Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Replay, Braun and Curses

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Replay, Braun and Curses

by Matt Smith

WHGB11One week into the 2014 regular season and we’ve already had it confirmed that the introduction of replay challenges will make a significant difference to the game.

Every event has a positive and a negative result. If you were a Cincinnati Reds fan on Saturday then you would have been none-too-impressed when the relief of a key out at second base in the bottom of the ninth inning suddenly came under doubt as the New York Mets’ manager Terry Collins came out of the dugout to challenge the play.

If you were a Mets fan, you would have been glad to have the choice to test what at first glance looked a tight call and upon review proved to be incorrect.

Juan Lagares was out and then he wasn’t. Nothing is quite what it seems when it comes to umpiring decisions now.

Emotion is a fundamental part of the sporting experience and having the initial reaction – from elation to despair – clouded by uncertainty in an instant is arguably the most jarring compromise that instant replay challenges bring in any sport. Cricket and rugby fans know what it’s like to have to wait around to see if a crucial wicket will be upheld or a potential match-winning try confirmed and, if not quite ruin the moment, it can undoubtedly take the edge of what should be the kind of dramatic moment that keeps us spectators hooked.

Boundary calls in baseball have been revieweable by umpires for a couple of seasons already, but the new replay rules put them even more firmly under the spotlight in this context. There is no greater feeling than a walk-off home run and it’s a great shame when that gets dulled by the is it/isn’t it confusion that now can follow the apparent certainty of the moment just witnessed. Coco Crisp’s walk-off home run against the Mariners at breakfast time on Friday morning (UK time) had me struggling not to spill my mug of tea with excitement, followed by some waiting around as I waited to find out if the excitement was justified.

There is no way around this situation. The review system is there to get things right and that’s most important at the most crucial points in the game. As an A’s fan, I wouldn’t have cared if Crisp’s homer hadn’t been reviewable and subsequently was shown to have not gone over the yellow line on the outfield wall. Mariners fans and any neutrals would have seen it as a travesty for Seattle to be wrongly robbed. In this case, the umpires rightly decided not to review it and even if they had it would have proved the initial call to be correct.

Overall, having the option to make sure the decision is correct is a positive step. That was shown in the Red-Mets game as after Lagares was ruled safe, the Mets loaded the bases and Ike Davis hit a walk-off Grand Slam. Instant replay reviews can dull the drama, but then again the drama at Citi Field potentially was only possible because of the replay process that overturned an incorrect decision.

Replay has been a dominant topic over the first week. There were 32 challenges over the first 69 games, which isn’t a huge amount on reflection and hopefully the system will not seem so pervasive once the novelty wears off.  There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a defining element to this season though. MLB has introduced a Twitter account to collect every reviewed play and the Baseball Savant website has put together a brilliant replay database section allowing the impact of replay system to be debated.

Ryan Braun gets a Miller Park ovation

One of the side-stories heading into Opening Day was the anticipated reaction Ryan Braun would receive when he returned to the field having served a 65-game drug suspension.

It was clear from the moment his name was read out that Brewers fans were willing to forgive their former-MVP winner as he received an overwhelmingly positive reception.  The fact that he was, and most probably still will be, their star player surely factors into the equation as it’s easier to accept a player back into the fold if he can help you to win games.

The reaction was also a reminder of how a good proportion of British athletics crowds tended to applaud sprinter Dwain Chambers when he made his return from his Balco ban several years ago. Fellow athletes appeared to view his transgressions with more severity than the fans did and a similar situation may well develop in baseball. Players have pushed for tougher penalties to hit the drug cheats harder as they are looking at their livelihoods. Most fans support the efforts of maintaining a clean sport, but when it comes down to it they just want to be entertained and once a player has served their punishment, if they can perform on the field then why not support them in doing so.

That’s for the home fans though. Braun is likely to find fans at every other ballpark all too ready to show him the opposite reaction.

Baseball curses keep on coming

Baseball has a long tradition of curses, from the curse of the Bambino that plagued the Red Sox for years to the Curse of the Billy Goat that continues to hang over the Cubs. Perhaps a few more could be added to the list after the events of Opening Day.

The ‘Curse of the ceremonial pitch’ in Anaheim, where the Angels’ hitting coach Don Baylor suffered a freak injury – a broken right leg, no less – while catching Vladimir Guerrero’s pitch.

There’s the ‘Curse of Reyes’. The Blue Jays’ shortstop lasted one at-bat before landing on the Disabled List with a strained hamstring and his curse status builds on his move to Miami in the 2011/12 offseason as part of the Marlins’ ill-fated free agent splurge and then his move to Toronto in the 2012/13 offseason that also quickly dissolved into disappointment.

And finally, there’s just a plain-old ‘Opening Day curse’ on the Oakland A’s. Their 2-0 defeat to the Cleveland Indians made it ten consecutive Opening Day losses for the A’s.

Fantasy fun

The conflicting interests generated by playing fantasy baseball kicked in right from Opening Night this year.

On the one side was the Dodgers’ starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, providing my fantasy team with seven scoreless innings and seven strikeouts. On the other was my desire to see Brian ‘Fear the Beard’ Wilson getting smacked around – prior to finding out about his injury, of course – particularly with ex-Oakland A’s outfielder Seth Smith up at the plate.

Your gut reaction is normally the best indicator of your true priorities and as Smith launched his game-tying home run into the right-field seats, I couldn’t have cared less about Ryu – and my fantasy team – being robbed of a pitching win. Which probably goes some way to explaining my last-placed fantasy league abilities.

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