Umpires Should Make The Final Call

ron hartnettContributor IOctober 21, 2009


With umpires taking a daily beating in the 2009 Major League Baseball postseason—blown calls, inconsistent strike zones, and so on—isn’t it about time we gave baseball’s official reps a break?

However, a quick check and it’s anything but. Not only do you get the usual chirping when the umpire botches one, but nowadays we’re reminded 24/7. You’ll see it again on Sportscenter, coming at you in high definition, replay, and slow mo. And there’s the usual chest-pounding and drum-beating.

In an Oct. 14 Wall Street Journal article “Does Baseball Need Umpires?” author Jonah Keri swings for the fences. Envisioning a baseball future with robots and rewinds, he would opt for more technological control, all but canceling out “the men in blue.”

Keri touts the latest tech tool, the $10 million Pitch-f/x zone evaluation system, now used in all 30 major league stadiums. Searching for strike zone perfection, digital cameras are set up to take 25 pictures of the ball in flight, following it all the way through to the pitching corridor. Using these tools, plate umpires working “The Show” can use the data as a tool and rate their own performance.

Of course, this butts heads against the umpire as ultimate authority: Techno tries to be king, and software tries to rule.

Now, because we’re not yet at the point where software can replace arbiter judgment, borderline pitches will continue to be questioned. While this is a problem with no ready solution, perhaps if we tweak the baseball paradigm a little, skippers won’t get tossed and fan angst will be diminished.

How? One way is to start watching the great game in a whole new way—through the mask. That way, in our seats, munching on our popcorn or hot dogs, we are tuned into the many ump decisions, often made in a split-second. In turn, we can marvel at their true-blue skill.

Because, as any knowledgeable parent or fan knows, calling balls and strikes, safe or out, is not your typical walk in the ballpark. Games at any level can become a Pandora’s Box, writing their own saga. Why?

The short answer is that, unbeknownst to many, the vast array of arbiter duties escape the untrained eye.

For instance, if we look at the National Federation of State High School Associations umpire manual, used by high school umpires, we see how umpires have 48 separate how-to’s before, during, and after “Batter up.” The base ump, meanwhile, weighs in with 12 distinct diamond duties.

This begs the question: How many games do you reckon author Keri has umpired?

While probably not that many, he nevertheless throws down the gauntlet, citing blown umpire calls in the 2009 playoff games, and asks early in the article, “Are they blind?” He also posits the question, “Why are there so many umpires in the first place?”

While the Pitch-f/x accuracy near 100 is closer than the umpire’s 95 percent and Keri makes some valid points, watching the game through the blue lens solves many problems. Not only will it be a lot faster and cost-effective, but, with everybody behind the plate, it’s also tons more fun. And, as Mike Port, vice president of umpiring for Major League Baseball points out, the Zone Evaluation system shows umpires (as well as fans and coaches) “just how good they are.”

And finally, those in the audience, who are watching the men in blue conduct the symphony orchestra in the Field of Dreams, can finally sit back and admire the performance of 18 ballplayers and Grade-A umpires working magic before them.

Keri, like the mighty Casey 100 years before, has struck out.