Recently there has been a rise in ugly incidents between players, managers, and umpires regarding close calls made by umpires. Disputes about umpires’ calls are as old as Major League Baseball itself; however, in this era of increasing prevalence of technology the idea of using robot umpires keeps rearing its ugly head.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has come out and clearly stated that MLB will not being using robot umpires or automated strike zones (as has been suggested by some of the disgruntled players such as Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs) anytime soon. Manfred claims he is a “traditionalist” who believes that the umpires make right calls “90% of the time.”
Interestingly, this comes from the man who wants to speed up games with a pitch clock and limiting coach or manager visits to the mound. He also has initiated research into baseball bats as the reason for this year’s surge in home runs, even though many players believe it is the baseballs that are the culprits.
Over the course of many years of watching MLB, I have to say that the interactions between players, managers, and umpires have seemed mostly civilized. Of course, when a bad call is made – or at least one that a player or manager perceives as a bad one – sometimes fireworks occur and they can range from entertaining to disturbing moments.
Managers such as “Sweet” Lou Piniella and Billy Martin could lose their cool very quickly. Their antics, while sometimes bordering on the hilarious, also sometimes reached a point where the umpires involved could feel threatened. Nevertheless, this human factor provides drama that fans enjoy in some respects more than the game itself.
As a lifelong fan of the New York Mets, I have seen calls go against my team more often than go its way (or so it seems to me). The introduction of the instant replay review has helped reverse some bad calls (excluding balls and strikes), but at the heart of the conflict is the strike zone and an electronic one is appealing to those players who feel umpires have individual strike zones that are far from equitable.
I personally like the idea of human umpires only because I have played baseball games with them and without them. Games without umpires – when the players and both sides either agree or disagree on a call – are like driving without traffic lights. These contests are accidents waiting to happen. Umpires provide a sense of balance that both teams need, and the good ones merit respect and likewise treat players and managers respectfully.
MLB’s umpires are human beings but many times are treated as if they are not there – until they make a call that rubs someone the wrong way. Then the players, the manager, and then the crowd will let them know how they all feel.
I recall watching baseball games with my grandfather and, when the umpire made what he felt was a bad call, he would scream all sorts of unprintable words. Pop was not the only person I know who enjoyed yelling (and cursing) at umpires – but I wonder how they will direct their anger if the umpire is a robot. You cannot argue with a machine – one that is supposed to be infallible.
All around us the human factor seems to be disappearing. I used to know tellers in my bank by name. Now most of them are gone and the lines are incredibly long, forcing me to use the ATM most of the time. In my drugstore, there is usually one cashier with another long line that forces me to use the automated checkout, and a similar situation forces me to do so in the supermarket as well. On the highway toll booths are being eradicated and the E-Z Pass is the only way to go.
Basically, human interaction is being subsumed by automated alternatives everywhere we go. Consider how driverless cars and buses are no doubt going to rule the roads sooner rather than later. The regular pleasure of getting behind the wheel to drive will be taken away from us, and a creepy feeling of powerlessness and fear comes with thinking our freedom to drive and go wherever we want may be taken away.
Progress is always a wonderful thing if it increases the quality of human life. Unfortunately, all of this automation has led to people losing jobs and limits our opportunities for interaction with other members of our species. The idea of robot umpires is just another example of moving forward without any regard for what is being left behind.
One day soon we may have an umpire version of the Terminator calling the plays. No one is going to argue with something like that, and that will be an incalculable loss. For the time being MLB games will continue to have those men in black on the field. Most of them do their best to make the game fair and one that fans can enjoy watching. Players, managers, and fans should try to enjoy the game the way it is played now – the one we know and love – before it is too late.