Last week I learned video replay is used in the Little League World Series, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
The treadmill in our building gym is one that has a TV screen attached to it, but the channel options are weak: a second-rate news channel, infomercials, telenovelas, and the golf channel that somehow never has actual golf on when I’m running. My eyes drifted to the reflection of the big screen TV in the gym window. A Little League game—a regional tournament game to be exact— was on ESPN. The winner was on its way to Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series.
Watching the reflection in the window made everything backwards: right-handed batters looked lefty, left-handed pitchers looked like righties, and when a hitter put a ball in play, his reflection dashed in the direction of third base.
After the centerfielder caught a bases empty line drive early in a 0-0 game, the home plate umpire walked to the backstop and put on a headset, just like they do in big league games. With no sound, it took a second to figure out they were actually reviewing a call. ESPN looped the replay in slow motion: they were looking to see whether or not the catcher’s glove made contact with the hitter’s bat, which would be catcher’s interference, granting the hitter first base.
It took at least a half mile for the Replay Team, as I’ve since learned it to be called, to look at the ESPN-provided camera angles (in addition to the actual LLWS, ESPN broadcasts 88 regional tournament games). Players stood around waiting for the home plate umpire, who stood around waiting for the Replay Team to examine each frame to determine if the last fleck of the leather on the webbing of the catcher’s mitt made contact with the bat. I couldn’t tell if the bat nicked the mitt in real time, and I couldn’t be sure in slow motion either. The replay team determined there was catcher’s interference, but it didn’t matter; the play would have no impact on who won. By then I’d already decided I would be digging into this Little League video replay lunacy.
So here’s the most complete explanation of video replay, straight from the Little League website. Topline (parentheticals mine): the LLWS has used “instant” video replay since 2008(!). Incredibly, it was the first baseball organization of any kind to use replay. That’s right; Little League edged out MLB by about a month, and college baseball started using it in the College World Series starting in 2012.
The first version of replay in LLWS was limited to fair and foul calls on home runs. Adults being adults, that couldn’t be left alone. Before long, video replay expanded. It’s now available in the regional tournaments as well as the LLWS, and replay can now be used for, well, all of this:
Managers must specify the exact call that they would like to challenge. The only plays that may be challenged are: ball over the outfield fence, dead ball areas, batted balls ruled fair but foul or rule foul but fair, foul tip versus foul ball, hit batters, runner or runner-batter interference on batted balls, all plays at bases to get a runner or runner-batter out, appeal for missed bases (not if the runner left too soon), any out call made safe (umpire determines where to place the runners), pitched ball ruled “not caught” by the catcher, catcher interference, head-first slide into a base. The final play of all games are automatically reviewed.
Managers have up to two unsuccessful challenges in the first six innings, and one in extra innings. As always, a manager may request time and ask the umpire crew to review a play without officially challenging the play. Umpires may call for video replay on any play that qualifies for it, and may also ask for a review after a manager conference.LittleLeague.org, 2016
Reminder, this is a video replay rule that was enacted for games being played by kids ages 10-12.
So that’s how I came to stare at a gym window watching a backwards version of a Little League game. Backwards indeed.
My main curiosity went back all the way to the conceit of the bad idea, at least 14 removed from the catcher’s interference call in question. Where did the idea come from, and why the hell would anyone think it was anything other than wrong. I was laughing at the absurdity of it all pretty quickly.
Go far enough back, and at some point before August, 2008 the following certainly occurred in some form: someone working at Little League headquarters suggested “video replay” as an agenda item. For this story, let’s call them Blake. Worse, Blake’s agenda item remained. It wasn’t ignored or dismissed. It wasn’t mistaken as a subtle joke to loosen up a Friday meeting.
The notion gained some momentum, and since it made it all the way to the field of play, that means the topic was discussed 5, 10, 20, maybe even 50 times in different Little League meetings at the national and regional level. At some point, execs from ESPN—the broadcast partner for all these games—got involved (would ESPN stand to gain some ad revenue with replay? That’s for another day). Not once was anyone able to douse enough common sense on the matter to keep the idea of video replay from spreading.
I wonder about Blake— the real person—whoever he (or she) is. I think about what could have happened that led him to take up the cause of video replay in Little League. What was the blown call in his life that ultimately led to this mission?
