Can baseball get a witness?: Umpires, computers, and the space between

“this is why ive been saying for years.. let k zone and all the computer things we see on espn and fox etc. call balls and strikes… this way it would always be acurate”  – comment from a forum user on OperationSports.com

“It ain’t anything ’til I call it.”  – Hall of Fame upmire Bill Klem

Rule 2.00

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a  horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniformpants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall  be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

The Umpire

The Umpire

There are two competing truths in any baseball game: the facts and the reality. The facts are what actually happen, while the reality is that mediated version of the game as delivered by the umpire. For example, the fact is that the runner’s foot contacted the base before the fielder tagged him with the ball-in-glove. The reality might be that the umpire couldn’t discern the fact, and so called the runner out. Like a couple of seagulls fighting over a piece of bread, the facts and the reality weave between and around each other constantly. Neither ever gains the ultimate advantage. An umpire is like a Jedi Master, bending the facts with a punched fist or two arms held out parallel to the ground.

For a lengthy discussion of umpires and the calls that they “make,” I suggest “Taking Umpiring Seriously: How Philosophy Can Help Umpires Make the Right Calls” by J.S. Russell (from the book Baseball and Philosophy). Russell discusses the “performative utterance,” a term coined by J.L. Austin, in which simply saying something creates an incident, or some kind of real thing (his example cites for one the “I do” statement of the wedding ceremony, in which saying it makes the marriage a real thing). The paradox of course is that an umpire’s judgement doesn’t actually change the facts of the play. What he says certainly goes, but the seagulls fighting it out still don’t get the bread, but continue their endless bobbing and weaving. If an umpire’s call is Truth, “it means that they can never make bad calls.” You can’t argue with the Truth, but managers and players argue umpire’s calls a whole lot.

In this way, every baseball fan confronts this metaphysical challenge at the ballpark. The umpire and his calls are highly emotionally charged, causing anger, confusion, disillusionment, sorrow, etc. etc. In other words, this paradoxical madness is an integral part of baseball. Instant replay is not only boring, it is often uncomplicated. When it is complicated, it’s only because the camera doesn’t spit out video with the appropriate resolution, or it wasn’t placed well enough for a definitive look at the play. You can’t argue with video playback, and if you do you’ll get nought but an empty digital hum back in reply.

Earl Weaver letting the witness know his own opinion

Earl Weaver letting the "witness" know his own opinion

But an umpire provides constant grist for the psychic mill. “Why did he do that?” asks the fan of a blatantly incorrect call. He might as well ask “Why do people do the things that they do?”

Russell goes on to describe the umpire as a “witness” to the events of the game. In that way, the umpire is creating the reality of the game by theoretically witnessing and describing the facts. Problems arise when the umpire is a fallible human being and makes a call on a play he hasn’t seen or wasn’t in position for. No witness is entirely credible because it is really hard to get things right, even when there are no ulterior motives. Green cars turn blue, blond people become redheads and so on, foiling the search for Truth.

The integrity or maybe even the very nature of the umpire-cum-witness has been under fire for the modern baseball fan with the rise of K-Zone and other computer-generated strike zone technology (also FoxTrax on Fox and Pitchtrax on TBS). K-Zone, which you’ve now seen in use many thousands of times over, started in 2001, as a presentation tool for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. It’s a little box that marks the strike zone and displays where the ball crossed the strike zone. It’s basically a computer umpire. Computers are never or very rarely wrong, so K-Zone sets up this dichotomy between itself and umpires, with the viewer pinned in between them. If computers are never wrong, and umpires are simple mortals, then the viewer will finally just sit staring at the computer’s box comparing it against the human umpire. It can be maddening.

But as chronicled in the earlier parts of this meditation, umpires are by definition right every single time. They make right. The computer can determine within 2/5 of an inch where the ball traveled, and whether it crossed the plate, but it can’t predict which pitch is actually a strike or a ball. In other words, K-Zone can deliver the facts, but not the reality.

