Tagging the Ump

As every baseball fan on the planet knows, Umpire Tim McClelland made one of the worst non-calls in baseball history during Game 4 of this year’s ALCS. When Angels catcher Mike Napoli tagged both Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano who were inexplicably standing near but clearly not on third base, McClelland called only Posada out. His brain cramp has led many to call for McLelland, who was man enough to face his critics after the game, to be dismissed and for Bud Selig to extend the use of instant replay. Both are bad ideas.

I might be reluctant to ask McClelland to call balls and strikes in a T-ball game but by all accounts he is a decent and competent umpire who had a very bad night in a season in which a lot of umpires’ mistakes have been exposed by the camera. Umpires are human. Let there be an investigation into the problems to surface better ways of making calls (perhaps one of the other umps probably should have offered assistance, and McClelland should have sought it.) but we’ve already gone too far down the road of injecting technology into the game on the basis of “getting it right.”

Antipathy for the men in blue runs deep and has been with us since the early days of the game. Hall of Fame Pitcher Christy Mathewson, considered one of the game’s finest gentlemen and the embodiment of virtuous fictional hero Frank Merriwell, once said  “Many baseball fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile.”  (Christy spoke before the EPA and Prius but the sentiment remains.) It is embedded in our finest literature:

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

(From the poem “Casey at the Bat” By Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888)

We need a modern day Casey to quiet the technology-worshipping crowd that confuses baseball with a video game. When I was young, Thayer’s classic passage about killing the umpire didn’t strike me as anything noteworthy. I probably thought it was just hyperbole or they were using “kill the ump” in its affectionate sense. Today, I suspect anyone calling for the execution of the umpire would be escorted out of the ballpark. In some places it might even be a crime to utter such words. But many people, especially Angel’s fans at the moment, would like to perform a virtual execution and replace more of the umpires’ duties with a camera and a committee in the suites above the field. They are wrong. Baseball is a game played by and regulated by humans, to err is human, to scream at perceived injustice is human (or should be): leave the human element in the game.

Umpires perform a difficult job in front of thousands of people most of whom have extraordinary vision and an encyclopedic understanding of the rules. It is the fans’ right to offer guidance to the umpires so long as they observe the tradition of questioning – but never obscenely – only those calls concerning balls and strikes, whether base runners are safe or out, trapped fly balls, foul balls, and balks. I think we all agree that umpires do a pretty good job on everything else.  And when they do blow a call, it almost always makes the story better and more memorable. How many will remember the outcome of the game (Yankees won 10-1) years from now compared to those who will tell their children about the call. People are still talking about Merkle’s Boner and that happened 100 years ago and helped the Cubs (sic) win a World Series.

My dad told me that the umpires’ calls were a part of the game, that their calls evened out over time, and that resistance was futile. But today you may have a conversation with your children about whether umpires are really, as Christy thought, a necessary evil. Some umpires fear that instant replay, QuesTec, radar guns and other technology are threatening to de-humanize their job and turn the men in blue into Borgs. QuesTec, derived from U.S. military technology for tracking ballistic missiles and aerial mapping is already part of the Umpire Information System (UIS) used in the major leagues to monitor umpires’ ball and strike calls and to evaluate the performance of umpires. MLB seems enthusiastic about the system  and claims it is already improving the performance of umpires.  The 2008 decision to install instant replay for close and contested home runs  is seen by some as the first step in removing the human element from umpiring the game.

Robert Adair, the Yale physicist and baseball fan who wrote the seminal work on the physics of baseball, sees as inevitable the replacement of umpires with technology.  But if that happens, who would we yell at, who would a player turn to in disgust after taking strike three, and whose shoes would the managers kick dirt on?  Even Mathewson might prefer the “necessary evil” to be a human.

The cyber-umpire could communicate calls through the scoreboard, but my guess is that the secondary but essential roles require a cyborg or android presence on the field to convey decisions, endure tantrums, and perform the “yer outa here” spin-and-point toward the showers. But a great deal will be lost. It just won’t seem the same to shout, “Ump, your optical circuit is malfunctioning!”  There is also the very real possibility, especially if it is Windows-based, that fans will hack into the software and disable or re-program the androids to favor their team. What would Casey’s fans roar – “Unplug the ump, Unplug the ump”?

It will be enough to make real fans pine for Tim McClelland.

posted by Bob

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One comment on “Tagging the Ump

  1. buckeye9 says:

    I think that you did get to the point of the argument eventually, which is: is the purpose of officiating to determine, with the best available precision,
    what the correct call is? Or, as you argue, is it an imperfect part of an imperfect game? (And baseball has fairly wide variance when compared to other sports – non standard field/stadium dimensions, AL/NL
    differences, both of which have a material effect on the outcome of a given game) I might agree that preserving umpires has value in the same
    way that mandating wooden bats does (and even banning PEDs) – but I don’t think that human umpires are anything other than a character-enhancing holdover.

    Logically, umpires were created because the players could not realistically call the plays they were involved in, and maybe not be trusted to do so, either – but they were created to make calls as accurately as possible. The long training required to become a MLB ump is also a reflection of the league’s desire to produce highly accurate results. In other words, the sport has always sought the best technology to provide the best called games. If baseball had been
    invented yesterday, I doubt there’d even be a question of whether replay should be allowed or not – they might even implant RFID devices in baseballs to determine relative position with baselines and possibly
    strike zones. Further, I don’t think the rules have stipulations such as “The batter is considered out if he is tagged prior to touching the base, or if the umpire misjudges the tag and calls him out anyway.”
    It’s called a blown call because it’s wrong, not because there’s an element of interpretation; they’re not judging art, they’re declaring fact. In every aspect – from sports nutrition to training regimens,
    from analyzing film to sabermetrics – baseball ruthlessly seeks the truth, probably because there’s a lot of money to be made – and officiating isn’t any different.

    So I think your argument is stronger if you’d stated first that umps are like wooden bats and Green Monsters and Cracker Jacks and hand-written letters – less efficient, sort of charming nuances in life that prevent everything from becoming a cold exercise in efficiency without edifice. Since baseball is a pastime anyway, it’s probably a good argument to
    make.

    Posted on behalf of LTJG Wayland

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