|Actual text - Newsweek 9-30-02 Umps Looking For Cover|
The new QuesTec Umpire Information System at Fenway Park keeps a visual record of Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield's balls and strikes, making sure the umpire called them correctly
Umps Call Foul
Baseball is using advanced electronics to second-guess its umpires. Guess who’s not happy about it
By Mark Starr: NEWSWEEK
Oct. 7 issue — On the mound at Fenway Park, Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield winds up and sends a 68mph knuckleball fluttering toward home plate. Just as the ball reaches the plate, it makes a sudden downward plunge before disappearing into the catcher’s mitt. Umpire Joe Brinkman, crouched on one knee and peering over the catcher’s left shoulder, calls ball one.
THOUGH I AM THERE at Fenway, I see none of this. I am closeted in a “control room” in the ballpark’s upper reaches. What I see instead are white lines arcing across a computer screen, thanks to a pair of cameras tracking the ball from the Fenway rafters. Also there are screens with pint-size videos of the batter shot by cameras next to the dugouts. I’m looking at the nuts and bolts of the QuesTec Umpire Information System that has been installed in 11 major-league ballparks over the past two seasons. After the game, the tracking info, which determines whether and where the ball crosses the plate, will be married to the video, which details each hitter’s strike zone. The result is a visual record of every called ball or strike—in other words, a mechanical way to see if the ump got it right.
In the tradition-bound world of baseball, where any innovation is controversial, it’s usually the players or the fans who get steamed. This time, it’s the umpires. They’re worried that the QuesTec system is a first step toward using technology to throw them out of the game. Botched calls on the playing field can determine the outcome of a game (remember the ’96 playoffs when Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier leaned over the right-field fence in Yankee Stadium and grabbed a Derek Jeter fly ball? Instead of interference, the ump ruled it a home run, a travesty that helped propel the Yanks to the championship). Bad umpiring behind the plate rarely rises above an annoyance. But the irritation is fueled by broadcasters armed with slow-motion replays and overhead cameras. “It can be a source of embarrassment that leads to loss of credibility,” says Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball’s executive VP for baseball operations. “Our goal is to have a uniform strike zone called consistently game to game, umpire to umpire.”
QuesTec was originally ballyhooed as an invaluable training tool that would help umpires identify and rectify their mistakes; a QuesTec technician delivers a CD compilation of each game to the home-plate umpire. “They can see whether it’s a problem of posture, head position or interpretation,” says Alderson. He believes most umpires have embraced the technology, developed by giant Titan Systems, and profited from it; earlier this season, umps were in accord with UIS on about 90 percent of the calls, a number, he says, that has improved in recent months.
But the umpires have been far less receptive since the league began using UIS to help evaluate their performance this season, affecting postseason assignments. Earlier this year the league wrote John Hirschbeck, president of the new umpires’ union, informing him that he had missed 30 of 127 calls in one game—including 20 called strikes “that were well off the plate.”
The umpires are now attacking QuesTec and its founder, Edward Plumacher, on virtually all fronts, including the underlying science. Robert Adair, a Yale physicist enlisted by the union, says he hasn’t been allowed to study UIS firsthand, but believes “they may not understand what they’re doing as well as they think they do.” Adds Adair, author of “The Physics of Baseball,” “The science is really quite difficult.” The union claims that on disputed pitches, UIS actually gets it wrong 80 percent of the time. It has filed grievances with the league and a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices. “Baseball is a game on the field, not in the back room,” argues Joel Smith, attorney for the World Umpires Association.
The union’s strongest attacks—labeling QuesTec “an embarrassment to the game”—followed a recent New York Times report that Plumacher had been disciplined by two stock exchanges for trading violations during a previous career as a stock broker. In addition, QuesTec was twice fined by the New York Attorney General’s Office for selling unregistered securities. Plumacher termed the latter problems “minor errors of ignorance and stupidity.” But he admits he made serious mistakes as a broker, explaining that his life went into “a tailspin” when, at the age of 28, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease of progressive blindness. “I see absolutely no relevance of any of this to our technology, which is used in TV sports productions all over the world,” he says. “And I see no reason they had to humiliate me and my family in public.” Plumacher, 42, is now legally blind. (The irony that umps are now arguing balls and strikes with a blind man is not lost on him.)
More lawyers, scientists and ethicists may be required to unravel all these issues. But at the core of this struggle are far more subtle and intriguing questions about the very nature of the game of baseball and what we still do or don’t love about it. Umpires cling to the faith that they are, warts and all, part of baseball’s human face; that an umpire is imbued with the power, at least by historical precedent, to make the strike zone pretty much whatever he says it is as long as he’s consistent. The league says the notion that each ump has his own personal strike zone is ludicrous; that rules should rule. So take your pick. Is it man vs. the tyranny of machines? Or a 19th-century game that in the 21st-century should, at the very least, enter the 20th?
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.