Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Baseball and Poker: The Same Approach

Tonight is the telecast of the final table of the 2008 World Series of Poker, and mine will be among the estimated 3-4 million households tuned in to the action. Advertised as "live," the final table action was actually filmed yesterday, so an edited version will be televised tonight, culminating two months of weekly telecasts of the main event in which the champion will win $9,152,416.

The main event began way back on July 3 with 6,844 contestants entered at $10,000 a pop. On July 14, the field was narrowed to the final nine players. Before this year, the final table would have been played the next day, but the WSOP has followed in the footsteps of major league baseball and other big-time sports by letting television dictate its schedule. The folks at ESPN, dismayed by a drop in ratings during the 2007 WSOP, persuaded tournament officials to delay the final table until November, letting the intervening telecasts build suspense and an audience for the eventual showdown amongst the so-called "November Nine." Apparently the strategy worked, as ratings for the last two October telecasts exceeded the audience for the 2007 final table.

When the decision to delay the final table was announced, my gut reaction was that it did the players a disservice, and I still feel that way. There are two factors involved. First, I'm sure all of the players who made the final table said at the time that "I've been on the rush of my life." Over the course of a dozen days in July, they had to catch a lot of cards not merely to survive but to build their chip counts to a point where they could endure some tough losses and still have enough ammunition to contend. From what the telecasts show us, recent champions have caught lots and lots of big hands; the last two winners, Jerry Yang and Jamie Gold, even admitted on camera that they were what the players call "cardracks" over the course of the tournament, hot beyond reason and expectation.

How would like to be one of the "November Nine," on the rush of your life, and have to wait four months for the showdown and a shot at $9 million? You know what happens to poker players over an average four-month period? They blow hot and cold. Rushes come and rushes go. The adrenalin surge of holding hot cards in July dissipates, and anything could happen in November. It might be that all nine finalists went through the usual whirlwind of poker fortune over the past four months and landed in a positive cycle as this week's action rolled around, but I wouldn't bet on it. At least a couple of these guys have cooled off, and the loss of continuity caused by the WSOP selling out to ESPN will be responsible for their bad showing with the money on the line.

Look at it this way. Suppose you took baseball's World Series, did things the way they're done now, with two earlier rounds of playoffs narrowing the field, then jumping right in to the Series action (even though we don't exactly "jump right in" now with several days of inactivity dictated by television) -- onto to stop play when one team wins three games. Tell the players that the fourth World Series win, the clincher, will take place during the week between Christmas and New Year's, a slow week for sports competition during which baseball will gain its biggest possible audience for the last game of the Series. It won't matter if one team is ahead 3-0 or 3-2 in the Series; we might get as many as four games between Christmas and New Year's (played in a domed stadium, of course, making it weather-proof), each one building the suspense. It's ridiculous, isn't it? Don't hold your breath. ESPN has done it this year with poker.

My other objection is related to what happens during the delay between reaching the final table and playing it. The better poker players are those who learn quickly in the heat of the battle just what their opponents are thinking and doing. During the course of the tournament, those who made the final table had to make constant adjustments to the changing lineups at their table, studying new and unfamiliar players to detect their strengths and weaknesses, devising strategies to conquer them, and taking advantage of their sharper instincts. Many of those nine finalists did battle against each other during the tournament, but some did not face each other. Somewhere at the final table, there was a pairing of players who did not play against each other, and back in July they would have faced the challenge of learning about each through direct contact, with the better player gaining an advantage.

