One of the staples of Eastern European Jewish humor was the imaginary town of Chelm. It was a fantasy locale populated only by the very stupid. Story-tellers and jokesters competed to create ever more ridiculous adventures for its bumbling citizens. My seventh-grade teacher told me the one about Zelig, who was having trouble in the mornings finding all his clothes and important items. The Rabbi advised him to make a list each night before he went to sleep. So he sat on the edge of his bed and wrote everything down: “Pants on the chair, watch on the dresser… and Zelig in bed.”
Sure enough, in the morning he got up and walked around the house, list in hand, reclaiming all his possessions. But to his dismay, when he got to the last item in his log he looked… and Zelig was not in bed!
This story comes back to me when I encounter the snare of false conservatism. By this I mean the impulse to conserve even that which was intended to be provisional or was instituted because of the lack of a better alternative. To drive with a horse and buggy today is not to conserve some precious component of civilization; rather, one is using what was the fastest way to travel at a time when it has become the slowest way to travel. And Zelig was in bed at night only because he needed to be up and out in the morning.
Although this applies to a wide range of activities, from the personal to the political, the target that’s engaging me at this moment is the national pastime: baseball. It is past time for an unnecessary part of the game to be eliminated, something we have grown accustomed to but which is extrinsic to the essential workings of the sport. It’s time that umpires stopped calling balls and strikes.
Just yesterday I was listening to an excellent game, a gritty battle between two fine teams, a contest with playoff implications. Some clutch pitching, some timely hitting, some daring base-running, some sharp fielding, yet all of it was marred in large degree by a home-plate umpire whose strike zone was arbitrary and inconsistent. The fans began to become unruly, exploding into angry boos when he got one wrong and mock cheers when he got one right. Eventually one player was ejected; normally a placid sort, he became enraged when an outside pitch that had been called a ball all game was called strike three against him in at a crucial point.
Who needs this? Why should the strike zone continue to be an inexact science? In the current system, each pitcher finds himself trying to learn the strike zone of that night’s umpire; the same holds true for the more patient hitters. Roger Clemens, for example, trying to hang on as a pitcher at age 42, keeps a notebook with his assessment of each umpire’s style of calling a game. This means that one night he must try to keep the ball lower than usual. Another night might find him taking advantage of an extra inch beyond the outside corner, because that umpire tends to have a wider strike zone.
We have the laser technology today to determine balls and strikes with perfect accuracy. A technician makes a small adjustment as each batter steps to the plate to calibrate the zone to the height of the hitter. Then the machine flashes a color or gives a beep to announce the result of each pitch. These machines are used sometimes in minor leagues to replace an umpire; they are used in the major leagues only as a means of monitoring the umpire’s general job performance, with the results scanned periodically in a division of the Commissioner’s office.
What tradition is being preserved by continuing to rely on the human eye? None. It is merely the accumulation of a century of habit. It was necessary because it was the only alternative. It has always introduced a certain arbitrary element into the experiences of pitching and hitting, one that cannot be shown to provide any benefit. A pitcher may throw the identical game twice in a row, with no walks in one game and five in the next, just because the same pitch is a ball on one outing and a strike on another. Let the home-plate umpire call foul tips and tags at home plate, while a laser field gives an instantaneous, infallible report on the location of every pitch.
This is not the moment for conservative types to offer the reflexive “you made your bed, now lie in it.” This bed was made only to last the night. The morning of technology is here, so it’s time for Commissioner Selig to get out of bed.