Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Tie Goes to the Runner!

At the recent Rogers Cup Tennis Tournament in Toronto, on several occasions, an electronic umpire was used, following an appeal from one of the players, to determine the location of the ball when it hit the court. The flight of the ball is shown on the television screen, and the exact spot where the ball touches down is indicated. So precise, so correct.

Hockey referees now rely on cameras to determine a variety of issues in the arena. The most important determination involves the position of the puck near the goal line. Goals are scored when the entire puck crosses the goal line. With a variety of television angles, an official located in a television booth is better able to determine the ins and outs of scoring opportunities. Perfection? Not exactly. But certainly more accurate than without the electronics.

At times, football games can be held up a little longer than seems necessary while an on-field official hides under a blanket, complete with a head set, to determine certain situations in the professional game. Announcers in the booth fill the void with precautionary comments: “Patience is required here. At least with the multitude of camera angles, the officials are in a position to get it right.” Most of the time. But not always.

Baseball has finally relented on the issue, and is now allowing television cameras and off-field officials to determine the success or failure of balls hit long and deep, that is, whether or not they are home runs. There are times when this determination is critical to the game, and could result in a dramatic change in the nature of a season, not just a game. Fair or foul, caught or missed, fan interference: these issues may be decided by electronic judges.

But this is where baseball falls far short, and needs tweaking. Recently, a batter sent a roller just in front of the plate-a little nubber that only the catcher had a chance to field. The batter ran to first base down the base line. When he got to the special lane that he is supposed to take, well defined on all major league diamonds, he curled toward the infield so that he might impede the catcher from throwing the ball to first base to get him out.

The catcher fielded the ball, and threw to first. The ball hit the runner in the back, and he reached first base safely. The umpire spread his arms to signal that the runner was successful. The umpire was responsible for watching the first baseman’s foot, while listening for the sound of the ball in the first-baseman’s glove. (does anyone still call them trappers?)

The home plate umpire is responsible in determining whether or not the batter ran the proper path to first base. They seldom do. Most often, runners tend to slide a little toward the infield to help their cause. At this point, a manager storms from the dugout, protesting the error in judgement by the home plate official. Does he expect the call to be changed? Not his year, Abigail. He simply is trying to make hay for the next close call.

But it could be changed. It could be reviewed, electronically. It could be corrected. Justice could be done. (Upon review, that last statement has been determined to be slightly superfluous, and should be stricken from the record. Sorry)

But baseball fans have been educated in the ways of electronic determination, and they are now looking for ways to get it right in baseball.

There are many situations that are subjective, determined solely by the judgement of the umpire---balls and strikes, fair and foul, safe and out, caught or missed. There is no reason why a camera could not be used to determine whether or not a looping fly ball is caught or trapped by a charging outfielder.

One of the umpires on the field should be fitted with an ear piece before the game. An official in the booth will whisper the correct call into his ear. This will cut down on the long delays in football decisions. (They may want to stretch this out a little, perhaps time for one or two commercials!)

Although I am not familiar with the systems, there are processes for improving the decision-making abilities of umpires. Clinics are held before the season starts to help them improve. Supervisors are in attendance at many games, assessing the performance of these arbitrators. Umpires who are challenged more often than others will soon learn the colour of the carpets in the major league offices. Some fans believe yearly eye examinations would improve their calls. As a former arbitrator, I take great exception to that position.

Not all decisions on the baseball field require replay decisions, nor should they; however, there is room for a little more justice in the game.

Perhaps some day we will find “Y’re out!” will change to “This will be determined shortly by electronic means.”

James Hurst

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