By Jim Tortolano/Orange County Tribune
Some time shortly after fire was discovered (or invented) I tried my hand at umpiring some girls’ softball games.
I didn’t really have a talent for it, but neither – back then – did they, so it all worked out. The main thing that I learned was that it was one of the toughest jobs ever, requiring split-second judgment, marksman-standard eyesight and a leather-tough ego.
Lots of my peers liked to hoot at the umpire (or referee, or linesman) for faults real and imagined, but I had been in the cauldron and came out slightly scorched and full of sympathy for the folks behind the plate.
But soon, there may not be a person behind the plate, metaphorically or otherwise. The ABS (automatic ball-strike system) will be used in all AAA baseball games this year and woe is us!
Using precise laser and computer technology, this “robo-ump” will call balls and strikes with an inhuman consistency. Some techie sets the strike zone – officially an area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants and a point just below the kneecap – and the machine does the rest.
Theoretically, this would eliminate a few ways that players and coaches can game the system. One is called “framing,” in which the catcher positions his glove so that when the ball is caught, it appears that the pitch is in the strike zone, even if it’s not, according to an article in the recent issue of Sports Illustrated.
The other tried and true method, of course, is arguing. The umpire won’t change his call, but maybe – if you’re angry and loud enough – you might intimidate the umpire into giving you the benefit of the doubt the next time. “Make-up calls,” in which an umpire admits (to himself) that he missed a call and then calls a ball a strike (or the reverse) to make up for the error are not unheard-of.
If the experiment – think Dr. Frankenstein and Igor – is deemed successful – it may be in place on opening day of 2024 in Major League Baseball. Who knows, then, what follows? Endless replays? Team owners complaining about massive “robo-ump” fraud? Android managers who pick lineups and rosters from spread-sheets? (Frankly, we’re pretty close to that now.)
To the degree that we eliminate the human factor in baseball is the distance we are moving toward turning the sport into a cross between a pageant and a video game.
To paraphrase a chant heard in baseball stadiums for over a hundred years, “Kill the (robo) ump!”
Jim’s strike zone is between the calzone in his left hand and the tomato sauce stain on his jeans.