As the trail runner representing the go-ahead run, Washington Nationals catcher José Lobatón had no business getting picked off at first in the eighth inning of a winner-take-all game. He put himself in a bad situation by roaming too far away from the bag, allowing Willson Contreras’ snap throw to induce a slide.
Lobatón’s mental error at the season’s most important moment shouldn’t be ignored. Nor should his physical error of allowing his foot to briefly lose contact with the base. But he never stood a chance. He is just one person, up against a dragnet of people with the latest technology to take him down on a technicality.
A single umpire did not make the biggest call of the season. One pair of trained eyes did not make the biggest call. Instead, it was made by a team of experts working remotely, pouring over the replay from different angles like the FBI examining the Zapruder film.
There is no doubt that Lobatón’s foot momentarily lost contact with the base. But even after some four-dozen viewings, I am not convinced Anthony Rizzo tagged him while he was off. The critical part of my brain believes he did, but that conclusion is not purely based on the visual evidence.
My opposition to replay in baseball is not new. But this morning’s anger is gripping and righteous. Calls like the one that decided last night’s game are tough to stomach, even if they may be technically correct.
Going frame by frame to see if a sliding runner came millimeters off a base is antithetical to the true spirit of baseball. It’s not. If baseball had a Constitution, the overly indulgent and strict adjudication of replay would be unconstitutional. There is simply no way this is what the framers of the game — or even those who pushed for replay a short time ago — envisioned or wanted.
It’s not baseball. It’s desk work. It’s a low-level traffic cop monitoring a red-light camera, searching for the smallest infractions to ticket. It’s the sweating of the smallest stuff while the big things — like the spirit of the game — suffers.
The call on Lobatón may have been correct. But it wasn’t right.
How many of those who disagree with me are simultaneously complaining about the length of the game? How many of the bigwigs at Major League Baseball who want to improve pace of play realize that prolonged injections of replay theater are counterproductive to that goal?
My lament is not one of a person wishing to live in darkness, a Luddite who wishes to stifle truth. Instead, they are fueled by a existential exasperation. Pouring over tape to find things impossible to detect in real time with the human eye is a fundamental change. Human error is part of baseball’s heartbeat. Hundreds of pitches are subjected to dynamic strike zones and have a bigger cumulative impact than a tag play at a base that gets challenged.
The search for perfection has created another problem — a bigger one than sliding runners briefly losing contact with a base while sliding. It’s likely too late to go back to the way things once were, and that’s sad.
My honest question: who wants this? Who wants a season decided like this? Who wants the most “exciting” part of baseball to take place at an unseen Chelsea office building and not on the field?
Maybe I’m wrong and people do. It just feels … off.