I'll begin with a confession: I was a political science major as an undergrad. This isn't because I dreamed of being a speechwriter or a city councilman. It's because by my junior year, the school had started sending threatening letters about getting a career so that I could someday pay my student loans back. I looked back at my transcript and examined which classes I could bear taking for another two years, and the results were political science and philosophy. I really like philosophy. But the philosophy majors were always arguing all the time, and I'm conflict averse, so Poli Sci it was.
Baseball, in its own little way, is political science at work. In an increasingly fragmented and polarized society, baseball has served as an example of social relativism. It's an artificial construct, and its rules are arbitrary; yet everyone can sit down and agree that the pitcher's mound should be sixty and a half feet from home plate. Though everyone has their own ideas, the results of the games, and the statistics it generates, are basically immutable. When Chris Davis decides that 61 is the real home run record, and tries to revise history, his appeal is that "the majority" feels the same way he does. The majority, as it turned out, did not, and he was treated accordingly. This is how social relativism works. We decide our truths, listen to alternatives, incorporate or discard them.
Baseball is a unifier. Despite our age of alienation, baseball allows us to make connections to other people, to survive awkward break-room conversations, to feel affiliated with a bar or a city. It provides something to care about that is intentionally absurd, something that leavens the deadly seriousness of our survival. It gives us a middle ground between authority and individuality. It's good that we have it around.
Granted, the game is no longer the monolith it was. These cracks in the veneer derive from different sources: little ones like disagreeing over whether pitchers should be forced to bat for themselves or what the All-Star game is for, bigger ones like the growing criminal records of ballplayers and the effect chemicals should have over their performance. This isn't to say that we should be discussing these problems; it's that we aren't solving them, and they're spreading. Dialogue descends into debate, which rages eternal. The sets of sports networks and 24 hour news channels are growing increasingly indistinguishable, two men in suits and sneers facing each other across a desk.
Baseball has become Congress, without the illusion of representation.
This is why, when we arrive at the subject of replay, we can't look at it in a vacuum. When Bud Selig says, "Look, life isn't perfect. The sport isn't perfect, but we live with it, and it's been great," he's saying truthful things. Replay is obviously not a binary decision; there's a sliding scale on which the amount of time and money should be devoted to getting it right, and it's a matter which will probably require multiple reassessments. Games can't take six hours. Improving the umpiring in the game, working around the union and the legal murkiness will take time and effort. That's fine.
It's the popular image of replay that worries me. Selig and Joe Torre have been painfully cautious in accepting the desirability of replay, including Bud's famous sentiment from a year ago: "We do a lot of polling, I talk to a lot of fans, I get a lot of mail everyday and I answer every piece of mail here. Guess what guys, I get almost no letters, calls or thoughts on instant replay ... Yes, there may be an instance here or there where an umpire misses a call. I don't deny that but is there any great outcry for Instant Replay? No."
Let's set aside how the fans feel, and Bud's ability to measure it, for a moment. The idea that umpires are almost perfect, and that they were good enough in the days of yore, are both true. But the fact that baseball didn't need replay in the fifties does not prove by itself that the game doesn't really need it now, and that a few token gestures are only supplied to mollify an angry minority of fans and sportswriters. Baseball needs to get things right more than ever; as scandals continue to etch away at the outside of the game, fans need to have faith that its central product is solid.
Replay won't solve all those problems; recall Golden Tate. And the implementation of technology, whether to fix calls on the field or evaluate umpires, come at a cost of time and effort. Reigning in the authority of umpires, and regulating strike zones, will certainly be a weighty task, and will require creative solutions. But regardless of the logistics, the one thing baseball can't afford is to appear dismissive of the desire for complete accuracy, unattainable as it may be. To pretend that the game can't be improved, while at the same time hinting at lifetime suspensions and threatening courtroom battles, rings hollow.
As Wendy Thurm noted at FanGraphs, Torre shows signs of coming around on the issue, but a decision about what will be done for 2014 won't come until at least the owner's meetings next month. Even then, change has come all too slowly. Fans invest heavily in baseball; they put in their time, their energy, and not least of all their hard-earned money. They deserve a product that is as genuine and fair as standards allow. They want to come home from a win knowing their team earned it, not rationalizing it like world-weary realists. There doesn't need to be an extra layer on top of the performance on the field.
We have technology that our own fathers would have never dreamed of, and we can use it, not to change baseball, but to hone it. America needs a game of baseball that everyone can enjoy and share, a sport that's better than ever before. Because when you look around, a lot of things seem to be heading the other way.