COMMENTARY: Kill the ump? No thank you.
ST. PAUL — Baseball is ailing as an entertainment product. The symptoms of its demise are hiding in plain site as fans numbed by inactivity wait for the grand old game's caretakers to emerge from the shadows and sincerely treat the patient.
Games are too long.
Pace is too sluggish.
Scoring is plummeting.
Attendance is dwindling.
Defensive shifts are crushing rallies while overvalued walks, acceptable strikeouts and full-count stare-downs are grinding deliberate action into dust. Sports Illustrated calculated the average time between balls in play has ballooned to an alarming 3 minutes, 45 seconds.
Expecting customers in 2018 to ignore their smartphones or each other and stay engaged during almost four minutes of dead time is unrealistic, insulting and bad for business. Especially while pitchers explore the mound like pioneers and batters test the Velcro on their gloves like NASA quality control.
Pitch clocks, limited mound visits and signaled intentional walks are cosmetic changes that have done little to speed up or re-energize a sport that has been data-crunched into compensated inertia.
MLB's leadership vacuum is being filled by would-be rule makers demanding sweeping changes like deadening the ball, outlawing shifts, moving back the mound, automating the strike zone — even shortening games to seven innings.
These are radical overhauls whose philosophical and historical implications are impossible to measure. Unintended consequences already have warped baseball's dawdling replay system. We all want boundary calls and bang-bang plays on bases to be correct, especially during the postseason. The stakes are too high. But delaying games to determine whether a sliding base-runner popped an inch off the bag defies the spirit of replay and erodes the diminishing human element embodied by umpires.
"Kill the ump!" is a baseball catcall as old Cracker Jack. Killing the man's job is a new battle cry among armchair umpires mesmerized by television's strike-zone boxes and analytical accounting.
Automated zones will speed up the game, they argue, by forcing hitters to swing at borderline strikes that are sometimes missed by home-plate umpires. Get balls and strikes correct every time, all the time, instead of leaving calls up to the vagaries of that day's assigned official.
No thank you.
The dude in the mask and protective equipment would be relegated to a lab rat signaling ball or strike off technology that lights up the scoreboard green for ball and red for strike. Baseball needs less video game contraption, not more.
I would rather expand the strike zone and empower the humans behind the plate to call more strikes and cattle-prod hitters into action. Demand that umps order hitters to stay in the box or call punitive strikes for loitering.
Use the technology to hold umpires more accountable, fining them for missing too many pitches or consigning the most inconsistent brethren to base duty. Otherwise, be careful what you wish for.
Pitchers would find a way to manipulate automation by tailoring curves and sliders to clip the back end of the zone with balls in the dirt that would never pass the eye test. Framing would become obsolete, like bunting. Catchers would be employed more for their goaltending prowess than their receiving ability.
And there would be less interaction between players and umpires, a productive give-and-take that establishes credibility among competitors and arbiters who are actually in the arena. The best umpires are those who acknowledge their mistakes and demand more of themselves, just like the players they officiate.
Besides, replay has effectively made on-field arguments extinct.
Yawning fans could use the theatrics of a manager and ump going jaw-to-jaw over a close play to jolt them out of their slumber. Instead, arguments have been sanitized as disputes are antiseptically resolved by faceless administrators in New York scrutinizing slow-motion, high-definition images.
Keep fans' noses out of their phones and engaged. Allow them to continue heckling the men calling balls and strikes.
Yelling at a soulless computer isn't baseball.
That's just life.