The Future of MLB: Umpires or Machines?

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The Future of MLB: Umpires or Machines?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

If you have been watching the Major League Baseball playoffs this season, you know the umpiring has been far from perfect.

Whether it was Joe Mauer’s line drive a foot inside the line being called foul or Robinson Cano being called safe when tagged well off the base, there is no doubt that umpires have gotten some crucial and obvious plays wrong.

Umpires blowing calls isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Ask any St. Louis Cardinals fan who was alive in 1985 about the World Series that took place that year, and you will undoubtedly hear about Don Denkinger.

Denkinger missed a call at first base, calling Royals leadoff hitter Jose Orta safe when he was clearly beaten by the ball and Cardinals closer Todd Worrell to the bag.

As long as Major League Baseball employs humans to call balls and strikes, fair or foul, and everything in between, there will be errors. The Commissioner can put 17 umpires on the field who have been trained since birth to umpire a professional baseball game, and as sure as even the great Albert Pujols will strike out on occasion, they will make mistakes. 

Think about it. Pujols, the greatest player in the game today, will slump from time to time. Just this past September and October the man who led all of baseball in home runs went homerless in his last 24 games, including the first round of the playoffs, when his .250 average produced enough offense to allow for a sweep at the hand of Dodgers. 

To be clear, I am not equating hitting or playing baseball with umpiring. Umpires have a very important and often difficult job, but that does not compare with trying to handle a slider when you are sure a 95 MPH fastball is on the way.

The point is that no matter how great someone is at their job and how hard they continuously work at it, they will make mistakes.

While the players on our favorite teams do not always perform perfectly, it is part of the reason we love the sport. Failure only makes success sweeter, and obviously for a player to succeed another player must fail.

Umpiring is completely different. We don’t root harder the play after he gets a call wrong the way we try to support the left fielder who struck out his last time. 

Even die-hard fans who may know the name and experience level of every umpire do not have a connection with them like they do with the players they have scouted since high school. Most part-time baseball watchers only notice them when something goes horribly wrong. 

Which begs the question: If we know umpires will make blunders, quite possibly in decisive moments, and we do not feel a strong personal connection to them, should they be replaced with something that will get it right every time?

Baseball has started to experiment with instant replay, as evidenced by the overturning of Alex Rodriguez’s drive off the camera in right (a discussion for another day) from a double to the apparent correct call of a home run. Instant replay essentially takes the decision on the field and puts it in the hands of a machine.

Sure, in 2009 humans still have to look at the super slow motion, super high definition replay and judge what they see, but would anyone doubt that in a few years' time (if it's not already possible) a machine could see the play and make a judgment instantaneously?

Now, I can see many of you saying, “Sure, I’ll take more instant replay to get the calls at first and down the lines correct, but balls and strikes are just too subjective.”

My answer: Watch any professional tennis match these days, and you will most likely see a player ask for instant replay when he/she has issues with a call. The system in tennis automatically judges whether a ball has hit the line, or in many cases nipped with the edge of tennis ball fuzz, and calls the ball in or out accordingly.

If the system that professional tennis pays for can see a ball going upwards of 150 MPH hit the corner of the line, there is no reason that MLB can’t find something to determine whether a ball goes over the plate between the knees and the letters.

Many say that umpires and their occasional misguided calls are just part of the game, but do we need them? In 1956, sure, umpires were essential. However, in 2009, when cameras can clearly pick up a bead of sweat from its inception to demise, why not use the technology to make sure the correct calls are made every time?

The only lucky breaks a team should receive are the opposing team’s center fielder getting a late break on a ball in the gap, not a man determining whether a ball whipped by him at Autobahn speed is fair or foul.   

If you love great sports writing, check out www.superiorcolumns.com for the best sports writing in the nation on one easy to use site.

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