About this time last year, while normal people were preoccupied with the carryings-on of football practitioners, some people who devote their energies to baseball were making a proposal that would change the American way of life: Robot umpires.
The Major League Baseball Umpires Association, as part of a five-year labor contract, has considered automatic computer-driven equipment to detect balls and strikes. I haven’t heard anything about it lately, and maybe I shouldn’t mention such a drastic upheaval in the American way of life.
The non-human system was tested two seasons ago in the minor Atlantic League. The annual awards of SportTechie magazine nominated the league's use of the Automated Ball-Strike System for “Outstanding Innovation.”
The Atlantic League has eight teams, in such cities as Lancaster and York, Pa. The current league champion is the Long Island Ducks. The previous champion was a Texas team called the Sugar Land Skeeters, for heaven’s sake.
Maybe automated umpiring would be good for the Skeeters, but I would like to express my doubts, as a fan of our Phillies team, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1883.
My grandfather was 21 years old then. He was an early fan. (They were called the Quakers at first; he was one of the fans who advocated Phillies as a better name.)
Some 50 years later, when he listened to radio broadcasts of games, he complained bitterly that he didn’t approve of modern baseball.
When he was a boy, he said, batters, who were called strikers then, could call for whether they wanted the pitch high or low.
After a third strike, the striker ran to first base and the catcher had to throw to the first baseman to put him out. A striker took first base after seven balls, not four. The short stop could play on either side of second base.
I can’t imagine what Grandpop would think of baseball today. Or of television. And a machine that would call balls and strikes?
At the Atlantic League all-star game that tested the scheme, something called a Track-Man computer system used Doppler radar to watch the ball come over home plate and vicinity, and sent its ruling to a cell phone in the umpire’s pocket. He just repeated the call he got in an ear phone. It’s scary.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, in a recent interview, said that the new system would reduce controversy. “We think it’s more accurate than a human being standing there,” he said.
The design of the strike zone is three-dimensional which, according to Manfred, a camera is better at analyzing than the human eye.
Okay. So if these baseball bigshots want to bring modern technology to baseball, why not go all the way and have robot players? They might be cheaper than living ball players, these days. Robot umpires would keep an electronic eye on them.
Scientists could build robot spectators, too, and humans could stay home where it’s comfortable and watch on television, while the robot announcer describes the game.
And there will be robot umpires and referees and whatnot in other sports. And we could build robot marathon runners, so people wouldn’t have to do it.
And why stop there? Robot judges in courtrooms would be programmed to make fair decisions. So could robot jurors.
No, I prefer that decisions requiring random skill and judgement be done by human beings, even if they make mistakes sometime.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.