When Tech Strikes Out

 
 
By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2001-04-16
 
 
 

Yes, accountants can be humorous. The best accounting joke of all time follows.

After a disputed third strike is called, three umpires create an instant support group behind home plate and argue the best way to make such calls.

UMPIRE NO. 1: Balls are balls, strikes are strikes and I calls em as I sees em.

UMPIRE NO. 2: Balls are balls, strikes are strikes and I calls em as they are.

UMPIRE NO. 3: Balls are balls and strikes are strikes. But nothin aint nothin until I calls em.

Umpire No. 3 clearly understands the bottom line of baseball issue resolution. But the dispute over how to call strikes is being taken to new levels of seriousness this year in Major League Baseball, nonetheless.

Now, after all the disputed calls are over, the home plate umpire of a given game in some ballparks will be presented with a compact disc. On that disc will be burned a video record of the game just gone by — from the umpires vantage point. Pop it into a laptop computer and see if you really called em as they were.

The compilation will require the use of five cameras, to get the right angle on balls that are balls and strikes that are strikes.

The pitch-tracking system will rely on technology originally developed for aerial mapping and such things as blowing our global enemies missiles to smithereens using another kind of strike — the antiballistic missile. The system will track each baseball to within two-fifths of an inch. That should make it clear what happened in each pitch, close enough to tell the difference between a ball and a strike.

That presumes that the QuesTec system will throw a simulated strike zone for each batter up on the screen, kind of like the simulated first down line you see on televised football games. Now theres no reason not to be able to tell exactly what is a ball and what is a strike.

Right now, this system is seen as just an aid to umpires, who are going through a season where Major League Baseball is trying to restore the strike zone to the size stated in its rule book. That is an area that spans the width of home plate and runs, top to bottom, from a "horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of shoulders and the top of the uniform pants" to another line "at the hollow of the knee cap."

The way things have gone in recent times, the zone seems to run from the belt buckle down to the knee, shearing off about half a foot of potential strikes above the waist.

But it might not be long before the technology calls the strikes, on the field. With the right sensors, itll be relatively easy to create a strike zone that adjusts to the dimensions of the batter and records the passage of any spherical object through the zone. The zone could even be automatically activated by the release of an object 60 feet, 6 inches away and deactivated by the slap of the ball into the catchers mitt. The Clapper goes pro.

But such interactive technology would take much of the fun out of the game. The human aspect of this is what makes it so interesting. Otherwise, why have pitchers in the first place? Pitching strikes can always be accomplished by machines, if thats what you really want. It happens at amusement centers nationwide already, 18 pitches to a token.

Before swearing off the technology before it gets used, though, theres something to be said about appropriate accounting techniques for sports. Where else is there such clarity about objective and individual performance? Forget the $252 million man, Alex Rodriguez. If you really want a sane compensation structure in baseball, just pay everybody the same amounts: $1,000 for a single, $2,000 for a double, $3,000 for a triple, $5,000 for a home run, etc.

Ah, if only it were so simple. But, hey, who said professional sports are sane, in the first place? There are some things technology can never — and should never — solve.

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