Fast and flawless: Expanded replay trial begins
In first Fall League test game, four calls challenged with quick review, none overturned
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- At 7:25 p.m. MT on a cool, calm Arizona Fall League evening, Mesa Solar Sox manager Bill Richardson made history.
Fortunately for Sean Barber, he did not.
After Salt River Rafters second baseman Jacob Wilson backhanded C.J. Cron's leadoff grounder in the top of the second and threw him out, Richardson challenged first-base umpire Barber's call.
Home-plate ump Trip Gibson turned toward the press box, made a box motion with his hands to indicate a TV, the replay official in an onsite trailer reviewed the play from angles provided by MLB Network cameras, relayed his decision into the headset handed by an on-field emissary to Gibson that the play stood.
The five-game trial of Major League Baseball's proposed expanded replay system was officially underway, and Barber's judgment was acquitted -- quickly, comfortably under the three-minute limit imposed on replay reviews during these trials.
That snappy process was repeated three times -- two more challenges to Barber calls at first, and third-base umpire Pat Hoberg's call that left fielder Tim Wheeler had short-hopped a line drive. All four were upheld after reviews.
Did Barber feel picked on?
"Not at all," he said with a smile. "I knew it was coming. It all went well."
Gibson declined extensive comment on the experience, uncertain of the umpiring community's overall reaction to this intrusion on the arbiters' prior autonomy, but did note that "anything new comes with some anxieties. But, overall, this was smooth."
It all went off without evident interruption of the flow of the game, which timed two hours and 49 minutes.
Tuesday's challenges were issued verbally, simple enough in front of a few hundred fans. When there are tens of thousands screaming, objects such as waved flags or tossed beanbags will be employed.
Salt River and Mesa players demonstratively enjoyed participating in the landmark game. In fact, they thought it was a hoot -- loudly and emphatically urging for replays from their respective dugouts after every even remotely close play on the field.
This is a critical incubator for expanded replay, the final week of AFL play affording MLB officials an extended opportunity to test, tweak and ratify the methods by which the system will eventually be presented for approval to the clubs and unions representing the players and the umpires.
For instance, plays in Tuesday night's game at Salt River Fields between the Solar Sox and the Rafters could be challenged at any point prior to the next play. But in Wednesday night's second experimental game, there will be a 20-second limit on challenges.
Also, to maximize opportunities to test the system, Richardson and Salt River manager Mike Shildt were under no challenge limits Tuesday night. Plans during regular use call for one challenge in the first six innings, and two thereafter.
Members of MLB's baseball operations staff, including Peter Woodfork and Joe Garagiola Jr., met with Richardson and Shildt prior to the game to go over the system that would be employed.
The reviewing stand for the trials is distinguished.
Tuesday night attendees included Tony La Russa, the recent managerial great who forms one-third of MLB's subcommittee on instant replay, along with MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre and Braves president John Schuerholz.
Also in attendance was umpire supervisor Ed Montague, in the company of four active MLB umps; others are expected to drop in as the week's trials proceed.
"I thought it went very well," Garagiola said minutes after the final out of Salt River's 7-0 victory. "A bit of history."
Torre is scheduled to attend Day 2 of the trials, Wednesday night's game at Scottsdale Stadium between the Rafters and the Scorpions, and address particulars of the procedure.
Ideally, the five test games here will allow the subcommittee to refine the system before it undergoes more realistic testing during Spring Training games.
With all four challenged plays upheld, there was no need to invoke one of the system's most novel aspects: Upon overturning of a call on the field, baserunners involved in the play are to be placed at the discretion of the replay official, who on Tuesday was only a couple hundred feet away in that trailer but in practice would be in a New York studio, perhaps thousands of miles from where the action is taking place.