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The Cubs' Tyler Colvin hit a home run in the ninth inning in Philadelphia Thursday night, giving the Cubs a 4-3 lead. He circled the bases; television channels updated their scoreboxes; Phillies closer Ryan Madson looked extremely unhappy.
But wait! The home run made it just barely over a railing above the out-of-town scoreboard at Citizens Bank Park, and television cameras showed a fan with his arms out for the ball, which bounced off one of his arms and into the seats.
That brought Phillies manager Charlie Manuel out to request a replay review, which managers can do. After heading off to review the play, the umpires came back on the field and ruled fan interference; the score reverted to 3-3 and Colvin was placed on second base, where he stayed. The game went into extra innings and the Cubs wound up winning on a non-home run, 4-3. Afterwards Colvin said he agreed with the umpires' decision (as did Cubs announcer Len Kasper on WGN's telecast of the game).
But was it the right call? Video of the play can be seen at this link, both from WGN and CSN Philadelphia. The way I see it, the ball could not have been played by Phillies right fielder Domonic Brown, no matter how high he jumped; the wall at that point is 13 feet high. If Brown could jump that high, he should be in the NBA, not MLB. Anyway, in my view, the replay was inconclusive. The ball had a trajectory that made it appear as if it would have landed in the seats if the seat had been empty; the fan's arm touched the ball, but it wasn't clear whether the part of his arm that was over the fence was the part that touched it.
And that's where I believe the umpires got it wrong. There was no conclusive evidence of fan interference; thus, the implied ruling on the field (home run, since the umpires let Colvin circle the bases) should have been allowed to stand.
This is where MLB needs to beef up its replay review system. Leaving aside for the moment the debate over expanded review (which I am in favor of, for fair/foul, safe/out and trapped/caught plays), have you ever seen the size of the screen that umpires use for a review? Your laptop screen is probably bigger. Because of the current replay method used -- umpires have to go to an easily accessible spot -- most teams have had to improvise a place for replay screens, sometimes cramming them into the corner of a dugout corridor.
Instead, what MLB could do is this: Centralize replays at the MLB offices in New York, as the NHL does with its replays. That way, someone (perhaps a retired umpire, or more than one) with the sole responsibility of review could have a much larger screen or screens available to review calls. Umpires in ballparks would have to have some sort of phone communication available to them, of course, to receive calls from the central office. A better solution -- though more expensive -- would be to put a fifth umpire on every crew, stationed in the press box, with a larger screen available for review. This would allow expansion of review to the other plays I mentioned, as well as give every umpire a "break" from field duty every fifth game.
It's 2011, Bud Selig. We have the technology to get the calls right. Let's use it. And if, as in last night's game, the television pictures aren't conclusive evidence, then the old-fashioned way -- the call on the field -- can stand.