Instead, they've spent the last four months doing what the rest of us have been doing -- watching the telecasts and studying their opponents. They've had the advantage, while watching, of knowing which eight players to study, and the benefit of seeing their hole cards during the hand. Let's say I'm Dennis Phillips, ending the July action with the chip lead. I have a very good read on every other final table player, because I played against them, studied them, and have confidence that I know when they're strong and when they're bluffing. I know that Player A likes to ask questions when he's facing an all-in bet, and that when he gets a certain kind of answer he's more likely to call or to fold. I can use that knowledge. Player B did not face Player A in July, but in September and October he watched Player A on the telecasts, and he picked up the same "verbal tell" that I gained on my own. There goes my advantage. Everybody at the final table should know everything they need to know about the other players, from having studied the same televised hands. Yes, I might know something extra from a hand that wasn't televised, but my advantage won't be nearly as extensive as it should be over anybody who didn't face Player A in July.

In 1993, when I was dealing at the World Series of Poker, a group of players asked me to introduce them to baseball. Three Irish players and two British players had heard a lot about the game while playing with the Yanks, and they wanted to see for themselves. The minor-league Las Vegas Stars were at home, so we went to a game. On the drive to Cashman Field, I explained to them why the game they'd be seeing closely resembled the no-limit hold'em games they had just left back at the Horseshoe. Here's what I told them:

"The key to baseball is the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter, just like the showdowns you face in a no-limit game. When you sit down to play and look at the other nine players facing you, it's the same as the pitcher looking over the other team's nine-man lineup. You determine who the most dangerous players are, the ones with the most talent, the ones who are on the hottest streak, and you make up your mind to avoid letting those players beat you. That's exactly what the pitcher does: he thinks, 'that's the guy I won't let beat me, the one I won't challenge with the game on the line.'

"You see who the weak players are, the ones you can run over and intimidate, the ones you can deceive and fool. Every time a pitcher and batter face each other, they build upon the past history of their showdowns and way you build on pots you've played against that player. You guys remember sequences of bets you made against each other many years ago, and baseball players--the top ones--can remember sequences of pitches ten or twenty years later. Within each game, a pitcher faces a particular batter every thirty or forty minutes, about as often as you might play a pot against a certain player. These confrontations escalate during a game. A pitch the pitcher throws in the first inning might be designed to set up a different pitch he intends to throw to that batter in the late innings when the game is on the line, just as you might bet a hand the first pot you play with someone today so that when you play a key pot later on, you can check-raise him instead and win a bigger pot.

"A pitcher has a repertoire of pitches--fastball, curve, slider, change-of-pace, and so on. You have the bet, raise, re-raise, and check-raise. These are weapons you use to maximize your opportunities to win. It's the same game, the same psychological battle. And the outcome also depends on luck. The pitcher can make that perfect pitch in the key spot and get the batter to hit a weak fly ball, but if a gust of wind blows it away from the fielder, the batter will get a hit anyway. You can make a brilliant play and get your opponent drawing to one card in the deck, but that card will sometimes come up and you'll still lose that pot. It's a mixture of skill, strategy, and chance.

"They're the same game: hold'em has four betting rounds, and an at-bat has an average of four pitches. You elevate it by studying every tendency of your opponent. You know that a certain player is more likely to fold if you bet the first chance you have. A pitcher knows a hitter doesn't like to swing at the first pitch, and he acts accordingly. When you face someone you've never seen before, you size him up as quickly as you can, try strategies that have worked against players of that type, and if you don't succeed you make adjustments the next time you face him. Those adjustments are constant, building on your experience and analysis. That's why the game is always fascinating. It's infinite variety within set parameters."

My five hold'em aces grasped these principles before we arrived at the park. Once there, I took them down to the bullpen to watch the starting pitcher warm up. They saw the difference between a fastball (a big bet on the flop), a curveball (a check-raise on the turn), and a change-up (slow-playing the best hand until the river). During the game, I pointed out how the pitcher and batter might adjust depending on what the batter did in his first at-bat. They relished every battle between pitchers and hitters. On the other hand, they had no clue what running bases was all about, and I had no ready analogy to help them on that. In poker terms, they were drawing dead to understand the infield fly rule. But they knew what mattered in baseball.

