We don’t know what most MLB umpires sound like, other than their respective strike calls and the occasional country music album released by Joe West. And that has been fine, with the modern replay system only adjudicating the mostly obvious — did a foot stay on the base, did a ball carom off a railing above the fence, did a diving baserunner get in under the tag, etc.
But the Associated Press reports that baseball is considering cutting a deal with the umpires’ union that allows them to explain replay calls immediately as they are made by the officials centralized in New York, donning a headset to announce the decision and reasoning to the crowd and broadcast audiences.
One possibility is that this new protocol could begin at the All-Star Game, be optimized throughout the second half of the season and then carry into the playoffs.
Soon, then, the cadences of Kerwin Danley or Tom Hallion could be as familiar to us as those of so many of their NFL counterparts, say the stentorian legalese of Ed Hochuli or the folksy twang of Jeff Triplette. And to what overall end remains curious.
There just isn’t much to say most of the time, other than what the video showed or didn’t. The value may come in the explanation of some of the judgment areas like home plate collisions and double-play interference, but far more often it will be announced determination of a ball being fair or foul, or a throw beating the runner or not.
The appearance of transparency may be what baseball wants, the human connection to the process that lets fans in on the how and why of their team getting the call or getting hosed, but it also invites new problems as the routine gets more complicated.
First, talking into a microphone is a skill, and not all umpires have it. NFL officials really do practice articulating complicated calls, and have come up through the college ranks with it as part of the job. Since the ump is not making the decision himself, he has to parrot the exact language given by those in the replay center, and there is potential for some loss in translation, as in the classic game of “Telephone.”
Second, all fanbases now have a dark and dangerous element that is always looking for scapegoats for any misfortune. And with social media they now have avenues to harass people just doing their job. Putting a specific face and voice on controversy might instigate some of these cretins dumb enough to not understand that it isn’t even that person in charge of what happens, but some faceless people far away.
And what’s more, this comes at a time when a rampant inability across MLB to properly call balls and strikes has more people open every day to the discussion of using technology to call an objective strike zone. The cameras are in place and tracking every vector all the time, making what is going on in the lower portion of the zone all the more ridiculous as average pitching velocity is continuing to climb.
It is even a measured metric now, the ability of catchers to trick umps into thinking a ball is a strike. Just because it is observed and calculated as “Pitch Framing” doesn’t mean it’s not just a more palatable euphemism for “Umpire Fooling” that is obvious to the naked eye in each and every game. The idea of robots scares some who cling to egregious mistakes as a needlessly romanticized human element. But tennis and soccer have been able to incorporate cameras to get things as right as possible, and baseball should, too.
At a time when many of us want to see less of umpires, it looks like we will instead see and hear much more of them.