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Three Cheers For The Instant Replay

Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants celebrate winning Game 7 of baseball's World Series against the Kansas City Royals.
David J. Phillip
Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants celebrate winning Game 7 of baseball's World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

The Giants challenged a call in Game 7 of the World Series Wednesday night. It took the umpiring crew — in conference with the umpires holed up in the video monitoring station in New York City's Chelsea district — almost three minutes to overturn the on-field decision. They called the runner out at first, giving the Giants a potentially game-changing double play.

The play-by-play announcers on Fox bemoaned the fact that the review was taking so long. Baseball's slow pace is itself under review by a committee of experts assembled by baseball's outgoing commissioner, Bud Selig. But the announcers seem to have missed the real story: Those three minutes were thrilling. It was high drama. It wasn't an interruption in the play; it extended the play to a whole new level.

The interruption gave us all a chance to try to reach a decision about what had happened — safe or out? — adding suspense. And it also provided an opportunity to get clear about the elements of the play. Why did the runner dive head-first into first, anyway? Wouldn't it have been faster if he'd kept on running? And also noisier, thus giving the umpire another source of information about who reached the bag first, ball or runner?

The play review also gave us the chance to understand just what the middle infielders had accomplished in making the play so close. The play had been challenged because it was close and because it was important. Replay gave us time to understand what was going on.

My worry about instant replay was never that it wouldn't work — that it wouldn't succeed in correcting errors on the part of umpiring. My worry was always that it would work too well. Baseball is not now, and has never been, about mere facts. Ball or strike, fair or foul. Baseball is not tennis. Baseball is about what people do, or what they accomplish in the social setting of the game — and, so, it also has been concerned with the conversation itself, the debate, the process of adjudication. Umpires are part of the game, just as lawyers and police are part of the society they patrol. The umpires are players too.

Now that we've had a full season of instant replay under baseball's challenge system, it's clear that the new rules enhance the umpires' role instead of limiting it, as I had feared. Pictures don't decide anything for you. They just give you more information to reach a decision. I am amazed how difficult it is to tell, even in slow motion, whether runners are safe or out. It's always a judgment call — and pictures don't change that.

It's still the umpires, the same guys who work the field, making the hard calls. Using slow-motion replay to evaluate and re-evaluate plays actually amplifies the challenges. And that's a good thing. Every challenge is an invitation to think about the game and understand it better.

I was a naysayer when instant replay was introduced. But now I'm a proponent. Not because it makes the game fairer. But because it makes it more fun.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.