Wednesday, August 15, 2007

State of Play

I used to be a sports official and particularly liked umpiring baseball. That experience is why I find this story in the Austin fish-wrapper to be borderline insulting:

I've often said in years past that I liked baseball the best because I had the best seat in the house and got paid to tell everyone else what just happened. Like most such hyperbole, there's more than an element of truth to that.

Here's some of the reality.

On any field of play, there are three teams present; the home team, the visiting team and the officiating team. That's anywhere from 2 to 6 on-field umpires and at least one official scorekeeper for baseball. My own experience is limited to 2, 3 and 4-man mechanics (there was one time I was part of a 6-man crew, but that was a result of a scheduling mix-up and everyone was a bit uncomfortable with the unusual responsibility assignments).

With a couple of specified exceptions, the plate umpire has the sole responsibility for determining if a pitched ball is a strike or not. Before we get to that decision though, there are a few other things he has to rule on also.

Is the field of play still in a playable condition (no fans running around or fences fallen over for example)?

Are the other members of the umpire crew in position and ready for continuation of play?

Is the pitcher making a legal presentation of the ball prior to the pitch?

Is the batter legally in the batting box (and the catcher not)?

In that fraction of a second between release from the pitcher's hand to arrival at the catcher's glove, the umpire gets his only opportunity to decide, and immediately announce, where the ball was in relation to an imaginary frame of reference known as "the strike zone".

At the same time, the umpire has to determine if any action taken by the batter, catcher or other player was within the rules of play.

And with all of this going on, some professor thinks he can detect racism influencing the plate umpire's calls? Now, I will admit that my opinion of a particular player has influenced how generous I might be as regards his on-field conduct. If the guy's a whiner, or some other category of asshole, I have been known to adhere to a closer interpretation of the rules for that day's game. But both teams got the same treatment that day and I've rarely run into a catcher who hadn't figured out what was going on, and why, within an inning or two.

Frankly, you just don't have time out there to pay attention to what color or accent the pitcher has. In any case, you're trying to get a complete game in as quickly as the state of play will allow; screwing around with your strike zone is a certain way to have a very long and bad day at the ballpark. Not to mention a very ... difficult conversation with the rest of your crew afterwards.

What we have here is a unique opportunity for an academic to demonstrate how much of a fool he can be in public, not how questionable umpire's judgement is.

We already knew that.

UPDATE: Oh goody. Rob at has this:

Apparently, Time magazine has also decided to carry this story without any critical analysis of the content. Well done Time. (/sarcasm)

No comments: