Goodman Shaffer: Baseball looks to the future

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Your favorite professional baseball player steps to the plate. The first pitch whizzes by, but the home plate umpire says nothing. From a speaker comes a voice or a sound indicating whether the pitch was a ball or strike, determined not by the ump, but by a computer.

MLB has been floating the idea of robot-umpires or electronic strike zones for several years. With technology similar to that used during baseball’s television broadcasts, the effort could make the game move more quickly and ensure greater parity.

But could this actually happen? Instant replay is already used, and a pitch clock was discussed as recently as last year. But removing the human element from calling balls and strikes seems like a step too far, even as the video game generation is taking over the world.

Many see baseball as a last bastion of sports tradition. Take away the fancy video scoreboards and today’s baseball is very similar to the game played by Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson.

Still, like NASCAR, baseball is faced with three straight years of dips in attendance, and the challenge of trying to connect with a new generation of fans.

Millennials are almost unnaturally linked to their personal technology, and have an attention span measured in seconds, rather than innings or hours.

The key to appealing to a new generation is engagement. Finding ways to involve and even immerse fans in a baseball experience, especially young people who are technologically sophisticated, could be the key to baseball’s booming in the future.

But that technology should not include replacing umpires. The challenges of implementing an electronic strike zone are many; the graphics used by television broadcasts can’t possibly discern all of the nuances of the human experience.

And even if the bugs could be worked out for use in actual games – would we want it? Umpires would still be needed to call other elements of the game — plays at the plate, balks, etc. Unless error-proof sensors would be used on the pitcher’s mound, baselines, bases, and everywhere else a ball or a player could go. And in that case, wouldn’t baseball be more like a video game than America’s game that has been such a special part of the evolution of our culture?

In the world of sport, as in all things, change is inevitable. Evolution is unavoidable. But there should be a limit, a line; and for the foreseeable future, that line should stop short of the replacement of human umpires with robots or computers.

We need the human experience of baseball to include humans, right down to the close calls, and even the bad ones, which bring managers stomping to the plate in protest.

Imperfection is part of the game of baseball: past, present and hopefully, future.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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