I have nothing against progress. Some of my best friends are traveling shoe salesmen, and I can’t tell you how many times my stone hand ax has come in handy around the cave. But I can’t shake the feeling we’ve gone a tad too far with technology.
The latest assault on our humanity came Thursday, when news broke that Major League Baseball would use an automated strike zone at Triple-A this season. It means robot umpires will be one heartbeat from the big leagues — a ‘‘heartbeat’’ being that thing once used to deduce whether a ‘‘person’’ was alive. Now we just make sure a robot’s circuit board isn’t overdoing it on the salty snacks, and life is good.
Real umps are human. That means they’re prone to dye jobs, bad breath and errors in judgment, like the rest of us. What many baseball fans apparently want in their plate umpire is infallibility, good hygiene and a head of hair that doesn’t look as though it has been dunked in rust.
The end game for too many people, especially people who follow baseball, seems to be the eradication of . . . people. That’s an overreaction only if you’re sure you’re not being body-shamed right now by your Fitbit and your Fitbit’s friends.
The march toward techno-ball began with analytics. You’ll dismiss me as a Luddite, one likely given to wearing a loincloth around the house, but the truth is that numbers-driven decisions in baseball are meant to take human feeling and intuition out of the equation as much as possible. Feelings don’t exist to the stats people because feelings can’t be measured.
But feelings are what separate us from most of the other beasts on the planet. Take emotion, daring and ‘‘Oh, what the hell, I’m going to swing anyway, despite what the computer says’’ out of it, and pretty soon the Big Red Machine has turned into ‘‘Ex Machina.’’ OK, I’ve taken this way too far, but how much do we want the human factor removed from baseball?
Many of you want umpires gone. You want mistakes gone. I don’t like mistakes, either, but I do like the messiness of life. I know: completely and recklessly irresponsible for a columnist purportedly in pursuit of the truth. I should want the right call made every time. A strike should be a strike, not a pitch three inches off the outside corner. But when I think about artificial intelligence in baseball, I always come back to entertainment. Baseball has lost its ability to hold an audience, and, as silly and illogical as it might seem, flesh-and-blood umpires do have entertainment value. Herman the Robot does not.
Instant replay in baseball already stinks. Instead of the sight of a manager arguing with an umpire, we get two minutes of a crew chief waiting for a decision from the replay command center in New York. I rather would walk barefoot across a bed of zebra mussel shells than be exposed to TV announcers’ forensic analysis of whether a tag arrived before a foot hit the bag. Talk about baseball interruptus.
Yes, it’s all about me. Just like it’s all about you. I’d rather see a manager sprint out of a dugout to confront an umpire than endure the constant pauses to get things right. I’d pay to see Tony La Russa power-walk to get to the umpire.
What are we losing? That which makes us interesting. That which makes sports interesting. Think about tennis for a moment. The line-calling replay system in place now uses six or more cameras linked to a computer to discern whether a ball was in or out. Great. But great theater? No. If the technology had been in place in the 1970s and 1980s, we would have been deprived of John McEnroe as we knew him — loud, brash and out-of-his-mind outraged at the incompetence of line judges. Would it have been a better world without that? I don’t think so.
You want absolute accuracy. You want the smartest decision on every play. I want fun.
I can’t stand the shift in baseball. The analytics are clear that moving infielders to either side of second base to account for a hitter’s tendencies is the correct tactical move. But watching it live is like looking at cheese that has slid to one side of the pizza because the box moved on the ride home. The shift is an affront to symmetry. It’s also boring. You know how the show is going to end. Wonderful. And?
I do miss some elements of the old days. Not all, but some. I liked when ballplayers were rougher around the edges, the product of a sport that got its start in farm country and wide-open spaces. The unwritten rules of baseball don’t give me seizures, the way they do to those who see the knockdown pitch as barbaric. Those rules remind me that, at some level, we’re all idiots. Fascinating idiots worth watching.
A few years ago, MLB banned chewing tobacco at ballparks. It was the right move for health reasons, but it did leave some people wistful.
Let’s compromise. When the inevitable happens, when the only kind of ballplayer is a robot ballplayer, let him spit tobacco and scratch himself when things need scratching. It’s all that will be left of us.