That's what bothers me about waiting four months to play the final table. The hot players lose their momentum, the sharper players lose the advantage of what they've figured out on their own, and everybody loses the continuity of uninterrupted competition. Do you think the Tampa Bay Rays would have fared better against Cole Hamels in Game 5 of this year's World Series if they had had four months to park themselves in front of videotape machines to study every single pitch he threw during the regular season? I do. Do you think Shane Victorino would have had a chance to cool off in the interim? I do. Do you think the rest of us would be outraged at having to wait two more months to see the final game, just because the television moguls predicted a bigger audience? I do.

That's why you have to be sure not to send any television executive the link to this blog, lest they get any more bright ideas.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Just One To a Customer

My co-conspirator here at the Hall of Fame's research center, Freddy Berowski, came up with a terrific challenge last week. The basic idea is to fashion a 25-man roster of current players, plus a 5-man management team, using exactly one person from each major league franchise. Here's his explanation of how he got the idea:

"I was sitting watching Game 5 on two different nights without a rooting interest and I just got to thinking about who the single best players were on the Rays and Phillies. Then I started thinking about the best players on other teams and how it was just too hard to pick one player. I then started wondering about players and how valuable they were in their role to their team and whose role was most valuable (Santana-Mets, Linebrink-White Sox, Ramirez-Marlins, etc.) and I thought, what if I put togther a 25-man roster using no more than one player from each team. So the list grew just out of daydreaming. Within the first hour I had 10--Santana, Soto, Martin, V. Martinez, Utley, H. Ramirez, Hunter, Lincecum, Linebrink and Sherrill and I figured what the heck, let's spend some time putting it to paper, taking into account all facets of the game and see what happens. Fun little exercise."

I agree. I suggested that instead of leaving out five teams, we include an owner, GM, manager, pitching coach, and batting/bench coach. That made it a little tougher, and led to the irony that both of us picked Billy Beane of Oakland to be our GM, essentially because he has assembled a roster of players we don't want on our teams. Players were chosen from the rosters at the end of the 2008 season, and rosters were chosen with balance in mind, based on who we'd want playing for us next year. Freddy put one restriction on the bullpen: only one reliever who has spent the last two seasons as a closer could be chosen. He picked his team first, so we'll start there:

Starting batting order:
Ramirez, SS (Marlins)
Ichiro, RF (Mariners)
Cabrera, 3B (Tigers)
Morneau, 1B (Twins)
Holliday, LF (Rockies)
Utley, 2B (Phillies)
Soto, C (Cubs)
Hunter, CF (Angels)

Martin, C/3B (Dodgers)
V.Martinez, C/1B (Indians)
Berkman, 1B/OF (Astros)
Pedroia, IF (Red Sox)
Phillips, IF (Reds)
McLouth, OF (Pirates)

Starting pitchers:
J. Santana (Mets)
Lincecum (Giants)
Sabathia (Brewers)
Webb (Diamondbacks)
Peavy (Padres)

Soria (Closer) (Royals)
Linebrink (White Sox)
Downs (Blue Jays)
Wheeler (Rays)
Franklin (Cardinals)
Sherrill (Orioles)

Owner: Steinbrenner (Yankees)
GM: Beane (A's)
Manager: Acta (Nationals)
Pitching Coach: McDowell (Braves)
Hitting Coach: Jaramillo (Rangers)

