Versatile, usually cool, calm, and collected, and proud of his sharp eye at the plate, the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist a couple of weeks ago chalked up his first ejection in his 13 major league seasons.
Zobrist, 37, went where no man should go with plate umpire Phil Cuzzi. No, it wasn’t the F-bomb, but the E-word. The dreaded E-word!
Caught looking at what he didn’t believe was a third strike, with the Cubs in a 7-0 hole in the eighth inning and the day already older than an original Wrigley bleacher seat, Zobrist was given the heave-ho when he told Cuzzi, 62, “That’s why we want an electronic strike zone.”
Oh, boy. That did it, telling a sixtysomething ump, a union guy no less, that, hey, he could be replaced by, yep . . . electronics. Zobrist might have been wiser to call Cuzzi a tool than to crack the ugly threat of technology over his head with the force of a Louisville Slugger.
Veteran tip to you kids out there: Don’t go telling the old guys, at least while they’re still charged with calling balls and strikes, that they can be, you know, outsourced.
“That’s what obviously got me tossed,” noted Zobrist.
I fear it’s only a matter of time, of course. Baseball will surrender the plate to technology. No doubt about it. I’ve seen the future that is Hawk-Eye, the British-born technology that has become the respected, if not beloved, arbiter of tennis lines.
Hawk-Eye is a marvel. It’s quick, fun, and efficient, accurate to within a whisker (3.6 millimeters) and its calls are embraced by players, umpires, and fans. Hawk-Eye makes its decision on a disputed line call and no one chirps. Fans even sometimes applaud. It’s great. I say this as a guy who generally disdains gadgetry, one who breaks out in hives when I’m told I need to download an app for something as simple as buying a movie ticket. Consider me app-rehensive in the new world, but I could peer into Hawk-Eye’s eyes all night long.
Contrary to Zobrist’s suggestion, there hasn’t been a groundswell among the Major League Baseball rank and file, a large portion of whom grew up on video games, to push for electronic umps.
But the idea and technology are out there, and they won’t go away, given that most games on TV have that digitally created strike zone framed on the screen and each pitch gets marked as a ball or strike. It’s clean, efficient, simple, and I have no reason to believe it’s ever wrong.
From my infallible position on the couch, I get every call right, prompting me sometimes to raise a clenched right fist and ring up a K call that would be the envy of Emmett Ashford. It’s so easy being me on a Sunday afternoon, calling balls and strikes while the back deck, aching to be stained, rots a little more under the scorching August sun. When the gadgets take over home plate, maybe I’ll hire an ex-ump handyman to stain the deck.
When baseball finally surrenders, every ball and strike call will be perfect, letters to knees, even when the home team is down by seven runs after eight innings. Technology doesn’t know a lost cause. Electronic widgets don’t know there’s a plane to catch on a Sunday night. Computer programs, linked to high-speed cameras and triangulation tech, know just the facts, ma’am, just the facts. The pitch is in the strike zone or it’s not, and we’re staying here as long as there is horsehide being stitched with red twine in Haiti.
Rob Manfred, protector of the game as MLB commissioner, earlier this season made it clear to The Athletic that he’s not a proponent of ball and strike automation.
“When you take away the home plate umpire’s control over the strike zone,” he said, “you take away a principle piece of his authority in terms of managing the whole game.”
Like me, the Commish is a total Luddite loser. Sorry to say, technology as advanced as Hawk-Eye, in a society awaiting impatiently for autonomous cars to arrive curbside, is going to take away the ump’s voice on this one.
There still will be a need for an ump back there to help direct the game, for such things as plays at the plate and shooing the manager or pitching coach back to the dugout after loitering too long at the mound. But figuring out if a backdoor slider caught the black will be handled best by ol’ Hawk-Eye, or whatever similar technology wins the space that for more than a century has been the most debated small patch of real estate in American sports history.
Now think how many times Earl Weaver would not have been tossed had Hawk-Eye defused some of his iconic nutties back in the day. Moe, Larry, the cheese! Entertainment, lost.
Without Lou DiMuro calling balls and strikes in 1975, Carl Yastrzemski, irked over being rung up on what he felt certain was ball four, wouldn’t have halted his walk to first, retraced his steps to the batter’s box, squatted down, and tidily used both hands to cover home plate in a heap of dirt. It can be a dirty business, baseball, and when it is, it’s at its best.
Paul Hawkins, the PhD in technology who designed and patented his Hawk-Eye in the early 2000s, once proudly noted its impact on tennis.
“Well,” said Hawkins, a weekend cricket player who used bad calls on the cricket field to inspire his technology, “the arguments have stopped.”
True that. When the technology wins out, as it will here, our emotions flatline. We’ve seen this before, in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” when computer HAL 9000 speaks calmly and seductively to astronaut Dave Bowman.
“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently,” confessed HAL. “But I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”
Strike three can be such a rude mistress.
Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.