A “perfect game” in bowling is when someone throws strikes in all 12 frames for a score of 300, a feat that’s rare but far from impossible in a sport that rewards consistency of stroke. A “perfect game” in baseball is rarer--when a pitcher doesn't permit a base runner in nine innings-- but it could be a misnomer because his teammate might have botched scoring opportunities and, of course, the other team probably screwed up all over the place.
The purpose of the above isn’t just to bandy words but to take note of what I consider a troubling aspect of many sports in this day and age. It’s a quest for officiating perfection that besides being unobtainable is warping our games. The saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good rarely has been more pertinent. Ditto the one about watching what you wish for because you might get it.
The villain is technology or, rather, its increasing role on our fields of play. Television’s eye in the sky, and it’s instant-replay capacity, has gone from being an interesting accessory of sports’ viewing to the supreme arbiter, sometimes changing whole outcomes as well as their individual parts. In the pursuit of “just getting things right” it’s sometimes turning things sideways for the performers on the field and the folks at home.
Nothing illustrated that better than last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. As Dizzy Dean used to say, “you seen it on your screen,” Maximum Security’s victory on the track being overturned after 22 minutes of microscopic video analysis by the Churchill Downs stewards, the race’s overseers. Max’s sin was to wander out a bit in the homestretch and, momentarily, impede the progress of the horses just to his right rear. Then they all righted themselves and he pulled away to win, to the pleasure of the bettors who’d made him a 4-to-1 second favorite.
It was a foul, all right, but it was questionable whether it deserved the punishment of his being relegated to the rear of the 20-horse field, the first such outcome in the race’s 145-year history. I was one of those who had to tear up a winning ticket, so this may sound like sour grapes, but the ruling left me and, I’m sure, others shaking our heads. Allowances might have been made because the Derby always is a rough race, contested as it is by young horses (three-year-olds are the equivalent of human teens) in a too-crowded field (other classic America races have an entry limit of 14) on a rain-soaked track that made footing uncertain. I’m sure that an analysis of the entire race would have uncovered numerous instances of equine contact as bad or worse than the one that DQed poor Max.
The outcome was bad for racing on a number of grounds. The declared winner, the longshot runnerup Country House, ever will have an asterisk marking his victory, and no sport wants those. Further, after the race, and maybe out of pique, the human connections of Max and Country House said their animals wouldn’t be moving on to the Preakness, the second leg in the Triple Crown for three-year-olds, killing the possibility of a Triple Crown winner and depriving racing of one of its few (and much-needed) focuses of public attention.
Worst, it’ll be awhile before race goers can savor their betting victories without casting a nervous eye toward the tote board to see if the scientists in the video room will undo the result. The thrill of victory is the main reason we racing fans are out there, and anything that dilutes that is a wound for a sport that’s already bleeding heavily.
Professional football isn’t in the popularity soup racing is, but it seems to be riding the technology train in the same direction. That became clear after last season when the NFL, in its never-ending quest for officiating perfection, added pass interference to the list of plays and situations eligible for official instant-replay review. The addition was made after a PI no-call that might have changed the result of a playoff game between the Saints and Rams. The losing Saints raised a stink that could be deodorized only by the change, the league’s owners decreed.
The NFL pioneered video review in 1986 but by 1991 better judgement prevailed and it was repealed. That stirred up the “just get it right” hounds, who succeeded in returning it in 1999. From there is has mushroomed. Now its games are continually punctuated by Talmudic discussions of things like the meaning of the in-the-grasp rule, or whether a pass receiver put a second tippy-toe in bounds after he caught a pass. Adding pass interference promises to make such interruptions exponentially worse; no other rule is more poorly defined or stirs more controversy.
Baseball came late to electronics, in 2008. Predictably, it has allowed it to metastasize, so that head-phone-wearing umpires have become as much a part of the game as Cracker Jacks. The most-obvious next step will be to do away with human home-plate umpires and electrify balls-and-strikes-calling completely. The technology for this already exists, as does the cry to employ it. Base umpires will be the next to go; it’s only logical. Goodbye blue, hello Artoo-Deetoo.
If you’ve read this blog (or my WSJ columns) you know I’ve opposed TV-replay review from the start, on the simple grounds that sports are played by humans and should be judged by them. Being human means making mistakes, and sports are too trivial to be exempted from that condition.
If you don’t buy that, try the argument that sports are our main physical expressions of art and that replacing any part of them by artificial means is a sin. I have no illusions about reversing the electronic tide, but let’s not let it win without complaint. Your grandchildren will thank you if they can pull themselves away from their smart phones long enough.