Here is Freddy's commentary on his roster:
"My taking of Hanley Ramirez--best offensive shorstop in bb, might be the worst defensive and clearly the best player on the Marlins. Took Steinbrenner as the owner simply because of his unlimited pocketbook and his desire to win at all costs (plus I was able to justify not taking A-Rod). In taking Morneau at first instead of Pujols it really came down to a few things--firstly, for me, Mauer was not an option--simply not a fan and I've never really thought he was that good--and then it came down to Morenau or Nathan. The problem is based on the way we set this up I could only take one closer, which removed Nathan from the table because if I didn't take Soria from the Royals, who else would I take? Almost took Okajima, actually I originally had, but in an effort to have a deeper, more balanced bench I took Pedroia and thus replaced him with Wheeler from TB, which I really don't look at as a down grade. I took Acta by default, although I know for a time he was a top managerial prospect and he really doesn't have much to work with in DC. I've read some scuttlebut that the Mets really wanted him back. Texas has a monster offense, and Rudy Jaramillo is one of the most respected batting coaches in the game. The Mets tried to woo him away from Texas a few seasons ago. I wonder how much of an influence Rudy had on Hamilton's first half surge. It seems they get monster numbers out of every position. I'm certain he has an influence on that. I like Roger McDowell. He's done alot with so little to work with (3 aging brittle starters, 4 if you count Hampton) and the eggshell bullpen committee. I like my catchers--very strong for every aspect--defense, offense, some speed, multiple position eligibility (3b and 1b). And the rotation, arguably the best 5 starters in baseball today including THE BEST. I took Torii Hunter because he really has the total package and has been doing it for some time--all the tools--speed, power, ability to hit for average, defense, I really like him--the only centerfielder in the bigs that I think is better than him is Beltran, but going with Santana, that wasn't an option. I like the balance in my line-up, bullpen and rotation as far as mixing up righties and lefties. That was important to me."

Looking at Freddy's roster, I couldn't see much room for improvement. Dynamite lineup, strong bench, powerful rotation, and a solid bullpen. I liked the notion of getting Steinbrenner to pay for them, and agreed that Manny Acta would manage to win with them. But I tried to meet the challenge of coming up with a better team. There were a few different players I wanted for my roster, and I wound up choosing 12 of the 30 people Freddy did. The trick was finding the best people from the weaker franchises and choosing from the multiple options on the stronger teams. As Mets fans, Freddy and I both wrestled with which Met to choose. It was tough not to take David Wright, their most productive hitter the last four seasons, but Freddy went with Santana and I decided to put Jose Reyes on my team. That meant not taking Hanley Ramirez, and I quickly learned that each choice could set in motion a chain-reaction. If not Ramirez from the Marlins, who then? Who would take Santana's spot in the rotation? And so on. Here's how my roster turned out:

Starting batting order:
Reyes, SS (Mets)
Ichiro, RF (Mariners)
Pujols, 1B (Cardinals)
Hamilton, CF (Rangers)
M. Ramirez, LF (Dodgers)
Utley, 2B (Phillies)
Cabrera, 3B (Tigers)
Mauer, C (Twins)

C. Jones, 3B (Braves)
Phillips, IF (Reds)
Berkman, 1B/OF (Astros)
Quentin, OF (White Sox)
Doumit, C/OF (Pirates)
Iannetta, C (Rockies)

Starting pitchers:
Halladay (Blue Jays)
Lincecum (Giants)
Webb (Diamondbacks)
Sabathia (Brewers)
C. Lee (Indians)

Soria (Closer) (Royals)
Chamberlain (Yankees)
Marmol (Cubs)
Balfour (Rays)
Okajima (Red Sox)
Sherrill (Orioles)

Owner: Moreno (Angels)
GM: Beane (A's)
Manager: Acta (Nationals)
Pitching coach: Balsley (Padres)
Hitting coach: Presley (Marlins)

Overall, I think my team has a stronger starting lineup. Starting Pujols is a big boost. Freddy doesn't like Mauer, but I do. He's only 25, has two batting titles, a .400 on-base percentage, and has thrown out more than 40% of runners trying to steal. Freddy is skeptical about Hamilton because he's only had one full season, but I feel the same way about his catcher, Geovany Soto. I like Hamilton's chances of continuing to put up big numbers in Texas. We both molded our batting orders to alternate righty and lefty hitters. Otherwise, I'd say that Manny Ramirez should bat cleanup, Hamilton 5th, Cabrera 6th, and Utley 7th.

