In the end it didn't matter. The Tigers won handily even with Stephen Drew clearly coming well off the bag on a would-be double play in the second inning. (The throw to first would be late.) But what if this extra out, which cost Detroit at least one run, had meant the game? This question's only hypothetical for a few more weeks. What happens to the "neighborhood play" when managers are given the right to challenge calls?
Usually if it's anywhere close, the umpire will give the out. Drew wasn't nearly as close as even the photo above makes it seem:
As soon as next season, MLB is expected to institute expanded instant replay, relying on a challenge system similar to the NFL's. If that system was in place last night, Jim Leyland almost certainly challenges Austin Jackson being called out at second. And it's most certainly overturned...right?
I hesitate to lump the neighborhood play in with baseball's other "unwritten rules," yet that's what it is. But this one has a completely logical reason for existing: as long as runners are allowed to slide through the bag, even out of the basepath, to break up a double play, the fielder needs to get out of the way as quickly as possibly or he'll get wrecked. The neighborhood play has saved countless injuries over the decades. It's a valuable concession to safety and to convention.
There are three possible ways I see this going.
Managers create a gentlemen's agreement not to challenge neighborhood plays. It's been in baseball forever, it's completely uncontroversial, and every team would be affected. Perhaps everyone shakes hands and says we'll let this one go. This concept works right up until the point it doesn't. Some day, some manager in a crucial spot, perhaps a playoff game, will challenge a nonexistent double play and salvage a rally and a season. He'd be dumb not to. And the central replay office will have to overturn the call—rules are rules. On that day, the uproar will be massive, and distracting.
MLB doesn't allow managers to challenge neighborhood plays. In the NFL, nearly every play is reviewable—except for penalties. There's a logic to it, in that some decisions are necessarily judgment calls, and the officials are the final arbiters. MLB already plans to exclude balls and strikes from replay, so perhaps neighborhood plays could fall under the same rubric.
This idea isn't technically sound; The most basic fundament of the game is that you have to tag the base while holding a ball to force out a runner. It's not a judgment call. But philosophically, it's much more defensible. Baseball is already selective with its rules for baserunners: they can make contract with fielders only at home plate or when trying to score, but not otherwise, and they can run through the bag at first base but nowhere else. We've already accepted that different situations call for different implementations of the rules, so allowing the neighborhood play wouldn't be an anomaly.
Neighborhood plays can be challenged, and all hell breaks loose. This isn't something that happens once in a blue moon. Neighborhood plays are called outs all the time. Once it becomes clear that managers are challenging them, fielders will have to re-learn a large part of turning a double play. Given that they've been doing it since little league, it will take years for the new way to become ingrained.
In the meantime, chaos. Challenges—and the accompanying delays—every night. (Remember, if a challenge is successful, a manager receives another one. If the fielder leaves the bag even a split second too early, there's literally no downside to challenging it.) Managers will counter-challenge that the runner was out of the baseline. There will be more injuries, and more throwing errors, as fielders are forced to stay in harm's way to complete the DP. The takeout slide will become a weapon, and the retaliatory beanball will be more common.
And then, perhaps in the late innings of a deciding playoff game, a shortstop's foot will be two inches away from the bag when he receives the ball, and those two inches are enough to decide the outcome of a season. The letter of the law spikes the spirit of the game. Everyone gets mad.
There's no optimal solution, but this seems like one of those times well enough should be left alone. "We've always done it this way" is no valid argument against change, but it holds some water when the change could bring about more problems than the old way ever did. It's only the ultra-rare, ultra-egregious neighborhood play that creates controversy, and even Stephen Drew's last night wasn't bad enough to trigger a reaction from the Tigers. Leave it to the umpires to make that call—and maybe give them a little nudge to make it more often—and leave instant replay for righting the significant wrongs.