Technology and the umpire mindset

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 12: Manager Kirk Gibson of the Arizona Diamondbacks argues with home plate home plate umpire Bob Davidson after being ejected from the Major League Baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Chase Field on April 12, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Via Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, I saw this Q&A with Mike Port, the former VP of Umpiring for MLB. While the particular focus was on Bobby Valentine's recent complaints about umpiring, there was a particular response that was made regarding using technology to improve ball and strike calls that I think is revealing:

Has Major League Baseball looked into using technology for accurate balls and strikes calls? Could a computer chip be put into a baseball like in the sport of tennis?

"I think technology would allow that. The game can be really whatever we want it to be. If we want it to be technological to the extent that it’s different to what it’s played at Little League and the rest of the way up, I realize the gravity at the Major League Level, probably a lot of things are technologically possible. But is that what you want the game to be? From there perhaps we could go to the robot hitter and the robot pitcher such as a professor over in Japan has indeed invented and enhance the game by putting the ball in play frequently. A lot of things are possible. It can be anything you want it to be."

Port seems to think a robot hitter and a robot pitcher are the same thing as a robot umpire (metaphorically speaking). The problem with his analogy, though, is that the game is about hitting and pitching (and fielding). It isn't about umpiring.

Umpires are a necessary evil with baseball. They are only part of the game because some independent entity has to decide whether someone is safe or out, if a ball is fair or foul or a ball or a strike. The idea that they are here because it is part of the tradition of the game and the way the game is meant to be played would make sense if you believe that if the technology had been available back in the 1870s, it would not have been used, being eschewed instead so that there could be an additional "human element" to the decision-making process on top of the "human element" playing the game. Personally, I'm of the belief that the only reason John McGraw and the likes might NOT have wanted robot umps back then was because they wouldn't be able to bully and intimidate robot umps into making calls that favored them. If instant replay, computerized strike zones, and the like were available when baseball was invented, it would be used now, and umpires would be obsolete.

Port doesn't see it that way, though. Port seems to believe that umpires are as much a part of the game, as important a part of the game, as the players. And that's the mindset that drives me, and I think a lot of fans, players, coaches and managers, crazy...the mindset that umpires are a part of the game, that fans are there to see them, rather than understanding that their role is to be apart from the game.

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