Let me start by saying this: I hate bad umpiring, especially on balls and strikes calls. I can’t stress this enough. It absolutely drives me crazy. I can still tell you the exact innings and pitches that the umps blew some balls and strikes calls in the 2004 ALCS. And the thing is, I hate complaining about it, because I hate complaining about umpiring in general. It seems whiny.
In the postseason this year, a lot was made out of some obvious blown calls on the field by the umps (and those certainly weren’t alright either) but balls and strikes completely dictate the course of the game. One pitch – making the count 2 – 1 instead of 1 – 2, for example – completely changes the game. What makes it particularly frustrating is it’s a completely binary thing; either a pitch is a strike or it isn’t. Yet there is so much change from umpire to umpire, game to game, and even inning to inning, that it has a palpable impact upon the outcome.
Back in the postseason, I noted how AJ Burnett became ineffectual in the World Series once the umpire would no longer call his outside breaking pitch a strike. Was that Burnett’s fault? Well sure, he should have adjusted, but if he had the same strike zone as in game 2, the Yankees might win that game. Any way you look at it, the umpire was dictating the results, and that’s not alright.
So here’s the thing: we have pitch f/x and other digital ways of determining the strike zone, so how long until we simply digitally decide whether a pitch is a ball or strike? No interpretation. Either it is or it isn’t.
I mentioned this idea to an acquaintance right after the playoffs and his response was “if they start doing that, I won’t watch baseball anymore.”
I found this immensely puzzling. I asked for an explanation.
“It takes all the human element out of the game.”
Now, I’ve heard of umpires being part of the “human element” before, and this media-created phrase is absolute garbage. The PLAYERS are the human element. How many John Hirschbeck jerseys do you see around (he’s number 17, by the way)?
The real problem is that baseball is incredibly conservative. As I mentioned in my Mark McGwire post, people still think ballplayers should be fueled by “hot dogs and beer” because that’s how “Babe Ruth did it.” Baseball fans are terrified of progress. Football fans understand instant replay as a natural progression of the sport. They even accept that a good number of the players they are watching use performance-enhancing drugs. It’s a byproduct of our culture and while football fans certainly don’t go out of their way to applaud it, they implicitly understand why it happens.
This ties partly to how we experience these sports. We remember baseball. It’s a game of nostalgia. It makes us think of our childhood, of summer, of eras long gone (and that’s partly why we get so enraged about steroids; they aren’t changing the game now as much as they are changing how we remember an era of the game). Football is a game that lives more in the moment. We don’t associate it with other events. It IS the event. Football simply is Sunday and the Super Bowl is practically its own holiday.
So we don’t want baseball to change but we expect football to evolve. The irony here is that baseball is the sport that could most easily be improved by modern progress. It has the easiest statistics to analyze. It has simple parameters for both balls and strikes and on the field calls. Yet people fight vehemently against these things.
Why not have a “robot” calling balls and strikes? It ensures that the call is correct. Why not have an umpire up in the booth instead, who can quickly use replay to make sure on the field calls are correct? It could happen in seconds (and if you doubt this, just think – how long does it take you, watching a telecast, to figure out whether a call was correct?) and then there is no way managers could slow the game down arguing; an umpire just saw indisputable video evidence – how do you argue with that? In fact, the rule should be if you waste time arguing that, you get ejected.
I know this is a pipe dream and instead I’ll just be left swearing at my TV screen. I just hope all those people out there are enjoying the bad calls and really taking in all that “human-element” goodness.