It was the 9th inning on a now famous day in June, and Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was on the mound trying to be just the 21st person in MLB (Major League Baseball) history to pitch a perfect game (allowing no hits or walks). He was up to his final batter, Rookie Jason Donald. Donald grounded to the first baseman Miguel Cabrera and Cabrera softly tossed the ball to Galarraga who was sprinting to first in what was sure to be an out. “SAFE”, yelled umpire Jim Joyce. Galarraga could not believe it, and neither could millions of people watching this game from all over the country. Jim Joyce had made a wrong call and robbed this young man of a place in the MLB record books. That day started earnest discussion about the place human umpires have in baseball.
In this age of broadcasting and technology there is really nothing about an umpires job that can’t be done by computers and replay. From calling pitches balls or strikes to calling someone safe at first, every call can be done more accurately by replay or by a computer. Opponents of computerizing umpires have several arguments against this notion, but the one that comes up most frequently is preserving the human element in the game. “This is how it has always been”, they say. But we have already begun to take power away from umpires by giving them access to replay on home run hits or foul balls. How is every other call so different? This would remove the human element from the game, because the human element is imperfect. The human element ruins games and taints records. When you hear the words human element, what you are really hearing is the ability to make bad calls. This may seem harsh but in a world with a system capable of making the correct call 100% of the time this is simply reality.
Another argument is that this would slow down the game. In a game that is already much longer than most other televised sports, this would just extend the length of each game. In the short term, they are correct. The only way to speed up a replay and computerized process would be to completely run the game from a replay booth. Remove human umpires completely and have all calls made with technological assistance. No umpire walking off the field to a replay booth. You can’t just do this half way; it is all or nothing. In some cases the game would be sped up with technological assistance. For example, all manager protest on the field of play would be removed, all appeals to first on check swings would be removed, and all discussion with umpires after strikeout calls would serve no purpose and therefore be removed. This would keep the short pauses from replaying all close calls on the bases and foul lines from substantially slowing down the game.
If that does not convince you, remember this. No game is set up for instant replay better than baseball. No game has calls that are less arbitrary that Baseball. This is not like watching a replay in football trying to figure out if a defender committed pass interference or not, calls in baseball are black and white, out or safe, ball or strike. This game was made to be computerized and until it is, it will remain riddled with controversy and mistakes.
Umpires communicating with players and managers is a visual we have all seen before. The grizzly, old manager striding towards the umpire, getting in his face, yelling and pointing emphatically determined to make his point before being sent to the clubhouse early. It is the tradition of standing up for his players that has been around for over a century and everyone would agree that it would be a shame for that communication to be a thing of the past. But that is just half the story. We have also seen baseball games get out of hand. From Yadier Molina spitting in the face of an umpire, to all out brawls when teams clear their benches to defend their player after he was hit by a pitch. The fact is that baseball has a volatile side that could be soothed by having umpires take a backseat on making calls during the game.
Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on when it comes to umpires, we all can agree that baseball is going through changes because of the age in which we live. Allegations of steroids, the emergence of accurate replay systems, and the increase in on the field violence all play their part in creating discussion toward deciding what we want the next generation of baseball to look like. Baseball is a sport filled with tradition, not the least of which is umpires. But we can’t let tradition keep us from fixing the things we can fix in the game. There is no stopping baseball from changing; it has and will continue to evolve over the next few years and beyond. All we can do is help direct the change toward making a better game.