Palermo wary of more replay in baseball

Oct 13 2009 - 8:16pm

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Steve Palermo roots for the umpires. This puts him in a small group among millions of baseball fans, of course. It's basically friends and family and Palermo--one of seven Major League Baseball umpire supervisors.

So you probably know by now that it's not been a good run for Palermo's favorite team during these playoffs. Phil Cuzzi missed the call on what would have been a double by Joe Mauer last week against the Yankees, and Jerry Meals missed what should have been a dead ball off Chase Utley's leg Sunday night against the Rockies.

Each play proved crucial -- the Twins losing, and the Phillies winning. C.B. Bucknor also blew two safe calls at first base in a game last week, and all of it together has made calls for instant replay louder and more frequent.

Palermo's basic message: Be careful.

"To have replay to rely upon, if it gives you a conclusive view, yeah," Palermo says. "Because you get the play right. But where do you go with it? How far?"

This is in direct contrast to what seems like a growing feeling across the country that baseball should expand instant replay.

Starting last season, replay is used only on boundary calls for potential home runs, a rule that rarely comes into play. The system works well when needed, as umpires and a control room in New York team to make a ruling--almost always in just a few minutes.

Baseball's use of replay is the most judicious of the four major sports, so the calls for expanded use are natural.

The problem Palermo sees is that each additional use presents a potential for additional controversy. Take, for example, the catch or no-catch call on a ball hit to the outfield. If the play is ruled a catch, but replay shows it wasn't, what do you do with runners on base?

"If there's a guy on second, you and I could be sitting in my great room, watching this thing," Palermo says, "and you say he would've scored, I say no he wouldn't, and there's no way to know. There's all these what-ifs, 'yeah, he could've because he's fast,' or, 'no, he wouldn't have because the outfielder has a good arm.'

"The more you expand it, the more controversial it becomes in a lot of ways."

Palermo says he's hesitant to do anything "to take away from the game," noting that for every additional use of replay you bring in, the more stops in play for fans--in the stadium and on television--to have to sit through.

He also notes that replay isn't just used for blown calls, but also for close calls that umpires get right, and that each confirmation of a correct call just extends the game unnecessarily.

It's also impossible for him to talk about these things without defending his guys, who, he points out, get the vast majority of calls correct. There is part of him that would welcome expanded use of replay, if for no other reason than to serve as an umpire's safety net.

He hates seeing umpires establish long and respected careers, only to miss one call and be remembered for something else entirely.

"I'm sure you're going to go back to 1985 with that one," he says, in reference to Don Denkinger.

But he's a baseball fan above all else, and thinks about the quality of the game above the protection of his umpires. He sees "human failure" as part of all that, umpires included, and wants to make sure that nothing drastic is done to take away from fans' enjoyment.

He says he recognizes that blown calls can have that effect, of turning the spotlight from the most important games of the season away from the game's stars and on the game's umpires.

"I don't want to see them fail," he says. "I want to see them letter-perfect. I wish they were. What this does, it sends a signal to our staff that, you know what? This type of atmosphere, I'm sure your senses are heightened, your awareness is heightened, and your concentration should be really, really devoted to this because there is so much scrutiny."

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