The Day the Stolen Base Died

On August 28, 2008, Commissioner Bud Selig began the process of killing the stolen base.

Jack Curig of the New York Times quoted Selig as stating “I believe that the extraordinary technology that we now have merits the use of instant replay on a very limited basis. The system we have in place will ensure that the proper call is made on home run balls and will not cause a significant delay to the game.” What Selig didn’t say was what we all knew: That this would simply be limited trial of replay to wean the players,owners and umpires of their fears over time. Like it or not, replay was coming.

With the start of the 2014 season, expanded replay became a reality and so what once could not be distinguished by the human eye could now be challenged by high definition, super-slow motion video. And with that the stolen base has begun its slow slog in to a part of our game as every play begs the replay video to make the call.

Replay has added new career paths to the major leagues. Umpires can hope to make it the big league offices someday where they will get the joy of sitting in air conditioned comfort of a dark office in New York City awaiting the next replay call. Baseball teams now have replay coaches who have the primary responsibility of sitting and watching slow motion replays of close calls. The manager of the team anxiously stares down the dugout steps on the close calls waiting for the signal from the replay coach for the manager to make the signal to the umpires. New jobs for a new world.

Replay has solved the outrage of watching a manager go ballistic on an umpire for a perceived bad call. But wasn’t that part of the entertainment we all could hope to enjoy at a game? No more screaming and spit. No more kicking of dirt. No more throwing of bases. No more heart felt beat down of a poor baseball cap as a manager expresses his rage. All the drama is gone and replaced with a glance down the dugout steps followed by the fans watching four umpires stand in a circle awaiting the call of a fifth umpire a thousand miles away.

And that brings me to the death, or maybe it’s just a terminal illness, of the stolen base. The beauty of a stolen base is that it usually isn’t beautiful at all. It’s clumsy, awkward, dirty, fast, furious, dangerous, thrilling and exciting. It isn’t meant to be about the millisecond but rather about the rhythm of an efficient throw of a catcher to the wary mitt of a second or third baseman as a base runner comes barreling down the base paths in beat down mode. The momentum sometimes carries the base runner slightly off base. Or the violence of the slide and dead stop will cause the base runner to pull a toe off the base for a tenth of second. The human eye isn’t meant to see this type of minutia. It simply isn’t capable.

For decades and decades, we have had to rely on the umpires to get the call right on a stolen base. I’m not saying there haven’t been tens of thousands of missed calls but I’m saying that is how the game was always played. Especially when it game to the stolen base. Now we have a coach in the dugout who breaks down every close call in slow motion detail looking for the moment they can send the play to New York for a review. That wasn’t what instant replay was intended to achieve.

My Royals have benefitted from instant replay and they have been burned by instant replay. (And I’m sure our team uses it the same way everyone else does … That’s called fair play.) But is this truly the game we all really want to “experience” anymore? Is this who we want to become as a group of fans?

When a call is blown it should be reversed. It’s simple. Very simple. But I’m not convinced that a millisecond lift of a toe as the runner comes to a stop while the glove is on the runner can be called a blown call. Especially if the “blown call” can only be seen be reviewing multiple angles of the high definition super slow motion video in an office in New York City.

Let the umps do their umpiring. Let the coaches do their coaching. Let the base runners do their running. And let the fielders do their best swipe tag on an incoming runner sliding in to second or third. Let’s get back to the excitement of the stolen base and distance ourselves of the thrill of another three minute wait for a long distance call to New York. God help us if we start reviewing the neighborhood play or pitches in (or out) of the strike zone. Six hour ball games may be in our future if that ever happens. If and until then, let’s all bow our heads in prayer for the sanctity of the amazing stolen base.

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