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“The National Pastime”

This is a topic which may not interest everybody, but the overarching theme is powerful.

I grew up following baseball, as have many people. I only played softball; I think that my parents did not want me to risk getting hit in the head by a wild Little League pitcher, though they never said that. I was happy enough playing softball, I was a pretty good pitcher; and then following the Dodgers, and listening to the greatest sports announcer of all time, hands down, Vin Scully.

Over the years, I have not followed baseball with the intense, “I must listen to every game” feeling of that era. But I still do follow. Now there is another labor dispute threatening the upcoming season, which has resulted in the owners locking out the players. I am not too interested in the various arguments of the two sides. I imagine they will get resolved, and we will see if the fans readily come back.

What I want to write about here is the movement toward automation, technology, in baseball. For more than a century, the game was played on the field. One team was at bat, one team was in the field; and there were umpires whose job it was to officiate the game. One behind the plate, calling balls and strikes, and close plays at the plate, he is the most visible. One behind each of the bases, to call safe or out at the base, fair or foul balls down the line, and also things like, did the outfielder catch the ball or trap it; did the ball clear the fence or hit the wall before going over. Also balks; full swing strikes, or half-swings, not called strikes unless the pitch was over the plate.

Umpires have always been part of the rhythm of the game, and a major part of it; some say, too major. In olden days, there would be memorable arguments between managers and umpires, some going on for twenty minutes. Leo Durocher of the Dodgers and Giants and Cubs and Astros, was famed for his intense arguments with various umpires, he would kick the dirt in such a way as to not be thrown out for kicking it on the umpire. Billy Martin of the Yankees was another great manager who would yell and stomp and gesticulate, part of the show of baseball.

Over the years, efforts were made by baseball commissioners, who are essentially chosen and ruled over by the powerful owners, to curb the outbursts. It has long been a rule that a manager, and essentially a player (though there is more leniency there), cannot argue a ball or strike call, he is immediately thrown out of the game; although that never stopped a manager from storming out of the dugout after that, and getting his “free” opportunity to yell and gesture for some time, before going back to the clubhouse for the rest of the game. Many managers have used a major scene with an umpire as a way to fire up a sluggish team, and to let the players know that he is fighting for them.

So umpires were always a colorful part of the game, though fans and players and managers would complain about various ones, and various key calls which were likely mistakes. There was a famous miscall in the 1985 World Series, between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, which led to the Royals winning the Series, and no baseball fan has forgotten it. The basic rule in baseball was that an umpire never changed his call, unless another umpire, usually the crew chief, could convince him that he had a better angle, or that a rule was misapplied. Almost always, the call stands, no matter how much participants and fans complain.

So that story became a major part of what eventually became a crusade to turn the umpiring decisions into ones which technology could overrule. This first started in the National Football League, when the various cameras and instant replays showed on a few consecutive weekends, that key plays were probably miscalled. I say “probably,” because camera shots can mislead, too; and those plays you see replayed and over on each broadcast, can be perceived differently from different angles. But suffice it to say that in an age of technology, there are many who would always want the camera to have more power to decide the game than the official.

Back to baseball: they finally gave in, and have allowed challenges to on the field calls, a limited number a game. Those are limited to safe or out, fair or foul, home run or not. I think that you can also challenge whether the batter was hit by the pitch. I am not a big fan of technology, though I concede that it has some value. I do not want sports turned over to technology. My feeling has always been that the game should be played on the field, by human beings, and umpired by human umpires.

But the challenges have not ruined the game, yet. But now they have inevitably led baseball to the next step, taking away ball and strike calls from the umpires. Technology has allowed networks to instantaneously determine whether a pitch was in the strike zone or not, something that could never be done before, but now where every viewer can see the graphic. And there are a number of pitches which are not correctly called, at least from that visual, which is said to be accurate by those who invented it.

So of course that led to more and more complaints from fans about their team being jobbed out of a game, by bad home plate umpiring. And it does seem that for some reason, umpires are not as good at calling balls and strikes as they once were, but it may just be the effects of technology. Clearly some are worse than others. So there has been the growing push to take this away from umpires, and let a machine call the balls and strikes.

