Kill the Umpire! (And replace him with a robot.)
03 Jun 2010 by sirsean
Last night, my Twitter feed alerted me to the fact that Armando Galarraga of the Tigers was eight innings into a perfect game -- I wasn't going to miss a chance to see that! So I fired up the MLB.tv app on the PS3, to watch the end of the game. Because the PS3 app suffers an annoyingly large delay between reality and broadcasting reality, I got in just after the second out of the ninth inning. At least I was in time to see the last out.
And I did see it. I thought.
Of course, it was a close play. They're all close plays. That's why umpires get paid the big bucks; because it's tough to make those calls. Maybe I'm mistaken, though. It could be because they're supposed to be good at getting those tough calls correct, in which case they've been doing an increasingly bad job lately. And this downswing in the quality of umpires is only made worse by the fact that they didn't exactly start the decline from a point of doing a good job. No, they've been doing a bad job, and now it's gotten worse.
I was flabbergasted. Of course I'd never seen a perfect game blown -- by an umpire -- on the 27th out before. I'm fairly certain nobody has ever seen that. And nobody ever should. The peak of Armando Galarraga's career happened last night, and a human mistake by an ever-so-human umpire robbed him of having his name in the record books, right next to Roy Awesome Halladay, for the rest of eternity. Jim Joyce had foisted his second foul-smelling masterpiece/turd on the world; the first, of course, being Finnegan's Wake. (What? Different Joyce? I don't believe you.)
For years now, I've been a big proponent of instant replay. My thoughts are probably among the most aggressive on the spectrum; I say there should be a fifth umpire, up in the booth, of all the games. Maybe he has a team of guys, I don't care. But he should be watching every single call. If he sees the umpires get something wrong, he hits a button that lets him talk to the umpires on the field, tell them they were incorrect, and relay the proper call to them so it's instantly fixed on the field.
It wouldn't take long -- the only reason instant replay for home runs takes a long time is because we let the four umpires stand in the middle of the field for a few minutes, asking each other if there's any way they can convince themselves that "oh yeah, I'm 100% sure I made the right call, man," and then when they realize they can't, they all slowly pretend to jog off the field and go into some secret room in the bowels of the stadium where we have to assume they're actually watching a replay, for an indefinite length of time.
Here's my question: If the reason for wanting to avoid instant replay was because it'd take too much time, why would they design a system for instant replay that is literally guaranteed to take the longest possible amount of time?
The guys working for the TV station can slow down the video and pause an HD picture exactly at the moment required for making the decision, and they can do it in a matter of seconds. In every situation instant replay has been used, the fans have seen the play on television and know the correct call long before the umpires have even decided to slink underneath the bleachers. In every situation instant replay should be used on other close calls, all the fans have seen the play on television before the next play starts, and know the correct call. As far as I can tell, the only reason this takes so long is because the umpires desperately want to remain in the center of the game, an integral part of the sport. I wonder if they realize that it only makes people hate them all the more.
Several hours later,* the Twins and Mariners were finishing up a surprisingly long game given the low score and paucity of baserunners. Kevin Slowey and Cliff Lee had both pitched brilliantly; Slowey's only run came on a single-steal-steal-sacrifice-fly, and Lee's had come on a solo home run, his first of the season. Good game.
* West coast games should not be allowed to go to extra innings. Am I right, folks?
I went to bed in the 9th inning, because it was well past my typical bed time and I needed to get up in the morning because for some reason I'm paid to do something other than watching baseball. I figured that the Twins had no chance in this one, given that the last image I saw before turning off the TV was Crain and Mijares warming up side by side. I mean, they can't both pitch well in the same game.
Naturally, the Twins lost. Crain got through an inning, but Guerrier failed to get all the way through two of them and Mijares came in to give up a hit to the only batter he faced. Awesome. Seeing the box score the moment I woke up, I thought nothing more about it.
Then I found out how the game ended. See that? Where the runner is clearly out? Well, that would have been the third out of the 10th inning; instead, the umpire called him safe, a run scored on the play, and the game was over.
If nothing else, this is yet another heartwarming tale of solidarity among umpires. When one umpire makes an egregiously bad call and is sure to be crucified for it, another one is always eager to jump to the front of the line and boldly declare: "No, he's not the only one. Check out this call!" At least that's what I'd like to think, because the alternative is that just about every umpire in the majors is just horseshit at their jobs and are constantly getting calls wrong, in ever more crucial situations.
A lot of people today are demanding that Selig overturn Joyce's call and hand a perfect game to Galarraga. Somehow. Of course, that's ludicrous. Once the game is in the books, it's in the books. You can't open the door to rewriting history by undoing the mistakes of umpires past. What's the statute of limitations on that? Are we going to replay the final innings of that playoff game against the Yankees last year, when Phil Cuzzi called Mauer's double a foul ball because it was only two feet fair? Are we going to replay the 1996 World Series with the Orioles instead of the Yankees, because of that botched home run call? No, of course not.
The problem is that these mistakes keep happening, and despite the existence of a way to prevent them, a huge contingent of baseball itself and its fans would rather stick to the old tradition of "well, hopefully everyone gets fucked over roughly the same amount, so it balances out." Seems fair, right? We surely wouldn't want to sully this great game of baseball by allowing some inscrutable system make calls that we're not allowed to question for any reason whatsoever. That'd be crazy!
Wait, was I describing a future world of mysterious robot umpires, or was that the current system?
The way I like to think about it is like this: If Abner Doubleday, when he invented baseball, had had the option of using super robot umpires who magically got every call right and there was never any question of human errors or holding grudges or aging eyesight, would he have chosen to go with that or is there something mystical about having an angry old man on the field who can arbitrarily decide what's an out and what isn't?
No, I'm pretty sure he'd have gone with the magical robots. And guess what? Every stadium in baseball is currently equipped with those magical robots, and basically their only purpose is to instantly demonstrate how bad the umpires are. Well, and to show the good calls too. You'll notice that TV commentators often say things like "imagine trying to make that call without slow motion!" Yeah, we get it. Being an umpire is really, really hard. The personal attacks against umpires are wrong, and we shouldn't do that.
But ... MLB needs to ask itself a question. What is more important to the game? Getting these calls right, or protecting the fragile egos of the men on the field? Not the players, of course, those guys can shut their mouths and pay their fines and like it. The fragile egos of the umpires are the ones that need to be protected, right? They're the guys people pay money to see.
If the egos are what's important, then they don't need to make any changes. (Except maybe prepare for a precipitous drop in revenue as the fans they've finally managed to win back realize there's no reason to trust a game whose rules can arbitrarily change on the whims of people whose job title includes "complete lack of accountability.") On the other hand, if baseball is what's important, it's time to upgrade.
Frankly, I expect Selig to make some sort of empty statement in which he says he's disappointed or something, then he'll return to his dank hole where he'll twiddle his thumbs and wait for something else to happen that will drive these unpleasant events from the top of the news and he can assume that we've all forgotten about it. The problem is that nobody is going to forget.
I say it's time to bring on the magical robot umpires.
What do you think?
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