Lichtenstein: It’s Past Time For Baseball To Make The Change That Can Allow It To Temporarily Reclaim Its Status As America’s Pastime

Steve Lichtenstein
March 26, 2020 - 8:17 am

A world without sports isn’t as fun. As a fanatic, I have been going stir crazy ever since the Coronavirus pandemic put a halt to all forms of competitions, from pro sports to the NCAA basketball tournament to local Little League baseball contests. The International Olympic Committee announced on Monday that the Summer 2020 Games in Tokyo will be postponed as well.

To relieve depression, I had a deep discussion with my friend Andrew Abramowitz, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, on Monday about how a return of the games we love to watch would one day proceed.  Even if they were played without audiences, just having them on TV would at least make us feel like we can breathe again. Not to mention the benefits that would accrue to the real stakeholders—the owners, players, and media conglomerates that wouldn’t mind recouping some of the lost revenue.

We both agreed that individual sports would have a head start. Golf seemed to be the clear frontrunner. With acres of grounds, social distancing is already in place.  If caddies were deemed essential, proper precautions could be put in place to make the players feel safe.

Tennis would be next. The key would be to make sure each player has his or her own set of balls. Ballboys would wear gloves. The only inconvenience would be that the players would probably have to walk to a towel rack in the corners of the court between points to wipe off excess sweat.

But what about team sports? Is it possible for any of these games to return before the pandemic is completely eradicated in what could be at minimum three or four months?

The contact sports—basketball, football, hockey and soccer—posed impossible hurdles for us to leap.

Baseball, however, might be doable. That is, if the owners and unions agree to a long overdue enhancement to how things have always been done.

The highest risk area in the ballpark would be around home plate. Sure, close plays at all bases pose some risk, but they might be deemed acceptably low. However, the umpire, catcher and batter are too close in proximity. You don’t want the umpire’s sweat dripping down onto the back of the catcher’s neck like the waitress with gastric distress into Larry David’s soup on a recent “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode.

The solution: The Automated Plate Umpire. 

Major League Baseball has already received the signoff for such a system from the umpires union in December, clearing the biggest obstacle. The agreement called for cooperation in testing and developing automated ball/strike calls over the next five seasons. The home plate umpire will still be needed (and paid) to officiate the game from a safer distance and relay the results from the automated ball/strike computer.   

Yankees manager Aaron Boone argues with home plate umpire Ben May on Aug. 17, 2019, at Yankee Stadium.
Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Images

We know that in this age of power hurlers with ridiculous movement, close pitches are virtually educated guesses anyway, no matter how emphatically they are called. With my severe nearsightedness, even I can accurately adjudicate balls in the dirt and 3-and-0 fastballs down the middle. But on pitches that land a quarter-inch inside or outside the strike zone? In 2016, HBO’s Real Sports reported on a three-plus year Yale University study that found that MLB umpires got those right about two-thirds of the time. More recently, a study at Boston University reported that the overall accuracy has improved, from about 88% to a little over 90% in the 2018 season.

That 2018 error rate equated to 34,294 missed calls, or approximately 14 per game — half of them were strikes below Aaron Judge’s knees.

Joking aside, why are we still fiddling around with a technology that exists now and has been successfully implemented at lower levels? Because human error has always been part of the MLB experience? If you recall, the MLB experience 80 years ago featured racist rosters playing almost exclusively during the day when everyone was at work or school.  That’s how it was always done. I think we can admit that the game is better now.

Oh, and for all you catchers out there who will bemoan “the lost art of framing pitches”, cheating is really in vogue right now. Just get the calls right.

In this new world order, baseball has an opportunity. With one progressive change, the games can go on sooner than many expect. 

Our country desperately needs that outlet from reality.  Millions are sitting at home, not knowing enough facts about COVID-19’s true impact. Though a doctor, Andrew may not be omniscient when it comes to this disease, but he does know more than most. I can tell you that his predictions on outcomes are most dire.     

Baseball doesn’t have to reclaim its once-vaunted position of America’s Pastime. It just needs to be there for us in these painful times.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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