As Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona emerged from his dugout in the sixth inning Wednesday night and began jogging slowly toward the middle of the diamond, A’s second baseman Nick Punto felt resigned.
Cleveland’s Mike Aviles tried to steal second base and was called out by umpire Gabe Morales, who ruled Punto had tagged Aviles after taking a wide throw from catcher Derek Norris. The problem: Replays clearly showed – as Aviles immediately argued to Morales – that Punto hadn’t even touched Aviles.
As infielders have done for decades, Punto caught the throw, moved to apply a tag and quickly held his glove up to indicate he still had the ball. In short, he’d sold the tag – and gotten the call. But now, as Francona asked for the play to be reviewed under Major League Baseball’s new replay rules, Punto knew the call would not stand.
“It’s just new,” Punto said. “It’s all real new to us. It’s no different than (a play at the plate) the other day. You’ve been taught your whole life to put your foot in front of the plate and block the plate as the guy slides in. Those are habits not easily broken. And it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.”
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With baseball’s replay era dawning last week as the 2014 season kicked into gear, that seemed to be the common refrain among players and managers in Oakland, where each of the A’s three opening-series games against the Indians featured the review of a play.
In Monday’s season opener, umpires opted to review a play at home to determine if A’s catcher John Jaso had blocked the plate in violation of new home-plate collision rules. In the opener of Wednesday’s doubleheader, A’s manager Bob Melvin challenged when Norris was called out on a close play at the plate – and lost when the call was upheld.
In each case, play was stopped as the umpires involved in the review convened in foul ground behind home plate and donned headsets that put them in contact with MLB’s replay command center in New York, where a final decision was made. Like the length of these reviews, opinions on the process – and its merits – varied.
Lines of communication
Under the new rules, a manager gets one challenge per game and another if he wins the first one. Teams have a video adviser who can monitor replays during the game and advise the manager whether to challenge a call. For the A’s, that’s video coordinator Adam Rhoden, who at home games watches in the A’s clubhouse.
In the second inning of Wednesday’s afternoon game, Norris was thrown out at the plate trying to score on Josh Donaldson’s grounder to third. Melvin challenged the call – just in time, it turned out; challenges must be made before the next batter is in the box and the pitcher steps on the rubber – and after a 4-minute, 45-second review, the call stood due to “inconclusive evidence.”
Melvin said one reason his challenge was almost late was because communication between the dugout and video adviser is “still a work in progress.” Asked if it’s mostly Rhoden contacting the coaching staff about possible challenges or vice versa, Melvin said: “Could be a little of both.”
On this particular play, Melvin said, “Derek mentioned he might be safe, you call up and Adam was looking at it at the time.”
Melvin said he was surprised at first that the play might even be a candidate for review.
“From the naked eye, from where I was, it looked like the ball beat him there, and you’re used to no matter what, if a ball beats him there, even if the tag’s not perfect, that you’re usually going to get the call,” Melvin said. “But those things can change now, too.”
Issues of timing
In this case, it didn’t, as umpires upheld the call. Melvin, though, said that after reviewing the play himself he thought Norris was safe. Norris, too, said he believed he was safe, but “I’m going to be biased. I was the one sliding.” For that reason, Norris said, he didn’t ask the coaches to challenge the play.
“The concept of it is good,” Norris said of replay. “They’re trying to make sure the calls are going the right direction, trying to give the umpires an extra eye in the sky. But I think like any new system that’s implemented, things take time.”
Literally, in this case, with the review of Wednesday’s play taking nearly five minutes. Jed Lowrie, who was due up to hit, said it felt like a “long break in game action. But I think ultimately if you believe it’s about getting it right, then that’s what matters. The time, you have to deal with that.”
Though he lost the challenge, Melvin said it could be used as a learning experience.
“It’s becoming pretty clear that unless (a play is) obvious, they’re not going to overturn it,” he said. “It was close, but we had him as safe.”
Melvin said that may make him less likely to challenge a similar play in the future.
“(But) now, if you have a play where he’s safe and all of a sudden we have a chance to get a big inning, you might do it anyway,” he added. “And I think that’s going to come into play a lot, is how important a particular play is.”
Winds of change
Having seen the replay process several times, Punto said, “I’d like to see it a little quicker.” As the umpires moved Wednesday night to review his tag of Aviles, he said he turned to Lowrie and, “I was like, ‘This is going to take another four minutes. I wish I could just raise my hand and say, yeah, I didn’t tag him.’ ”
Punto isn’t guarded with his thoughts on replay.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I think we train and hire the best umpires in the world. I think that I’m going to miss seeing the (Twins manager) Ron Gardenhires, the guys that go out there and blow a gasket and argue with umpires. Those are things that are entertaining for fans and something we’ve been doing for the last 100 years, and now you’re not going to see that.”
Added Jaso: “I don’t like the idea of the game changing this much. Replays are making the game change. But I guess you could say it’s keeping people honest at the same time. So it is good.”
After Wednesday’s play was overturned, Punto appeared to share a laugh with Aviles as the latter resumed his position on second base.
“We were talking about the deke is now not even a part of the game – trying to deke the umpire, trying to get a call,” Punto said. “For the next generation of baseball players, that’ll be OK. But for the ones that are playing now, it’s what we’re accustomed to, and we’re going to have to adapt.”
Lowrie said he and Punto had the same conversation.
“There’s no more selling it,” Lowrie said. “There’s no more ‘veteran moves’ because of that. And it takes some of the showmanship out of the game.
“But at the same time it can make people look bad if they show different replays on the board, especially if it affects the game. I think ultimately, you go back to it again – it’s about getting it right.”