Strikes Mounting on Umpires

Yelling at officials occurs at all levels of sports, from little league to the World Series. Whether your father loses his temper on the bench outside the field or ESPN analysts disagree with the positioning of the umpire, there has never been a serene era of officiating in baseball—or any other popular sport. However, this year’s baseball postseason and World Series was unique in the level of dismay at the umpires’ calls, with numerous alleged blown calls and speculation at how entire series could have been altered were it not for faulty judgments. One of the biggest factors fueling these debates is the increased amount of video technology and instant replay.

While instant replay has been in existence since around the beginning of televised sports, the recent change in its usage that has led to its place in a new professional sporting movement has been the abundance of cameras used to cover a single game. Instead of a mere six cameras at a football game, or one in front of and behind home plate, there are now hundreds of cameras around stadiums and arenas, allowing TV providers to show many different angles an important or spectacular play.

This movement shifted when the leagues themselves began to use these scores of cameras to review close or critical calls made by officials, most notably by the National Football League. After several highly publicized examples of officials making incorrect calls, the league instituted an instant replay official in 1986 to monitor each play. In the current format, head coaches have the ability to challenge the ruling of two different plays during a game that they feel video replay would give evidence to support a change of result. Whichever way the call eventually goes, most teams—and more importantly, fans—are pleased with the results. Professional basketball has followed suit with instant replay review used for determining shots at the ends of quarters. This has been welcomed without much controversy as well.

Baseball is different. While in most sports the actions made are straightforward to call, such as players keeping their feet inbounds or shots going in before the buzzer sounds, every single play in baseball requires an umpire’s personal call: Ball or strike, safe or out. While baseball has a rulebook and a defined strike zone, it is easily the most subjective thing in sports. Any player can tell you that no two strike zones of an umpire are the same. Thus, this problem was one that so far could not be broached by technology; the instant replay of a pitch makes no difference to the umpire calling that pitch. This also changed with TV coverage of baseball games with “strike zones” where simulated grids of the batter’s strike zone were placed next to the image of the batter on the screen in order to diagnose whether or not called strikes and balls were accurate to the computer model. Considering these models’ validity or lack thereof, there now seems to be a way to have computers call the one thing that has always been governed by humans.

Does it matter if Major League Baseball adopts a computer system to call its balls and strikes? While this could bring us closer to a fairer, purer game, it may—more importantly—prove to elucidate our society’s opinion on the fallibility of humans and the perfection of machines. Similarly, more important situations are occurring in terms of robotic surgery and computer operated cars, where the responsibility given to the human hand is fading. Although these innovations may offer better results for these previously human controlled tasks, the importance of the person in these situations must not be overlooked. For every surgery that takes place, it is the bedside manner that the computer cannot offer, the insight of the driver to slow in a school zone, and the umpire to manage the players of the game.

Umpires and referees have never been the most endearing figures in sports, but we must respect them for making definitive judgments based on the information they have gathered, and for striving to maintain the integrity of the sport. That quality is superior to standardizing the calls of a game. Cameras and computers may very well improve the consistency of balls and strikes—or any other sporting act—but we cannot underestimate the importance of the human element that represents the work ethic and face of the games themselves.

The trend of increasing instant replay consultation for unclear calls will continue in professional sports of, but more trouble may come from the case-by-case nature of its implementation rather than the umpire’s original decisions. The high tech camera may be able to say exactly what part of the strike zone the curveball hits, but it will never be able to regulate the complexities of organized competition and professional athletes. Referees may keep instant replay up their sleeves, but it’s their efforts that will keep the games going.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.

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