The Umpire Strikes Back – WSJ

Michael Brantley responds to a strike-three call from home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi June 17 in Houston.


David J Phillip/Associated Press

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently piqued my Luddite leanings when he announced that he will support the use of robots to call balls and strikes starting in the 2024 season. He referred to the need to speed up the game. League data suggests the change could shorten games by nine minutes.

I’m in my 80s. I see every change as a threat. It’s our job as oldtimers to caution those who think they have a clear view of the future. Baseball is timelessly interesting because most of the time it’s the same game as it was 100 years ago. It’s like an old pair of slippers. It’s also still the most difficult game to play because it’s a game of failure.

Those who change this great old game are taking bold risks because only the fans can decide whether the changes remain. Videotaped reviews of tight referee decisions have been successful, and perhaps robots will too. Players and referees have embraced the review process because it eliminates heated arguments and delays in tight decisions. Replay solves things and lets the game go on. Robots calling balls and strikes could get similar approval from fans. A lot will depend on the precision of the technique and the support of players, managers and referees.

Some will see this change as an implicit criticism of referees, and that view is valid, despite the fact that referees are limited by their humanity. You cannot be perfect while a robot carries out its instructions perfectly. But machines can break. The electricity goes out. Wires are knotted. Patience might be an odd requirement to try to speed up games.

I propose that baseball use this change in the umpire’s role to reaffirm its essential value in enforcing law and order on the field while ensuring the game is played according to the rules. And the rules of baseball are complex. Who but a referee can explain the difference between “interference” and “interference”? What happens when a player throws down their glove and hits a ball in play? The answer: All base runners move up three bases. I bet you didn’t know that.

Few managers and even fewer players are experts on the rules. Referees offer assurances of rule knowledge, interpretation and application in the most intense moments of competition. Her role is taken for granted and rarely publicly celebrated or rewarded.

Baseball is a symbiotic enterprise that brings together fans, players, managers, coaches and umpires. Major League authorities will have to take their time to explain the details of this new procedure, which has yet to be finally adopted. As usual, details matter and fans need to be prepared for the move.

Baseball is often said to be too slow. That’s what young people say. The League is responding to these concerns while trying to protect its essential elements. When the Yankees come to Boston like they did last weekend, the games at Fenway Park, which opened in 1912, draw huge crowds. The game goes on and on.

Mr. Vincent was a Major League Baseball commissioner from 1989-1992.

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Appeared in the print edition on July 12, 2022. The Umpire Strikes Back – WSJ

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