How many times have we run across this when referencing teachers “if a teacher could be replaced by a computer, it probably should”. Teachers immediately respond to that sentiment with all kinds of reactions.
I had the same feeling after reading this lengthy article this morning.
Baseball has always been a part of my life. I played it at school and certainly played it in leagues throughout the summer. In case you’re keeping score, I played third base, threw right handed, and batted left handed. I also helped coach my mother’s girls softball team. This math nerd even calculated softball stats for them long before I had a calculator or a computer. Scorebooks are a rich source of authentic data.
I did this until I turned 14.
It was then that I got my first summer job as a lifeguard. Unfortunately, that required a commitment to work in the evenings and on the weekends. That pretty much put an end to playing baseball but there was another way to stay involved and that was umpiring.
So, I took the courses and became certified as a softball umpire with the WOAA and as a baseball umpire with the OBA. This allowed me to stay connected to the game and pick and choose the dates and times when I was available to do games. There were even times where I’d do a personal double-header – lifeguard until 8:00pm, change and then walk over to the baseball diamond and do an 8:30 game.
It was fun and a way to make a few dollars extra. It was also very hot and draining on you personally. Unlike the players that could sit on the bench for half a game and sip on that ice cold water in the cooler, the umpire was always involved. Until playoffs came along, our league required a certified umpire behind the plate calling the balls and strikes and a volunteer doing the bases. That all changed when playoff came and all of us were certified. Unlike the regular season with two umpires, we had the luxury of three for those games.
It wasn’t a big paying job; the home team would “pass the hat” during the game and I might get paid up to $5 in quarters, nickels, and dimes. That was at home; often when umpiring out of town, the organization was different and you got paper money!
It allowed me to buy a mask and a chest protector. It was none of the fancy stuff they had today; the mask had plastic padding (try that on a hot and sunny afternoon) and the chest protector was one of the big external things that the American League used to use. It was handy to stop foul balls and was a nice place to keep my brush for cleaning the plate.
Once I became an umpire, my baseball heroes became umpires! Locally, it was Howey, Mr. Jordan, Mr. Reaburn, and on television there was Harry Wendlestedt and Ron Luciano
But above all, we were human. I remember so much advice we got from our umpire-in-chief…
- make sure that your calls are loud and visible and that everyone hears them
- you call strikes and outs and not balls and safes
- create your strike zone and use it all game. In the beginning, that always seemed weird since the rules gave a pretty clear definition of the strike zone – why would it be different between umpires? Boy, was I wrong on that.
- “get on your horse”, stop, and be in place to make the call – don’t make the call from across the field or while you’re running
- don’t argue with players or coaches; you’re umpiring, not them
- if you’re doing the bases, stand in foul territory if there are no runners so that if you get hit by a batted ball, it’s going to be foul
- be lonely between innings; fraternize with the other umpire and not coaches, players, or the crowd
- let the kids play; the game is about them and not you
- after the game, nobody should remember who the umpires were
It all seemed so easy. This was also in the time of Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver on television and so coaches often felt they needed to argue the odd call. It was comforting to know that, no matter what, you were ultimately right. According to the article, professional umpires are at 97%. That’s not bad. As I write this, the batting leader is hitting .335. How’s that for a comparison?
Advances in technology and television have changed the way we look at televised baseball now. With slow motion and the ability to draw a strike box on the screen and watch where the pitches go, today’s professional umpires are under constant second-guessing. Paid announcers go over and over controversial calls.
Do we want to computerize these things? I look at football and hockey which have adopted the concept of appeals for close situations. Whereas an official makes an instant determination from one perspective live and the game moves on, replays take time as others look at it many times and from many different cameras angles and at various speeds. In the meantime, any momentum in the game is broken and we sit there waiting.
As noted in the article, we probably do have enough technology to let a machine umpire a baseball game. The question ultimately will become one of “should we”? It has left questions for me like “Is it possible to game the computer with a strike zone?” “What is the perfect angle for judging a call?” Is two out of three determinations enough?” “What about the human determination – did the pitcher intentionally throw at the batter with the goal of hitting him?” “Did the batter deliberately step into the pitch to get hit?”
I go back to one of the pieces of advice that was given to me “Let the kids play”. Can we extend it to “Let the umpires ump?”
There will be mistakes made. But when the very best batter is only successful 33% of the time, let’s remember “that’s why they play the game”.