I like Freddy's bench better, with his versatile catchers plus Pedroia. His starting rotation has a slight edge, too, thanks to Santana, though Halladay isn't far behind. He doesn't think Cliff Lee will be very strong next year, but I think 2007 was the aberration for Lee, not 2008. From 2004-2006, Lee was 46-24, then dropped to 5 wins during an injury-riddled 2007 before emerging with his ridiculous 22-3 record this season. I'll take him. My bullpen is stronger, too. A year from now, five of my six guys could be closers. As for the front office, I think Artie Moreno would be just as willing as Steinbrenner to pay for this team. Beane and Acta are on both teams. My pitching coach, Darren Balsley, has been with the Padres for five years, and even though the big ballpark there contributes to their pitching success, he has developed a number of good young pitchers, notably Chris Young. As for Jim Presley in Florida, his hitters are a lot like he was as a player. They strike out too much, but they hit a lot of homers (2nd in the NL this season) and produce a lot of runs (5th in the NL despite a so-so team batting average) in a pitcher-friendly park.

There they are--two damn good teams. We might find a computer simulation game this winter and pit the two squads against each for a few hundred games and see who prevails. Even better, we hope that enough readers of this blog will respond with their own rosters that we'll be able to compete in a full league. So here's your invitation to take the challenge. Do you think an infield of A-Rod, Jimmy Rollins, Brian Roberts, and Mark Texeira would outperform our infields? Maybe you're right, but you'll have to deal with the chain reaction caused by having nobody else from those teams available. If you want Joe Nathan as your closer, you'll have to pick someone else from the Royals. I wanted Dave Duncan as my pitching coach, then decided Pujols was a must and had to look elsewhere for a coach. Give it a try--we promise it'll be fun.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How Instant Replay Should Work

I have always considered myself a mass of contradictions. I'm both generous and selfish, sentimental and dismissive, thoughtful and tactless. I'm a sloppy perfectionist, a reclusive extrovert, and a courteous smart-ass. I'm devoutly agnostic and staunchly apolitical (though I'll be voting today), and I have an overwhelming conviction that all opinions are useless.

I'm also a pragmatic idealist. I've gotten several responses to what I posted last week about expanding instant replay in baseball, and the gist of those responses is "let the umpires do their job -- human error has always been part of the game." I felt the same way until a few months ago. I had some experience as an umpire in the 1980s and learned a lot about the game and the job, most of all acquiring an awed respect for how well umpires perform in an extremely difficult job. I have always been opposed to instant replay in baseball; as an idealist, I have always advocated letting human beings rather than machines decide the course of a game.

In an ideal world, it would be perfectly fine with me if we continued to let the umpires work on their own, getting more than 99% of the calls right and taking our chances that the mistaken 1% wouldn't come at the worst times. But once MLB installed instant replay in August, that ideal world no longer existed, and I have become a pragmatist. The gist of what I wrote last week was: "now that we've opened the door and let instant replay in, let's at least do it in a way that makes the most sense." To me, the current version of instant replay is what I called "half-assed" because it applies to plays that occur about once a week, while ignoring other plays that occur at least a few times a day in a full schedule. Since any wrong call in any game during the season can materially affect a team's ultimate chance for a championship, every call is important enough to get right.

I believe it is short-sighted to pretend that only a disputed home run is important enough to warrant using instant replay to get it right. That's the point, to make the right call, to let the empirical facts of what truly happened determine the outcome of each game rather than the fleeting impression of an umpire who might either be out of position or in position but momentarily blocked or distracted from seeing the key part of the play. A few decades ago, each umpire was on his own, adhering to the Bill Klem principle that the umpire is always right. That premise has been abandoned over the years, and it is a common sight to see the entire umpiring crew gathered around to discuss a play. This happens when a manager sincerely convinces the umpire who made the original call that one of his comrades might have had a better angle. The umpire, who is supposed to be unfailingly honest if nothing else, admits to himself that he might not have been 100% sure about the play, and accedes to the request. The umpires huddle, sometimes for several minutes, and issue their final group decision, which to this observer is much more likely to be the correct call than the original umpire's lone view. This is not instant replay per se, but it is based on the same principle: the first guy might have gotten it wrong, so let's do what we can to try to get it right. Sometimes the call is changed, sometimes not, but the managers and fans cannot complain that the umpires stubbornly refused to admit the possibility of needing more than one set of eyes to do the right thing.

