Baseball.

Just the typing of the word sends a sense of renewal, spring, warm weather, the smell of leather gloves, the sounds of the bats making contact with the ball and then the sound of the ball landing into the glove of one of the nine fielders.

Or not.

The beauty and the repulsiveness of the game is the human factor.

The sounds of the bats making contact with a ball can also be the sound of a ground ball out, an infield fly or a foul ball. What’s worse, it can be silent as when a pitcher overwhelms the batter with a pitch that is almost impossible to hit, followed instantaneously by the sound of the ball slapping the glove.

Then there are the pitchers who cannot throw a strike if their lives counted on it. The hitters who cannot even hit a watermelon coming at them. It’s the human element of the game.

The 2017 World Series and regular season most valuable player is a man named, Jose Altuve, he is five feet six inches tall. You see, in baseball, one doesn’t need to possess a superhuman physique. You do not need to be the tallest, most muscular or the fastest runner in order to excel.

Baseball is a human sport, where human’s play the game. It is not an easy sport to excel at; if anything, it’s arguably one of the most difficult ones to excel at because it does not rely on how hard you can tackle someone or how high you can jump to slam dunk a basketball.

The pitcher has the ball in his hand, he is standing 60 feet and 6 inches from where the batter stands, at what is called, “home plate.” The pitcher will throw the ball in many variations in order to stop the hitter from hitting the ball or from hitting the ball hard enough to elude the fielders. The pitcher throws to the catcher, who is in a crouch position behind the batter. The catcher will tell the pitcher which pitch to throw. It’s imperative that the catcher is aware which pitch is coming his way. If the catcher is under the impression a curve or a changeup is coming and a fastball is thrown…it can cause errors and injury, to name two consequences of many. The batter is attempting to hit the ball so he can get on base, that is called a “hit.” A hit can occur when a ball hits the ground before the fielder catches it. In order to get the hitter out at first base, the fielder must either step on first base prior to the hitter stepping on first base, while in possession of the batted ball or the fielder can throw the ball to the first baseman so he catches it while his foot is on first base prior to the hitter touching the base.

It sounds simple enough, right? It’s not as simple as it seems. Remember the pitch is coming at the batter anywhere from 80 to 100 miles per hour and the batter is swinging hard at the ball – so the ball spins and rolls, comes off the bat at a crazy speed, spinning, curving, on the ground, in the air or right towards your face. It takes a superman’s reflexes to catch it before it can get by you or hit you right in the face.

Safe? Out? Strike? Ball? Fair? Foul?

This is where another human gets involved in the outcome of the play, which can lead to the outcome of the game, which can lead to the outcome of the season, which can lead to the difference between a perfect game or another 1 hitter, a .300 batting average or a .298 batting average…there are more consequences than I can name here.

Behind the catcher is an umpire. This umpire’s main job is to judge whether a pitched ball lands in the vicinity between the knees and the shoulders and over home plate. Should pitches enter that zone it is considered a “Strike.” Should it not enter the “Strike Zone,” then these pitches are called “Balls.” Three strikes and the batter is out, 4 balls and the batter gets to walk to first base. These pitches, which are thrown to confuse the hitter are not as simple to call as they seem on TV. So, the umpires will make mistakes. Major League Baseball claims that 98% of the balls and strikes and balls called by the umpires are correct. But another study says that only 88% of the calls are correct.

To put this in prospective; if a baseball hitter is successful 28 percent of the time, he is considered a solid hitter. No hitter has been more than 43% successful and that was in 1894. The closest anyone has come to that percentage since 1941*, was Tony Gwynn, who in 1993 batted .393. I am throwing numbers, rules and explanations here to prove the point of the human element. To compare a batter and an umpire – if an umpire makes a correct call 90% of the time they are considered average.

If a batter gets a hit 30% of the time they are considered all-stars.

Lately there has been talk of “computerizing” umpiring. Basically removing umpires and replacing them with computers. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred thinks computer umpires accurately calling balls and strikes will be available to major league baseball sooner rather than later.

Already the game has been compromised by the “Automatic” walk, all that is needed is for the pitching team to put up four fingers and the batter goes to first base. In the past, the automatic walk was sometimes an exciting sequence. A wild pitch could occur, the hitter can reach out and try and hit the ball – the human element was hard at play. Now, four fingers and take your base.

