Umpires Are People Too. (And May They Always Be.)

Hey, good to see you again. Hope you’re enjoying your summer.

First, a quick item of biz in case you're thrown off: We're not doing links in this season of Foul and Fair. One big reason why: REDEF, a daily link digest that curates the the best sportswriting on culture, justice, and business. Morgan swears by it and reads it every day. Subscribe here.

You wanna know how I, Bradford, knew Morgan wrote a really, really good essay? Because I disagreed with basically half of it, yet enjoyed every word. Morgan and I are the dearest of friends, but we engage with the world very differently. Outside of the playoffs, Morgan tries her best to *listen* to her Giants rather than watch, fearful of blaspheming her favorite team with a graven image I DVR every inning, quarter, half and round of the sports I follow. Morgan would rather buy multiple fragile “dumb phones” to free herself from technological tyranny, and I’ve had an iPhone for almost a decade. Morgan spends her weeknights at a trapeze and lyra classes, which you can watch her recital or whatever on YouTube. (That’s her in the blue.) As I watch her propel herself from wires and poles suspended in mid-air, I sink into my couch enamored, but also waiting for Google to play videos I’m algorithmically determined to enjoy based on my viewing patterns. Google is right, all the videos are great. I will fall asleep on the couch and while Bradford-specific content is churned for me. Happy Tuesday.

I think you get what I’m saying. I like technology, and I’m not nearly as skeptical of its ability to greatly improve how we experience the game. And I hate settling for bad calls from bloviating umpires that pridefully stuff themselves into the theater of the game. Robots know their place!  

So, while I disagree, I respect people that appreciate imperfect brush strokes in the art of sports. More than that, I like people having jobs. And if sports is trading fancy computers for a little less art and a *lot* less job security, I want to hear someone take up that cause. Whether you’re in bondage to the little apple on the back of your cell phone or, in the words of the immortal Kenny Powers, you “f*ckin’ hate computers. All kinds!”, or you’re somewhere in between, I know you’ll enjoy my friend’s sage, empathetic, and passionate words.

Welcome back to Foul and Fair.

Leadoff hitter

Last week, MLB umpire Joe West worked his 5,000th game. Prior to this milestone, West explained his feelings on replay to USA Today.

“I love the fact that baseball spent $40 million to prove that we’re right 99% of the time. It’s a good thing for umpires.”

But is it? Here are some headlines from the past three years:

Maybe West was primarily referring to calls made along the base paths.. Maybe he’s compared umpire salaries with computer costs and realizes that human labor flies below IT costs. Regardless, while I like West’s confidence in the future stability of his profession, I can’t say I share it. But rather than join in some fans’ optimism that we’re on the cusp of entering a sports era free of cussing-out-the-TV calls and remote-throwing-at-the-screen non-calls, I’m nervous.

As our country has directly more of its attention to the parts of the country monetarily decimated by robots replacing humans at their jobs, we’ve (rightly) called into question the ethics behind exchanging people for machines. Money and its cousin, Pleasing the Shareholders, can sound like dubious justifications when we realize how job loss has too often translated into the destruction of the cultural and communal fabric. To what end have we esteemed these values, we ask? How do we value humans, the social structures they construct and inhabit, and the cultural expression that this money undergirds, but make decisions that financially strangle it?
At this point, technology’s intersection with sports doesn’t prompt identical questions as the ones that arise in factory towns. We can’t “outsource” sports for instance, even though teams do move away. (While they highly tout their economic impact when they’re pushing for a new stadium, usually teams' positive financial impact is exaggerated, to say the least.) And players, coaches, and most referee positions can’t be replaced by robots, without radically altering how we understand sports. But no honest conversation about technology goes far without a careful look at humanity and how institutions designed with human intellect and physicality at heart will stray from their original intent.

“Media is anything that comes in the middle between me and another person, an embodied human being,” my former colleague Andy Crouch said on a podcast earlier this year. “Media puts something in between us and bodily experience of the world. We were created to have an embodied experience of the world.”

Crouch’s illustration of an unmediated experience: tossing a football with a friend on a chilly, somewhat drizzling, winter day.

Now, the majority of us consume sports precisely because of media. As most readers are well aware, I almost exclusively follow baseball through its radio podcasts via the MLB At-Bat app. I watched all four of 2017’s most hyped championships via a television. Long live sports on television (and long live ESPN.)

Yet, what has long and increasingly made sports special, has been the unmediated interactions on the field and court. We can point to exceptions before instant replay—bullpen phones come quickly to mind. Players, coaches, and referees all keenly surveying body language, each other’s physicality, andthe action, an amorphous challenge and yet, a prerequisite as an athlete. Umpires and referees consequently become part of what we understand as sports—not part of the media that exists just a degree outside of it. It’s their humanity—just as much as players’ and coaching staffs’—that makes sports possible, rather than suffocating it.

Major League Baseball has one foot planted in Tradition and History. Its other chases seemingly any gadget that might let them quantify the accomplishments and failures of its players in real time and it seems unfazed by the conversations it’s generated about phasing out umpires. Current commissioner Rob Manfred’s tenure may one day be marked by pitch clocks, inning timers, and automated balls and strikes counters. It may also be the moment where baseball forgot it was a sport.

Sports are not about perfection. And they’re only somewhat about winning. Instead, we involve ourselves with them mostly to relate to other humans, returning to them mostly to remember our humanity, and only infrequently to transcend it. The heart of this mission involves centering personal judgment—not delegating it to a machine.

In the past 10 years, we’ve increasingly used cameras as tools to hold the powerful accountable. In sports, this looks like replaying a pitch sequence, overlaid with commentary about a consistent or shifting strike zone. For concerned citizens, this entails recording interactions with law enforcement and juxtaposing them against police accounts. They check our governing authorities—whether in sport or society. In the latter, I’m in favor of technology which strives to promote accountability, even as it does fall short on its promises. But when the situations aren’t threatening someone’s life or civil rights, I find myself bristling. What’s the larger good that we’re trying to use replay to accomplish? What does this make possible in sports that is not previously impossible? And what does replay make impossible? (Nearly all manager fights, which I prefer to see as electric expressions of giving a damn.)
Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of ball and strike tracking software PITCHf/x. It’ll mark a decade or so of the lowest paid people on a Major League Baseball field having their job elimination openly discussed even as they continue to put up with tirades from batters, staredowns from pitchers, and the only attention, notoriety. Your umpire needs some unmediated affection. Possibly a hug.

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