Play Ball

Grand Old Game Returns

But is the umpire being phased out?

By 4.1.14

UPI
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It’s grand to have the Grand Old Game — regular season variety — back. Monday’s Opening Day — following Sunday’s uni-game Opening Night and the Opening G’Day gimmick of a weekend ago — brought an embarrassment of riches for the aficionado, with ESPN broadcasting consecutive games and local channels chipping in with local games. Fans with time on their hands could watch baseball from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Fan is, after all, short for fanatic.) I didn’t exactly OD, but I’ll admit to watching more than I will as the season settles in.

I considered trying to make it to the Trop to watch my Tampa Bay Rays open against the Toronto Blue Jays. But I decided there was just too much on offer on the tube, which could be enjoyed in comfort without a $45 ticket, $18 for a beer and a hot dog, and $15 to park. (What year did going to a Major League ball game go from being a simple purchase to being an investment?) So the couch in my office was in the upright and locked position for hours.

It was worth it. The beauty and charms of the game I’ve watched for so long, and wished I could have played at a more serious level, were all on display in the games I watched. There was some fine pitching — pitchers tend to be a bit ahead of batters this time of year. (Not to mention that everybody’s best guy is going in Game One.) So far ahead as to yield a total of five runs scored between the Cubs, Pirates, Red Sox, Orioles, Reds, and Cardinals together. My own Rays broke the scoring drought, beating the Blue Jays 9-2. As I filed this column, the Miami Marlins had put a 10-spot on the Colorado Rockies.

Baseball’s new instant replay, “New York, we have a problem,” high-tech, legalistic, let’s-try-to-be-like-football challenge system came into play a few times. It wasn’t too intrusive, didn’t delay any game I watched unduly, and didn’t change the outcome of any game. But it’s too early for baseball purists to relax. I await the inevitable accretions to this system, which will surely at some point lead to time-killing snares that resemble a complicated case in chancery court.

Call me a Luddite, but even at this innocent stage of cyber-ball, replacing the human element of the game with Steve Jobs gadgetry in the name of “getting it right” seems a high price to pay, and a change too far for a game that has retained its charm because it has resisted change. ESPN gave us a peek into the room in New York where millions of dollars worth of cyber-whiz-bangery MLB will use in its replay-challenges system is housed. I believe this was supposed to inspire confidence. I found it repellant. 

The brave new system will probably cause more harm if it works than if it doesn’t. If a few bad calls get corrected, there will be calls for more cyber-calls. The ultimate insult would be an app to call balls and strikes. The first shot in a campaign to do just this may have been fired in the Sunday NYT. A column there co-written by a Northwestern University business professor and a Columbia management prof purports to show, based on research using high speed cameras in Major League parks, how bad a job Major League umpires do calling balls and strikes.

Major League umpires are very good at their jobs. They’ve been selected through a minor league apprentice system, just like the players. But I must assume that anyone who has read this far is a baseball fan, and has seen his (her) share of right peculiar ball and strike calls. As well as a few knee-slappers on the bases. Which of us hasn’t, at one time or another, jumped up and yelled at the television, “CRYING OUT LOUD, BLUE — WHY DON’T YOU WATCH THE DAMN BALL GAME!?!”

The professors claim the research, based on electronic eves-dropping on more than 700,000 pitches, shows that on non-swinging pitches, Major League umps get the call wrong about 14 percent of the time, even more wrong on 3-0 and 0-2 pitches. (How many the high-speed cameras miss, they doesn’t say.) They also claim the home team gets the benefit of the mistakes a bit more than visitors, and both pitchers and hitters with good reputations catch a break over rookies or journeymen. (Advice to rookies just up from Keokuk: If the two-strike pitch is around the plate, be hacking. Because anything the catcher can get to is going to be called a strike.) And of course, it wouldn’t be a NYT column if it didn’t charge that minorities are graded more severely than white folks.

None of this is surprising, though the 14 percent seems a bit high. (Some of the “wrong” calls can be attributed to the fact that different umpires have somewhat different strike zones — players don’t mind this so long as the ump calls his zone consistently.) But even if the numbers yield a true picture, I’m loath to turn the calling of balls and strikes over to any kind of mechanical device. In addition to the soullessness of it all, any mechanical or electronic device requires calibrating. I can’t see how we would improve matters by having a computer calling a wide strike zone rather than having a human umpire doing the same thing. Besides, we all know how much good it does to yell at a computer: “#$%^&!! Is this as #$%^ing good as you’re going to be all #$%^ing night.” This is when the ejection light comes on — how mortifying to be thrown out of a game by a bucket of circuits. (Picture the late Earl Weaver going nose to nose with Umpire 2.0.)

My guess is the research may even underestimate how often umps miss 3-0 and 0-2 calls. Umps seem very reluctant to send a guy to first on four pitches or to ring him up on three. What I’ve observed is that if the pitcher doesn’t actually knock the guy in the on-deck circle down with a 3-0 pitch, it will be called a strike. And a pitcher has to practically put it on a tee to get a called strike on 0-2.

But all of these problems can be improved (though never made perfect) by Major League Baseball without turning over balls and strikes to a machine that looks like R2D2. Bad calls tend to even out over a game, certainly over a season. Both teams rag on the same umpires, and with a few dramatic exceptions (see the 1985 World Series), bad calls don’t change the outcome of games. 

There’s a question the professor never addresses: why should we assume high speed cameras, or any other pitch-calling technology, would get all the pitches right? Or even do better than fallible umps. Almost certainly they wouldn’t. And who wants to turn in a line-up card to a computer at home plate before the game?

MEMO to Bud Selig and his chief elves: Baseball is not a video game. Please stop trying to turn it into one.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.