When computer-and-video strike zone technology first appeared in 2001, I was flummoxed. It seemed impossible to pull off, and improbably accurate. In short, it felt wrong. Never before had there been such a convenient way to critique the umpire’s work. Conjecture was wrecked, stripped of emotion. I felt bad for the umpires, whose jobs were suddenly pressed up against obsolescence, like an auto factory worker crammed against the new mechanical arm working ten times as fast and a million times better. The rightness of the umpire was a given for me from my youngest days in Little League. Jumbotron screens at major league games didn’t replay close calls. The umpires job was carefully protected, cordoned off from the fickle tastes of the crowd and even the players. Very suddenly that model was evaporating.

Now of course the technology is omnipresent. There is no more bashfulness on the part of broadcasters and TV producers when it comes to close calls vis a vis the strike zone. In fact they seem to depend on K-Zone et. al to conjure up conversation during the game. What was once shocking has become commonplace, but do we take much time to think about how this affects the way that we watch baseball?

Early K-Zone

Early K-Zone

Just as I once thought of umpires as Always Right, I believe that computers are tough to mess with. Computers are just right. So now with every pitch there is this competition between traditionally authoritative entities. These two parents argue every 35 seconds, and it is stressful. If you tend to glance at the radar readings at the ballpark after every pitch, you’ve already had a taste of that sense that you are missing the game in favor of the description. K-Zone is the radar gun times a million, because it is not only a description of the game but an INTERPRETATION of the game. It changes the game by providing an alternate reality, the reality of the facts rather than the reality of the umpire’s call. Again, stressful.

Humans have this problem: they always want to be right. That, or they want to know who is right and listen to that person talk. What umpires–for all of their faults–teach baseball fans is that you a) can’t always be right, b) don’t have to be right and c) sometimes have to suck it up and be an adult about it, that life isn’t fair. To me that is the hallmark of maturity. K-Zone is immature, like the nerd who lived on your freshman-year hall who corrected every other sentence you spoke. You couldn’t ignore the nerd, you knew he was probably right, but you still wanted him to shut the fuck up and maybe pop a breath mint. No matter what the content of his conversation, the nerd harshed your mellow. K-Zone harshes my mellow, and baseball is mostly mellow.

The umpire is a witness to the game, just as K-Zone is a witness to the game. But the umpire is your chill uncle, and K-Zone is Darth Vader. Ultimately, baseball is an interpretive game. The fans get what they want out of it, whether it’s the playoff rush or the summertime chill factory. Umpires intepret the various aspects of the game like the strike zone in the manner that suits them, and as mature fans we should be happy about that. K-Zone offers no wiggle room, no interpretive space to let the mind breathe. Instead, it suffocates the viewer’s sense of poetry like Google translator working over a few paragraphs of Borges from the original Spanish.

RELATED LINKS:

The LA Times takes a recent look at computer-aided strike zones on TV.
Jayson Stark with a quick debate about instant replay.
Some guy makes the argument for constant K-Zone.
The NY Daily News critiques K-Zone and its early usage after its first appearance.
Sportvision, the company behind all of this strike zone 2.0, as well as those awful “virtual ads” behind home plate.
This is how they do Pitchtrax in Brooklyn.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

4 responses to “Can baseball get a witness?: Umpires, computers, and the space between

  1. It’s funny, the same thing happens in football – particularly when they drag out the chains to measure for a first down. That always kills me – its so obviously inaccurate (the spot of the ball, the placement of the first pole, the angle that they stretch the chain down the turf…)

    I often think they should do that measurement with something more accurate (lasers, anyone?), but that moment where the ref pulls on the chain and you see where it will fall is always a thrill.

  2. alamosweet

    That’s a great example of similar psychological forces in a different sport. If they used lasers and such, we would lose that great moment of tension and release when the chain comes taught. With a computerized system it would be like watching Windows boot up.

    And who doesn’t like it when the ref charmingly illustrates the distance remaining with hands raised but apart in a mocking sort of non-prayer.

  3. Pingback: Basic Baseball Rules Listed - The Strike Zone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s