Sam Page, ContributorWith the tentative approval of a partial replay system, Major League Baseball has taken its first steps toward a game played for robots, by robots, and under the supervision of robots.
OK — not exactly. But with replay imminent, one of baseball’s most tired debates returns to the forefront, between those sportswriters and executives hellbent on preserving baseball’s “human element” and those fans for whom “robot umps!” after borderline strikes represent a solid 20 percent of their Twitter contributions.
While the desire for precision is understandable, the alternative position is more elusive. Asking “What is the human element?” and “Why is it important?” have historically been met with a louder, more unanimous chanting of this indecipherable mantra, as if a thousand stodgy sports writers typing “human element” a thousand times could raise an vengeful Red Smith from the grave, hellbent on the destruction of stat nerds.
For the longest time, I assumed vague appeals to the importance of the human element represented one of three arguments:
1. Baseball should feature as many humans on the field as possible to increase the overall humanity of the game (an argument for having 100 or so streakers running around the outfield at all times).
2. Baseball shouldn’t trust anything robotic (probably related to a recent marathon viewing of the Terminator movie franchise).
3. Baseball should try to preserve as many contiguous elements of the game from era to era as possible (an argument for more steroids, amphetamines, and those old-timey gloves that make it look like the wearer has a rare disease that make his fingers swollen and leathery).
But the truth is much simpler. It’s a linguistic dodge, meant to obscure an on-face contradictory position.
“Human element” simply means “human error,” the latter being substituted where the former would seem absurd — e.g. “Attempting to correct for human error through a replay system would be a mistake, as it would cut down on human error, an intrinsic part of baseball.”
Here’s the crazy thing, though: they’re not wrong, not entirely at least. Umpire error is fundamental to baseball. Just consider the “fundamentals” being taught to Little Leaguers around the world for the express purpose of goading bad calls: pitch framing, swipe tagging, plate blocking, trapping, cheating slightly off the base on close force plays.
Ironically, the technology many seek to replace the umpire may justify his existence by proving his incompetence. Thanks to pitchf/x, we are beginning to understand just how vital pitch-framing can be. That’s why constant cries for “robot umps” at the first sign of a bad call are so grating: would you really eliminate one of the most important, subtle, and difficult wrinkles of the defensive game on account of some minor injustice your team suffered one minute ago?
What if we later discovered (for the sake of argument) that a second baseman’s ability to make it look like he tagged a runner without actually doing so was a highly specific skill, a la pitch framing, and hugely important to a team’s ability to control the running game? Should baseball then reconsider replay on steals?
I’m not arguing against the new replay regime — in fact, I quite like the compromise of it. But I’ve found myself increasingly sympathetic to the human element argument, and not wanting replay to extend much further.
And here’s the really chilling thing: the effect replay will have on the age-old intractable struggle between the impertinent manager and the idiot umpire. The fundamental fallibility of the umpire is arguably the most important aspect of baseball’s charm. Yes, the new system allows arguments, but do we really want to live in a world in which the manager can argue a call and then be proven wrong, meant to accept some dose of humility? Consider this nightmarish re-imagining of the 1970s:
Earl Weaver: You were sent here for one ****** specific reason!
Ump: Yea? What’s that?
Earl Weaver: To **** us.
Ump: Perhaps, let’s check with the video review center in Manhattan.
Earl Weaver: That’d be great!
Ump: Nope! I was right! His foot was off the bag. I wasn’t sent here just to **** the Orioles.
Earl Weaver: My mistake. Apologies.