Erosion

Winter is officially over: pitchers and catchers begin reporting for Spring Training today. The first games are a mere week away.

And, of course, we’ve got our usual controversies over possible changes to the game.

Earlier this week, we heard that MLB is considering expanding the playoffs to fourteen teams. I’m dubious–it seems like a clear money grab, rather than a way to increase “excitement”.

And really, do we need four teams who’ve been hovering around .500 to make the playoffs? If the system had been in place last year, the final four teams in the playoffs would have been Cleveland (.574), Boston (.519), the Mets (.531), and Arizona (.525). In 2018, we’d have gotten Tampa Bay and Seattle–giving us every AL team over .500 in the playoffs–and St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Let us not forget that the Pirates finished the 2018 season at 82-79, barely respectable.

Reports that MLB will be using “robot umpires” to call balls and strikes in Spring Training are apparently overblown. A few games will have the technology in place, but only for hardware and software testing. And a good thing, too. It’s clear from the results of last season’s extended trial run in the Atlantic League that there are still plenty of problems to deal with before it can be considered ready for the majors.

Even when–and it is when, not if; the commissioner has made that crystal clear–MLB decided robo-umps are ready for their call-up, I expect an approach similar to what we’re seeing with the pitch clock: a couple of years of use in the minors, accompanied by intense negotiations with the players’ union.

It’s a shame, really, that the idea is even being considered. It’s just a further erosion of the umpires’ authority.

I blame TV.

Nobody ever expected to change an umpire’s call in the fifties. They might admit to having made a mistake, but the call would stand, regardless. Bad calls were expected and good teams overcame them.

Nobody ever thought umpires were perfect, but instant replay proved just how fallible they were. That MLB held out against using instant replay to review calls as long as they did is to their credit.

But then they screwed up and moved the review off the field. This is one place where the NFL got it right: reviews are done on the field by the same arbiters who made the initial call. That keeps the responsibility and the authority in one place.

Baseball needs umpires. Without someone on the spot, enforcing the rules, baseball isn’t a sport. At best it’s a game, and at worst, it’s a bunch of guys throwing a ball around.

Someone who’s only present to act as a mouthpiece for decisions made somewhere else isn’t an umpire. That’s called a figurehead, and baseball doesn’t need figureheads, no matter what Commissioner Manfred thinks.

Next time you go to a game, spare a few seconds to appreciate those guys in blue while you still can.

And remember: We Are Umpire.

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