I don't watch a lot of pro football, but when I do I pay a lot of attention to the calls which are challenged and go to instant replay, and I think the same system could work in baseball. I'd say there's about a two-thirds chance that the call is going to be reversed, basically because the challenging coach's cohorts up in the booth have already seen a replay and tell him that the call was probably wrong. As I outline my proposal for how instant replay should work in baseball, keep this principle in mind. While the manager is out there arguing the call in the first place, people in both teams' clubhouses are going to look at the replays, and someone will signal the manager that he's right or wrong to be protesting. The football principle would hold: whatever call is made on the field, the replay official would have to see incontrovertible evidence on the film to overturn that call. Borderline calls would remain just that; if the person in the booth can't say with certitude that it happened one way or another, the umpire's call would stand. An example of this might be fastball that tails into a batter trying to bunt. The ball hits either the bat or the batter's hand on the bat. Did it hit all hand? Did it hit the bat and just nick a nail? It's a tough call, and one where cameras might have as much trouble as the umpire in detecting the fraction of an inch which might make the difference in the call. So the instant replay official would be mandated to back up the umpire, whichever way he ruled it.

One of my correspondents wrote: "We don't ask for do-overs when an infielder kicks an easy ground ball. . .Why should we tamper with umpires' mistakes if we don't do the same with the players?" That's how I felt--a few months ago. But now that the umpires union has acceded to a system of instant replay, now that umpires officially accept that there are circumstances under which they might need and will accept help from above, let's be pragmatic about it. Here's how I see instant replay working--in an ideal world in which the umpires get 99% of the calls right the first time and we help them out with the other 1%.

When a manager disputes a call, his first recourse is to discuss it with the umpire and request that he ask the other umpires for help. The umpire will either grant or refuse that request. The umpires should always have the first chance to make the right call. I suspect that the request will be granted more often than it is now, because the umpire would rather be overruled by his teammates than by the "eye in the sky". In either case, once the final call has been made, by one umpire or four, the manager can request an instant-replay decision. As I noted earlier, by this time the manager will have input from the clubhouse on whether he has a case or not. It won't always be the case, but my point is that we don't want to give a manager the right to pop out of the dugout after every call he doesn't like and point upstairs, demanding an instant overview. There will be a protocol on the field, and as in football there will be a penalty for overstepping the privilege of requesting instant replay. I do not advocate putting a limit on the number of times a manager can request a replay call. If it happens that a call in the 14th inning looks horrible to him, he shouldn't be prevented from getting the right call just because he already caught a couple of mistakes earlier in the game. However, I would put a strict limit on the number of times the manager can be wrong. Give him one protest and request for a replay call that doesn't go his way. If the replay official rules against him twice, he's ejected. Each team gets one failed protest. If the manager has been ejected and the acting manager's request for an instant replay results in the call going against him, he's ejected, too. And so on. We don't want either side abusing the other. Both sides will have an incentive to be right.

What sorts of calls should or should not be subject to instant replay? I believe that any call that can be objectively judged (i.e. empirically verified beyond any doubt) should be subject to change, but subjective calls shouldn't be. The latter list is much shorter: balls and strikes, balks, and check swings. Those are true judgment calls, and even though there seems to be a lot of discrepancy between how various umpires view them (partly because the rules are written nebulously and therefore open to interpretation), the camera cannot see through the veil of judgment. However, here is why I believe the following calls can be decided definitively one way or another.

