Technology worthy for instant replay

Technology worthy for instant replay

NEW YORK -- The baseball, as it flew, cued everything around it into action. Careening toward a formerly quiet corner of Yankee Stadium, it first forced two Orioles outfielders to converge, then a pool of fans to reach out in expectation. An umpire jogged back to track its flight, and Alex Rodriguez, the man who hit it, began speeding toward first base. And then to second base. And still he ran, and still the ball flew, and ...

Pause. Rewind.

The baseball soared toward the wall yet again, this time quite clearly ricocheting off a yellow staircase in right-center field -- by rule, a home run. But it wasn't a home run. It was a double, and Rodriguez stood miffed on second.

Stop. Fast forward.

"You cannot ignore the technology that we have," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's vice president of baseball operations. "You can slow a picture down so much that you can see the grains of sand and clay around the bag, and you can see whether or not a person has shaved that day. It is tremendous what you can see."

So consider the distinction between doubles and home runs an easy one. Solomon, one of the forces behind the league's decision to bring instant replay into ballparks this week, was on hand at Major League Baseball Advanced Media's Manhattan headquarters on Wednesday to show off the technology that will make this advance a reality.

As he spoke, four television screens lined the back wall of the instant replay command center, ready and waiting to distribute feeds from every Major League ballpark. Eight more screens paneled the rest of the wall, many of them glowing green with the afternoon's inactivity. And packed within three rows of computers were a handful of employees charged with making this whole operation work.

Solomon turned toward the television monitors and Rodriguez, frowning, stared back at him. It was, on this day, a classic history lesson. The blown call in question occurred on May 21, but its implications no doubt lie squarely in the future.

"We've got the technology now," Solomon said. "Why should we wait?"

Replay

Rodriguez's double was one of 18 instances this season in which Solomon believed replay could have been used -- regardless of whether or not the call might have been overturned. And in future instances it will indeed be used, thanks to a provision that Major League Baseball announced on Tuesday.

From now on, home run calls -- and only home run calls -- can be reviewed to determine whether or not a ball was over the fence, fair or foul, or subject to fan interference.

Which is precisely where the command center comes in. When an umpire crew chief decides that a potential home run might benefit from a peek at instant replay, he will head to a replay kiosk constructed in a separate location at every ballpark. There, the crew chief will communicate with one of MLB Advanced Media's replay engineers, who will guide him through as many available replay angles as he desires.

The camera shots are beamed in from local and national television broadcasts, typically three to four per broadcast team. And at the command center, engineers have the capability to turn those live video streams into replay clips within three seconds' time.

"It needs to be instantaneous," said Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media. "Taking a live feed and redistributing that is one thing, but taking a live feed, cutting it, slicing it, dicing it and sending it back to the park so an umpire can see it -- all in a relatively short period of time -- is frankly a skill set that we needed to develop."

There will be an umpire supervisor or former umpire overseeing things in baseball's replay command center, and enough technicians present to monitor every game. Solomon expects the whole process, from initiation to official ruling, to take approximately two and a half minutes. And he doesn't anticipate it to slow the pace of the game.

"We're working hard to make sure that it does not become an impediment to keeping the game running smoothly," Solomon said.

Though one of instant replay's most popular criticisms has indeed been that potential to slow the game, both Bowman and Solomon stressed that their current technology is quick enough to prevent that. And glancing around the space-age command center, it's hard not to believe it. The whole setup, no bigger than an elementary school classroom, looks like a bizarre cross between a sports bar and an airplane cockpit. The best of today's technologies pulse against every wall, while baseball games gleam from every TV.

That much represents the sum of all available technology, made possible due to MLB.com's mission of streaming every Major League Baseball game live on the internet. And it's an end, not a start -- the league does not have plans to further implement instant replay into games in coming years. Its current application will be its only application.

"The Commissioner made it very clear that this is a limited use of instant replay," Solomon said. "I cannot see any reason why we would go beyond that."

Nor can he see any reason why this whole operation won't work. The technology is there, the desire is there, and now, the legality is there. And so instant replay has arrived.

"We are hopeful that all our umpires will be judicious in their use of the system, that they will be fair in the use of the system -- and we know that they will," Solomon said. "I think that pretty soon, we'll wonder how we got along without it."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.