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Arrival of replay marks game's latest step forward

High-tech system designed to enhance fan experience -- and get calls right @RichardJustice

We'll look back and remember this as the day baseball changed. Dramatically. Forever. In both style and substance. Changed for the better, too. Married innovation and technology with horsehide and ash. Isn't that as good as it gets? Isn't that what the Internet age is supposed to be about?

We'll still have the things we love. We'll have third basemen diving toward the line, leaping up and throwing out a sprinting runner. We'll have balls lined into the gap, and we'll have the incomparable Andrew McCutchen flying around the bases. We'll have Miguel Cabrera's power and Max Scherzer's brilliance.

We'll still have the history of Fenway Park and the electricity of a night at AT&T Park. We'll have Joe Maddon making his guys believe in The Rays Way. We'll have chaotic pennant races and individual performances that take your breath away.

Now, though, on this Opening Day in 2014, baseball will change. This sport that embraces its rich tradition, that seamlessly blends yesterday and tomorrow in a wonderful tapestry, will show the world once again that it can weave technology into its fabric, its core.

When all is said and done, this is what will be different about this Opening Day. Instant replay is here to stay. It'll be a strategic tool for managers and a safety net for umpires. It's about getting the calls right. Sure, that's part of it. That's the part everyone understands.

But it's going to end up being way more than that, too. It's going to enhance the fan experience -- and not in a small way. In the end, this part of the change could end up being almost as important as the other part.

That's because umpires don't miss all that many calls -- 377 in all last season, most of them on tag and force plays. Umpires will love instant replay because it will validate how good they are.

But for the fans, instant replay will bring them closer to everything. Once upon a time, if you were sitting there in your friendly local ballpark, you were never quite sure what had just happened.

Did the umpire miss the call? Did the manager see it correctly? Now, baseball has opened the doors to put everything fans at home are seeing right there in the ballpark. There will be no more questions.

Perhaps the most amazing part -- the part that will highlight the technology and the creativity and the attention to detail -- is how fans sitting in the ballpark will understand how the replay decision was made.

It'll be immediately available on every platform, from your tablet to your hand-held device to your laptop. Right there, on Instantly. How cool is that?

Baseball has installed two sophisticated, state-of-the-art monitor systems in each clubhouse in all 30 parks. Each team will have at least one person monitoring every play and then communicating to the dugout whether the manager should challenge a call.

This in itself is no small thing. Teams have spent hundreds of hours exploring how to best utilize the system and the technology quickly and dispassionately. As Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, "I don't want my guy saying, 'Hey, Buck, that's a close one.' I need to know."

When a play is reviewed, it'll be done at the headquarters of Major League Baseball Advanced Media at Chelsea Market in New York. With a technician sorting through the available replays -- up to 12 feeds can be streamed into MLBAM from each ballpark -- an umpire will be assigned to make the call.

Some nights, it could be two umpires or even more in New York looking at the various plays. One reason baseball wanted a system different from the NFL, where a ref goes to the sideline and looks at the angles, is that it wanted replay to be somewhat of a collaborative effort.

Once there's a decision, something amazing happens. That's when MLBAM unveils the technology. An umpire posts a brief description of how he arrived at his decision on the video and, in an instant, the definitive angle of the play is flashed back to the ballpark and shown on the video board with the explanation.

That quickly, almost instantly, fans will see exactly why the call was made -- and every manager, coach and player will, too. One reason baseball officials wanted to do it this way is to be as transparent as possible in the decision-making process. Another reason is simply to bring the fans closer, not just to the play, but to everything that went into the decision.

So a new era begins on Sunday when the Padres and Dodgers begin writing a new chapter in their sport's history.

"Where we are in 2014 as far as technology, what we've seen from other sports, I think it's time for baseball to be a part of this," Padres manager Bud Black said. "This is a historic day for baseball to have this in place."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly seems to agree with Black.

"We had a few games to try it and I'm fairly comfortable with the way it works," he said. "I'm confident in the technology."

Baseball officials are cautioning that instant replay may still need some tweaking, that the system may not be perfect.

But they've done enough dry runs -- and marveled at the efficiency of the system and the quality of the camera work -- to know it's going to be pretty good on Day 1. Commissioner Bud Selig is understandably proud of how baseball has moved forward these last 20 years, how it has remained respectful of the past while moving forward and changing.

That's what Wild Card playoff berths and Interleague Play represent. That's what instant replay represents, as well. This is a day when the entire story will only begin to unfold. But it's a great day for the game, a proud day. It's a day to celebrate. It's a day to move forward.

So let's see that first bang-bang challenge play at first base, that first fixable pivotal play. Which manager will be the first to plea for a second opinion from the high-definition help desk in New York? Let's enjoy the ride.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.