How Do You Say "I Hate You" To An Umpiring Machine?

The "human element" has lost its meaning in the loud, ongoing argument over officiating flubs. It really shouldn't.
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After game two of the American League Championship Series, Joe Girardi addressed the press about Jeff Nelson’s blown call at second base, which extended an inning in which the Tigers went on to score twice. “I am not saying if the call was right last night that we win the game last night either,” he said, before abruptly and uncharacteristically taking a turn towards the expansive. “But in this day and age there is too much at stake, and the technology is available. That's what our country has done. We have evolved technology to make things better.”

Girardi then dodged a question about whether or not he was, in fact, Anonymous and politely told the reporters he had some New York Comic Con after-parties to attend. It was the most pointed thing Girardi had ever said, arguably, but in context and in general it made sense. More to the point, it highlighted a contrast that is increasingly impossible to ignore: if even an upright, cliche-powered android like Joe Girardi is getting feisty about instant replay in baseball, who could possibly be left to convince?

The answer, actually, is not so far away; one press room over, in the same stadium, as it turned out. Here is Jim Leyland’s predictably old school, epically gravel-voiced responds to the blown call: “I like the human element, to be honest with you. The umpires do a great job, and at the same time sometimes they go for you and sometimes they go against you. That's just the way it is. But that is the human element of the game."

Right, the human element. It’s the phrase of the moment for Atlanta Braves fans still grappling with more creative applications of the infield fly rule and Seattle Seahawks fans dealing with the guilt that comes with having an undeserved win in the standings. It’s not a meaningless phrase or a meaningless idea, but there is some passive absolution in it: Humans! They make mistakes! It’s their very essence! Their distinctive element! There is even a ubiquitous insurance commercial to this effect that runs during the games, as if to remind us of all this.

This is correct enough, if you’re going to go by such metrics as “the entirety of human history to this point” and “things one can observe during the average daily commute to work.” But can’t we be human, fully ourselves and fully mortal, and also figure out a way to screw things up a little bit less often, and less egregiously?

***

Girardi has a point. Technology is designed to erase or, at very least, hide the mistakes that we goofy, lousy, stubbornly human humans make daily. And it’s not like we’re waiting on SkyNet to manufacture the tools he’s (rather passive-aggressively) asking for. The replays that would have saved his team two runs in Sunday’s eighth inning are instantly available to anyone watching the game. This is true even with balls and strikes, a facet of the game where everyone seems a lot more comfortable with that old human non-standardization. Witness the way that TBS’s instant strike zone graphic has made everyone an insufferable backseat umpire. Any, all of this is possible.

Which is a different thing than saying that it’s necessary, or advisable, or even good. This is a question that is already receiving its passive answer: slowly, refs and umps are being supplanted (and occasionally bailed-out) by the all-seeing camera eye. They are given the power to “get it right” as the announcers proudly proclaim. And because getting it right is such a good thing, there will be a widening of the occasions and opportunities in which they can get it right. And as soon as there is a way to make getting-things-right happen very quickly, refs and umps will start to disappear. Not from nature, as beefy, argumentative men will always be with us, and those ump-ish men shouldn’t have too hard a time finding work. But it seems reasonable to assume that this is the beginning of a long fade for the officials. They will be replaced, it seems reasonable enough to assume, by robotic killing machines.

Or... well, there’s no guarantee that the new machines will kill, exactly, especially if they are properly maintained. But they’re probably coming, and we should obviously hope that they do not achieve sentience beyond the ability to interpret the infield fly rule and offensive pass interference. But while it might be wise to get comfortable with the idea of our new umpiring robot overlords, it’s tough to celebrate it, exactly.

What we’d lose in this scenario is not the human element itself, exactly. That seems safe, given that humans will still be the ones playing and coaching these games, and will find ways to introduce human foul-ups to the mix here, as we do everywhere else. But we would lose the authoritative element, and that’s something. We’d lose an element that makes sports so annoyingly relatable and recognizably human. It’s not quite as simple as fewer humans on the field leading to less humanity on the field. But it’s not necessarily all that much more complicated than that, either.

The umps are the third force on the playing field even if they don’t get a mention on your ticket stub. At best they’re the chorus in the Greek tragedy commenting with a collective voice on the unfolding drama. At worst they’re the parent/teacher/cop/boss or authority figure of your choice put on earth just to mess with you, dude.

This can be annoying, and often is, but it opens up a whole new range of sub-experiences that are part of the bigger sports-watching/sports-doing experience. Who can deny the cathartic euphoria of watching a manager lose his mind and pressure-wash an ump with a spit soaked tirade of insults? That umpire, who so deserves all this, has just ruined your day, but more importantly, stands as a totem for every prickly, arbitrary, power-addled idiot who has ever really ruined your day.

So much about sports is about projecting ourselves onto our stars. We peg our moods to their performances and find solace in the ups and downs of their careers that can at times mirror our own; we borrow some of their greatness and share in disappointment, all within a safe, vicarious range. Would it really be any fun if they got to live in an unrecognizable world of perfect, robot-delivered justice and we were stuck in this one? His desires in the moment were natural enough, but Joe Girardi might want to put Robocop in his Netflix queue, and be careful what he wishes for.


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If mistakes really do add to the enjoyment of the game, then automated strike zones could be programmed to blow a fixed percentage of calls.