1. safe/out at first base: The Don Denkinger call from the 1985 World Series is the best example. Multiple cameras angles showed that Jack Clark held the ball with his foot on the bag at least a half-step before Jorge Orta arrived. This would be an easy call for the replay official to make. Others are not so clear-cut. I've seen a lot of replays of bang-bang plays where stop-action shows the ball entering the glove a hair before or after the runner's foot is making its initial contact with the bag. But is the ball in the glove? Is the foot on the bag? If I'm up in the booth, I'd be less inclined to overturn whatever call the umpire made. The principle of having to be 100% certain in order to reverse a call is paramount. A comment on last week's post, made by umpire Perry Barber, notes that "camera angles don't always reveal the truth." That's true. If the camera angle isn't definitive, don't change the call. But I find it hard to imagine a case in which the runner is clearly out or safe and the available camera angles all make it look the other way. Likewise with the following situations:

2. caught or trapped ball: An outfielder is in hot pursuit of a line drive or a bloop fly ball, makes a last-second stab or dive, and the ball ends up in his glove. Did he catch it or trap it? I know from my brief umpiring experience that this is one of the toughest plays to call. I've seen it called wrong both ways. The intersection of ball, glove, and ground lasts only a fraction of a second, and the ball looks pretty much the same in the glove whether it has been caught or trapped. Sometimes the fielder even gets the glove underneath the ball but face-up on top of the ground. It looks like the ball bounced, but actually the glove possessed it the whole time. Complicating things, the umpire is on the move, usually starting from his position near second base, and is subject to the same problem that outfielders have, namely that his head is bobbing from his running motion, making it tougher to pick up the precise movement of the ball. An umpire might make the most admirable dash into the outfield to get the best view, only to have a diving fielder's body or arm block his view of the ball contacting glove and ground. If there's a better, definitive angle on a camera, use it!

3. double play pivot: This is another really tough one because most second baseman have lightning-quick hands. It's a prerequisite for the job. So we have a grounder to third base and a throw to second, with the runner barreling down from first base trying to break up the double play. The second baseman's job is to "turn" the ball from catch to throw so quickly that their motion is no more than a blur. In the old days, umpires required the fielder to demonstrate a clear catch before transfering the ball to his throwing hand. Over the years, it has become more customary to give the call to the fielder when he so much as reaches into his glove to pull the ball out for the transfer. How many times have you seen the ball go flying or pop loose when the fielder grabs at it the instant it touches his glove, with the umpire giving him credit for the catch because he was "in the act of throwing"? My impression is that the fielder gets this call almost all the time, but I've seen a lot of replays which clearly show that the fielder never caught the ball, that in his haste to grab the ball he moved the glove toward his throwing hand just enough to allow the ball to clank off it. It's an optical illusion: the ball bounces off the glove, but because the throwing hand is moving to grab it and throw, the umpire believe he has caught it. The replay catches and reveals the illusion for what it is, namely an error, not an out.

4. the "neighborhood" play: While we're talking about double plays, let's use instant replay to clean up the "neighborhood" play on both sides. This is the one where the second base or shortstop making the double-play pivot fails to keep his foot on the base when catching the ball. They do it to make the pivot faster and/or avoid the runner crashing into him. Umpires call this one sometimes, especially in postseason games that matter more, but more often than not they allow the fielder that leeway in order to protect him from the runner. They also let the runners make a beeline for the fielder rather than the bag. This is a liberal rule, stating that as long as the runner can touch the bag with some part of his body, it's okay for the rest of him to ram into the fielder and hinder the double-play turn. Again, more often than not, umpires let runners get away with veering into the fielder, especially if he's also letting the fielder hop away from the base early to avoid the collision. As with most things in life, it's unfortunate that the people in charge are subjectively selective in choosing the occasional occasion to make the correct call (either the runner out on interference for veering away from the bag and into the fielder, or the runner safe because the fielder caught the ball off the bag), letting something go 90% of the time and suddenly feeling the urge to call it. Ask Marlon Anderson, called out for veering into the fielder for the final out of a game late in 2007, on a play where there was no chance to get the batter running to first, negating the tying run crossing the plate, and costing the Mets a crucial loss that may have kept them out of the playoffs. If the camera clearly reveals a violation of the "neighborhood watch," make the call!

