Replay, Contradictions, and the Philosophy of Baseball

Fans across the league can probably pinpoint a moment when replay went sour for them. If that moment hadn’t come for any Brewers fans who were watching Saturday, the ninth inning was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. After what looked like a tailor-made double play to end the ninth inning with a 6-6 tie and give the Brewers a chance to win, with both teams already in the dugout and the TV broadcast gone to commercial break, the umpires came out to review the play and found that Scooter Gennett’s foot came off the bag about a nanosecond before he caught the ball. Instead of 6-6 and the Brewers coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth, the Reds scored what would prove to be the winning run on that play.

It was the exact kind of play people were dreading when replay came into existence. The runner was out at second base by a mile; in real time, there would be no separating this double play from the multiple routine double plays turned on a daily basis in Major League Baseball. The Reds had already blown their manager’s challenge and waited until both teams, the fans at the park and the viewers at home had already assumed the inning was over. Instead, the keen eye of the Reds’ video coordinator wound up winning them the game.

The problem is, I’m not sure how to solve these kinds of dilemmas in a way that leaves people satisfied given baseball’s reliance, dating back to its origin, of a strict adherence to the rules, no matter how convoluted they might be. Baseball’s rulebook covers well over 200 pages, and while that’s not quite on par with the One True Lawyerball that is American football (the NFL’s rulebook goes over 400 pages), there are many baseball fans (and players) who take pride in a knowledge of even the most obscure nooks and crannies of the game’s rules. Fans like Ted Cohen, whose essay “There Are No Ties At First Base” appears in the collection Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside The Batter’s Box.

Cohen was one of those players, like myself back in my Little League days, who used an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules to mask or make up for a lack of actual baseball ability or talent. He writes of his discovery that the rules declaring a “tie goes to the runner” in MLB’s official rulebook actually contradict each other. There’s Rule 6.05(j): “A batter is out when after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base.” If it’s a tie, then the base wasn’t tagged before the batter made it, thus a tie goes to the batter. Simple enough.

But then he found Rule 7.08(e): Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner. Now the dynamic is switched; the runner has to make it before the ball or the tag, thus a tie goes to the defense. And to really throw the whole thing for a loop, there’s rule 6.09(a): The batter becomes a runner when he hits a fair ball. Welcome to contradiction city, a philosopher’s hell.

Cohen writes:

“I was deeply troubled by this logical rot in the Official Baseball Rules. I had become extremely fond of the rules. They have charm and, so I had thought, precision. They do not have logical elegance, but that is part of their charm. They have the appearance of having been written by journeymen lawyers…

With all that charm, and with their natural appeal for my philosophical sensibility, the rules had won me over. Now I found them wanting at their core.”

In 1982, Cohen wrote to Major League Baseball in an attempt to get this contradiction resolved. He got all the way to the Official Playing Rules Committee, but finally, he received a letter from their administrator stating, “To setup a special rule, which in effect would allow for ties, we felt would be extremely confusing.” Rather than fix the rule, umpires decided they were happy to simply act as if a tie was a physical impossibility. It may not be an elegant fix, but it was definitely the path of least resistance for MLB.

This whole ridiculous kerfuffle highlights the inevitability of contradiction in a game that relies on a combination of an incredibly intricate and dense rulebook and the imperfect sensory systems of the human beings whose job it is to interpret them. But we demand truth. After all, that’s why there was such a demand for replay dating back at least three decades.

Replay, as Saturday’s game and many others have shown since the technology has been implemented, can’t solve all of these contradictions. If anything, replay has thrown a spotlight on contradictions we either didn’t know of or didn’t care about in the first place — runners bouncing off the base for a split second while the fielder holds the tag on them, the vagaries of whether or not a fielder makes a catch on the exchange from glove to throwing hand, or plays like Saturday afternoon’s double play that wasn’t.

Baseball has a lot to figure out with its replay system. Managers are given far too long to hang around and think about it before calling for the official replay. Calls that take more than a certain time (two minutes or so) to determine should automatically revert to the call on the field — if it takes longer, the evidence must not be that incontrovertible. Replay can be valuable, but when it so interrupts the flow of the game over differences that are only detectable with high speed, high definition cameras, we wind up with situations like Saturday night’s that reduce the game to a bureaucratic process and leave an entire fanbase salty.

But I’m convinced more than ever that there is no solution that could possibly appease everybody. That is simply the nature of baseball and its morass of rules and interpretations. Contradiction is inevitable, and someone is always going to end up with the short end of the stick. Unfortunately, that’s just baseball, replay or no.

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