptually speaking, it should not be the responsibility of managers to correct the mistakes or oversights of umpires on the field, which is what a challenge system requires. Moreover, a challenge system, and its rules limiting the number and manner of challenges, subordinates getting the call right to strategy and gamesmanship with respect to when and how to use the arbitrary number of challenges granted, and that makes zero sense when the point is to simply correct mistakes.

The problems with a challenge system were not all conceptual, however. Some were practical. In January 2013, Mike Port, who served as Major League Baseball’s vice president in charge of umpiring between 2005 and 2011, talked about how managers were the weak link in a challenge system, saying “you would be amazed how many managers, coaches, and players are not conversant with the rules.” He might’ve added, as others have, that managers cannot possibly see everything that happens on the field from their vantage point, including balls hit to the boundaries. As a result, the notion that a manager can always instantly and knowledgeably pop out of the dugout to challenge a call is unrealistic. He’s going to need some help.

Which is why every team hired a video coordinator, sitting in the clubhouse watching the plays, ready to call the manager in order to tell him when to challenge and when not to. This arrangement solved one problem — the manager’s inability to see it all — but created others. For one thing, it creates potential inefficiencies and inequalities, with some clubs inevitably having more savvy or highly-skilled coordinators, giving them an edge that fair and impartial umpiring would never have created. For another, it necessitated the use of technology — video and phone lines — and technology can always fail. Just as it did last night when Bryan Price’s phone could not be heard over the roar of the crowd in a pre-playoff frenzy.

It was a technological failure that last night’s crew chief, Bill Miller, implied could’ve been fixed if Price had “made eye contact” or something but, hey, he didn’t, so the game was over. When baseball first announced the challenge system in 2013, John Schuerholz, tasked with defending it, said that it would create “a happy balance that will retain the uniqueness and charm of baseball.” I suppose there’s something “charming” about the need for a major league manager to have to gaze into the eyes of an umpire in order to get a blown call corrected, but one would hope that, in 2016, there are better ways to handle things.

Of course it was obvious that there were better ways to handle it in 2013 when Major League Baseball came up with this dumb system. Baseball’s managers, who did not want a challenge system, knew it. Baseball’s former umpire chief knew it. Even dumb bloggers in their mother’s basement knew it. In 2013, baseball had carte blanche and the support of everyone in the game to institute a system that got calls right. They chose, however, to go with a system that, by definition, does not have getting calls right as its sole objective and by necessity limits the ability for calls to be reviewed in the first place due to managers not being omniscient and omnipresent and due to technological limitations.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of an answered phone call, a playoff spot might be too. It never had to be this way, but baseball wanted it this way. If the Giants end up sitting at home next week rather than playing the Mets in a Wild Card game, I’m pretty sure they won’t be comforted by whatever baloney Major League Baseball dishes out to tell everyone why this is all OK.

Cardinals walk off on controversial double by Yadier Molina

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after he was called out on strike against the San Francisco Giants in the top of the six inning at AT&T Park on September 15, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Update (11:09 PM EDT):

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From unlucky to lucky, the Cardinals maintained their position in the National League Wild Card race with walk-off victory over the Reds on Thursday night.

The Cardinals went into the top of the ninth with a 3-2 lead over the Reds, but saw the game tied when Scott Schebler dribbled a two-strike, two out ground ball down the third base line. It seemed as if the baseball gods had turned their backs on the Cardinals.

In the bottom of the ninth against reliever Blake Wood, Matt Carpenter drew a one-out walk. Randal Grichuk then struck out, leaving all of the Cardinals’ hopes on Yadier Molina. Molina went ahead 2-0 in the count, then ripped a 95 MPH fastball to left field. The ball bounced high and over the left field fence for what seemed like an obvious ground-rule double. Carpenter motored around third base and scored the winning run.

The Cardinals poured onto the field in celebration and the umpires walked off the field. Manager Bryan Price wanted to have the play reviewed, but when he went onto the field, the umpires were nowhere to be found. Price chased after them but to no avail. As the Cardinals left the field and the stadium emptied, the Reds remained in the dugout. The Reds’ relievers were left in a bit of purgatory, standing aimlessly in left field after exiting the bullpen. Finally, the game was announced as complete over the P.A. system at Busch Stadium. The results are great if you’re a Cardinals fan, but terrible if you’re a Mets or Giants fan.

As Jon Morosi points out, the rules clearly state that the signage above the fence in left field is out of the field of play. The umpires got it wrong.

Price, however, also took too long to speak to the umpires. Per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

If this happened between two teams playing a meaningless game, it would’ve been a lot easier to swallow, but Thursday’s Reds-Cardinals game had implications on not only the Cardinals’ future, but the Mets’ and Giants’ as well.