5. hit by pitch or not: This one is straightforward. The call is seldom missed, but it was missed on Jimmy Rollins in the World Series, and would come up once in awhile.

6. caught foul tip or not: This is another one where the home plate umpire can almost always make the right call, and can easily get help from a base ump if he needs it. But the camera would often provide a decisive view of whether that two-strike foul tip hit the dirt or the glove first.

7. tag/no tag: This is a tricky one, and if I were the replay official I would want at least two angles showing a decisive view, not just one. The Longoria/Rollins play from Game 4 is a good example. The replay from the 3rd-base stands appears to show Longoria's glove touching Rollins' backside, but it's possible that the glove is really in front of or over Rollins. So I'd want to verify it by looking at the view from down the left-field line. In general, the more views the better, and if two views flat-out contradict each other, I would consider that enough to warrant not reversing the call made on the field.

8. fair/foul ball: This happens on home runs that wrap around the foul pole, a play so difficult to call that is one of those covered by the present system for instant replays. I always think about Ron Luciano's tale of calling such a ball at Yankee Stadium, jumping in the air to make one of his showboat calls, pointing fair and starting to scream "fair!" when the rest of his consciousness kicked in and he realized that the ball was really foul. He was a mid-air and couldn't take anything back, but don't you think he would have been the first person to say, "yeah, let's look at that replay" when the inevitable protest occurred? There's also an occasional dispute when a curving drive down one of the foul lines kicks up a little bit of chalk. It is assumed that if chalk pops up, it must be because the ball hit the line, therefore it must be a fair ball. But sometimes a player's cleats have already kicked some of the chalk out of place, and the ball nails a clump lying in foul territory. Let's get it right. Only in "Macbeth" is fair foul and foul fair.

There are undoubtedly other situations I haven't covered here (such as appeal plays and interference/obstruction which would fall on one side or the other of my proposed system. Let me clear up a few matters of protocol here. Players would not be able to ask for replays, only managers. MLB and the umpires union would have to work out some of the procedures, as they did this summer to get instant replay accepted in the first place. Some issues would include: mandating a consultation by the umpires on the field before issuing a call that might subsequently be challenged; having a time limit for that consultation and/or the ensuing review by the replay official; how to fill the job of replay official (ex-umpires, league officials, independent contractors for each city/team as is done with official scorers, etc.); where to station that official; whether to permit or even require that the replay official and the crew chief consult during the review of a play; whether that replay official could initiate the review of a play even without an official protest; who would announce the final decision and how much information would be provided to the fans and/or the media; and so on. Do you think that the details of such a system could be worked out over the next 20 years? The next 50 years? Why not the next five months, so it could be in place for the 2009 season?

Let me finish where I began. I've spent my whole baseball life believing that instant replay would be a Bad Thing, that human error is part of baseball and something we just have to accept. I've had a couple of people this week tell me that "you can't open that door" and allow judgment plays to be appealed. My answer is this: Is calling a ball over or under a home-run line on the outfield wall more or less of a judgment call than determining whether a sliding outfielder caught or trapped a ball? I think they're both judgment calls, both potentially confirmed or contradicted by potentially convincing camera views. If those views are convincing, we should be willing to face the truth of what actually happened on this or that play, and make the right call. I did not open that door. The umpires have already allowed that door to be opened. Now that it is open, I think we're morally obligated to see everything that is inside, not merely to take a furtive peek through the crack, looking for only what we wish to see.