The momentum has grown; and now baseball is instituting “robot umpires” for the upcoming minor league Triple A season, one step away from instituting it in the Major Leagues. A camera instantaneously determines whether the pitch was a ball or a strike; and lights up green for ball, red for strike. MLB is looking for people to operate these machines. The machines will be determinative, no one can argue with it.

Of course, there are many who love technology, who applaud this. As in the controversy about football challenges to official rulings, they say “Get the calls right!,” and believe that this is the most important thing. It is hard to argue that the calls should not be right; but it is interesting to note that even if the calls are overturned, there are still those, even on TV broadcasts, who are not sure what the call should be. I have seen rulings overturned which were, from most angles, incorrectly overturned, even said so by the announcers. Of course, the replay officials have many angles, and can re-run the play over and over, so maybe they are more accurate, but not always.

And whereas the NFL limits challenges to two per team a game, with an extra one given if a challenge is successful, some college conferences have every play potentially reviewed. There are only certain aspects which can be reviewed (in bounds or out; fumble or not; kick good or not; illegal targeting or not), but this can always be expanded. I think that for a time the NFL was reviewing pass interference calls, almost impossible to agree upon, but they stopped. There are always fans and broadcasters who want more plays carefully reviewed, “so the call will be right.”

But there is rarely a certainty as to “right,” though there can be a consensus, sometimes. But is “right” the only virtue? What if every play were reviewed, and the game took eight hours? Would anybody want that? Some actually would, they are devoted to technology. I sometimes say that maybe they should have all the photos printed, and sent to a lab, and then take a day or two to be ruled on; and then the other team can appeal and have it sent to an appellate court. I am being sarcastic, of course, but it does show that “getting it right,” is not the transcendent value.

It is a game, after all! It is supposed to be for entertainment, though we know that there are millions of dollars at stake. We all played softball, or some version of it, on the playgrounds at school, or on a safe street, or in a park. We played. We did not argue for an hour over a call, which usually the player closest to it is supposed to honestly try to give the best opinion on. We did not replay the plays, we just played on. Now, of course, this is not the same thing–but in some ways, it is.

If we take the home plate umpire calling balls and strikes out of the game, something will be irrevocably lost, because that won’t come back. The pitcher will wind, throw; and the machine will flash red or green. No “Steerike!” No jerking his thumb in the air for strike three, and the batter turning around with an incredulous look. You can’t argue with the machine. The last pitch and image of the World Series could be a machine flashing red; strike three, three outs, game over; put another quarter in, if you want to play again next year.

I could buy all sorts of computer baseball games, though I do not. There have been computers which have simulated fantasy matchups between the great teams of the past; the 1927 Yankees vs. the 1963 Dodgers. They have never interested me. Computers have their values, their limits, and their dangers, when we let them have too much control over the lives of non-computers. Maybe computers will rule everything, at some point. The scientific genius Stephen Hawking said many times that Artificial Intelligence was the greatest threat to humankind. I would agree, and it is not hard to imagine how.

Whether baseball indeed will install robot umpires, is not of that level of concern, but it is part of something I do not like at all. Why go out to a ballpark, with the smells of peanuts and the sounds of batting practice baseballs hit, and infield practice balls smacking into gloves, when one can sit at home, or in front of a computer, and watch some kind of game, real or simulated, before you switch the channel or go to another of the billions of computer sites which people are presented with? Click, click, drone, to quote a line from the great John Foxx’s song “Underpass,’ in 1980.

I might not choose to watch any more baseball games, although people say such things and go back. But I really do not like technology reigning supreme in sports, or almost anywhere. Three days ago, I briefly glanced at an L.A Times headline inside a newspaper vending machine, about a Tesla car, semi-automated, which crashed into another car, killing both of the people in it; and a trial attempting to decide who was guilty, the driver, or the maker of the car?

Again, baseball is just a game. Change the rules, change the scheduling and length of the season; have labor disputes. Play the games on a computer screen? Have the games played out somewhere we cannot see, and then be told what the results are? Have fascists tell us that the results were fraudulent and should not count, unless their team won? Have the mandatory telescreen tell us who won, as part of that day’s propaganda?

I would rather go to a park and throw a ball around, or play with a wiffle ball and bat. Unless those are banned, along with the people who used to be part of the tableau of any baseball game, professional or amateur that you might see across the country. The “National Pastime” is now what?