Was it a play from Blake’s youth that he couldn’t ever get over? Perhaps he was at the plate with a chance to send his Little League team to Williamsport. Perhaps, with the bases loaded, down by three runs with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, Blake yanked a pitch down the line. High….deep…it is foul! The umpire called it a foul ball even when it was clearly fair from Blake’s vantage point. What could’ve been for Blake!
Or maybe Blake’s child was scarred by a missed call. Maybe lil Blakey dropped a ball at second base in what would’ve led to a game-saving double-play. If only there was video replay, dad Blake thought. Then they would’ve seen Junior drop it on the exchange! It was the exchaaaaaange!
A second theory: an umpire absolutely could’ve been the one who first planted the seed of video replay. Exhausted from inexhaustible parents. A set of headphones might be just the buffer umps needed from the rage that is a parent who thinks their child has been screwed over in what must be the least significant way imaginable.
Maybe the ump thought, Replay’s just easier. Why be the target? I don’t need this shit.
My silly, “based on a true story” imaginings are an attempt to laugh off the genuine frustration. A Little League rule should not stick in my side like this video replay has for the past week. Really, I shouldn’t care. I’m on family leave taking care of Charlie, our 3-month old baby girl. I’ve got much better things to do with my time, like push a stroller down every street, avenue, boulevard, and cul-du-sac within a four-mile radius. And yet…
The issue isn’t the intention— ‘getting it right,’ as is often the chorus—but rather what ‘it’ deserves our attention and energy. The problem with video replay can be found in the grammar of it all. Beyond pronouns and antecedents, my argument comes down to nouns and verbs.
A play versus playing.
In sports, when parents age out of the verb part of speech—playing—many can become hyper focused on the noun— (a) play. In some respects, it’s understandable; the noun is all we have left! But the joy, the magic of Little League is in the verb, more specifically (and to the delight of grammar teachers everywhere) the present participle. The continuous tense of the verb: play-ing. Especially in a game in which the action pauses after every pitch, we have to keep it moving forward whenever possible in the youth version of the game.
Experiencing the rhythm of a well-played baseball game is a difficult thing to learn as a kid, but once you do, it’s a wonderful choreography to take part in and share with teammates and opponents alike. It’s similar to learning how to play in a school band. Yes, mistakes happen all of the time, but it’s a lot harder to know the feeling of being in the pocket—the real joy of finding that rhythm— if you’re stopping every 12 bars for the conductor to review whether or not the rhythm section is rushing or the trumpets are out of tune. The same can be said for a game that’s adding breaks for video review.
These replays aren’t rare either. The best intel I could find comes from Diane Pucin’s story in the LA Times back in 2011: replay was used 18 times during the 10-day 2011 LLWS. It’s hard to believe it’s any less than 18 times a decade later.
The Little League World Series is the purest version of baseball you could ever hope to watch. Lamade Stadium might be the most beautiful baseball field on earth. They have that flat-roofed grandstand reminiscent of the minor league parks from the 1940s, and real dugouts, and the hill in centerfield where the kids watching the game slide down on cardboard. There’s a joy in watching a 12 year-old hit a homer or make a diving catch that’s impossible to muster for a professional making $20,000,000 a year. So it offends me when adults can’t stop themselves from futzing with something as damn near perfect as the Little League World Series in the spirit of ‘getting it right’.
Should umpires, parents, coaches and Little League work to get calls correct? Yes. Of course it matters who wins, and some plays are no doubt tipping points in games, but I’d rather live with the call on the field. What’s stalled —the verb, the continuous tense—is ultimately more important to the overall joy of playing baseball.
At such a young age, baseball— the game of failure—should feel endless in opportunity. Next pitch, next at bat, next inning, next game, next year. Stopping a game to analyze one play feels backwards to what Little League is at its best.
This isn’t a “parents are the worst” column. The path to a parent taking a Little League game way too seriously is completely understandable. They put so much time, energy, miles, and money into allowing the opportunity for their kids to experience success and the positive power of baseball. And then, against all odds—holy shit!—their kids are a game or two away from playing in the Little League World Series. A truly rare life experience. One bad call, and one obvious solution, and I can see how our Blake, and all the Blakes out there would think, Why not? Cameras are already at the game, for chrissake.
Who knows? Charlie has been around for less than a season; maybe I’m a Blake in waiting and I don’t know it yet. We’ll have to wait to find out. Until then, let’s ditch the video replay in Little League and spend time on the -ing of it all. That’s where the magic is found.
– Phil Lang, 08/25/21