One of the most recent additions to the game, has been the instant replay challenge. MLB gives managers the right to challenge umpire’s calls right after the call is made. So if there is a close call at first base – they challenge the call. Someone from the commissioners office reviews the call and the final decision of whether the onfield call stands or not is made. In the 2017 season, there were 660 overturned calls among 1,395 video reviews (47.31%). That means, the umpires were correct 52.69% of the time after the calls on the field were challenged.

The beauty of baseball has always been the human element. David versus Goliath, mediocre teams with the fifth or sixth best record in the league facing the team with the best record in the league in the world series. In the past there have been many upsets in the world series. To name a few; in 1969 the New York Mets beat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. In 1998, just 5 years after their MLB debut; The Florida Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 series and the California Angels beat the San Francisco Giants in 2002, each of these world champions were the underdogs. On paper the better teams based on the players statistics, lost. My point? If we played those games out through a computer program, the results most likely would have been different.

How do you put emotion in a computer program?

I find it difficult imagining a computer umpiring a baseball game. The umpiring is as much a part of the game as the players themselves. They are human. They make mistakes, they perform their tasks passionately and to the best of their ability. That is why there are so few Major league players and umpires in comparison to how many there are in the world. The best of the best make the cut.

The plays at the plate with the game on the line, the ball that was called a strike leading to a walk that puts the winning run on first base, the stolen base, (close call at second!) that moves the runner to second base, leads to the pitcher getting rattled, umpire calls a balk, (argument ensues, manager thrown out of the game) runner moves up to third base. New pitcher comes in and strikes out the cleanup hitter on a contested called strike three. One out, the runner on third six feet off the base, fly ball to right field, the runner tags up, the ball is caught, the runner speeds home, the play at the plate is close… Collision at the plate… umpire checks if the catcher still has the ball in his possession… He does not, “Safe!” Game over! Or is it? The pitcher calls for a check if the runner left too early from third. Third base ump says, “No.” Argument, ensues, replay is requested… Five minutes later the call on the field is confirmed. Game over.

Think of the people who are on the field – the players, the coaches and the umpires. Now think about the excitement being generated by the people who have paid to watch this game in person. The fans. The fans are cheering, chanting, praying for their team from the first pitch of the game. Now as the game heads to the last inning, the fans are louder than at any time during the game. Their noise and cheering lead to the quickening of the pulse of everyone involved on the field. The humans on the field.

Human players; pulses on overdrive they run faster, see more clearly and are somehow able to perform beyond their abilities.

Human umpires; focus harder and run at a faster speed to make the call quickly and accurately.

Human Coaching staff; making decisions; some become overwhelmed and cannot think clearly while others have a clarity and feel strongly about each decision. When to change pitchers, moving fielders positioning, telling the runners to take a pitch, giving the green light to the runners to steal a base.

Human fan; screaming at the umpires, their own players, the visiting team, the coaches and each other. Some drunk on beer some drunk on the excitement of the game; cursing, waving and dancing to beat of the game.

It’s a humans game. You take away the human element and it becomes a video game who’s results are based on simple mathematics, algorithms and emoji’s.

So the question remains; should major league baseball replace human umpires with computers?

My opinion is based on emotion and my love for the game. I believe we must never replace human umpires with computers in baseball, simply because they will never make mistakes. The beauty of the game is the human ability to overcome errors, bad calls and poor choices. If we replace umpires how long until we begin to replace managers who can make perfect decisions based on the histrionics input into their hard drive? No human factor, hunches, gut feelings, show of faith which leads the player to perform at higher standards than they are capable, or thought capable of.

How long until the players are replaced by soulless, algorithms resulting in perfect swings at the perfect launch angles leading to perfect trajectories and perfect exit speed as the ball sails into the upper levels of the indoor room temperature stadium with the computerized fans making the perfect sounds of applause and adoration for their players. The politically correctness of boos directed at the opposing team and the umpire computer system. The ones manning these systems know that the “players” and the “umpires” are infallible, but the television honchos need to make it sound as realistic as possible for the humans at home watching.

Keep the umpires and keep human in baseball.

The beauty of the game is the human element across the board. From the first pitch until the last; from the first day that the pitchers and catchers report for spring training, until the final out of the final game of the world series. Beards, weight gain, dirty uniforms, arguments, brawls and fans being ejected from the stadium. In an increasingly digital world obsessed with perfection; leave baseball alone and allow the imperfections to thrive.

*in 1941 Ted Williams batted .405 the last time any batter has reached the .400 mark.

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