Once upon a time, what feels like a lifetime ago, I worked a summer as an umpire. For the most part, I worked as an umpire for Farm League, which was what Hermitage Little League called its 9 and 10 year olds. It was, by far, the worst job I’ve ever had.
In every baseball game, there are countless calls that have to be made. As an observer it’s easy to say that some calls are obvious and some calls aren’t, but in reality every play is a judgement call. What’s a strike zone, really? Was the ball inside of it? Are you sure? Are you positive? Because you’ve only got one look, then whatever’s left in your memory to make the decision. And balls and strikes are easy compared to bang-bang plays at the bases. Consider what goes into a close play at first base. The umpire must all at once consider the ball, when the first baseman catches the ball and gains control of it and whether or not his foot remains on the bag, and whether or not that all happens before the runner’s foot hits the base.
And again, you only see it once. And in the millisecond that you see it, it replays in your head a thousand times and of those thousand times, the runner seems safe in 500 of them and out in the other 500. And you try your best to figure out which of those thousand replays was the first one that your brain saw. As your hands rise and your vocal chords start vibrating to make a call, you’re sure you’re right because you’re out there doing your best and you’ve watched countless baseball games, but you also know that you honestly have no idea if that runner was safe or not and this call is honestly your best guess based on everything else you’ve seen on a field.
All of that happens with one out in the fourth inning of a 10-1 game. And it happens without any knowledge of the people involved, which every umpire will try his hardest to deny is a factor but deep down it always is. The summer I umpired, I was asked to umpire a game for the Junior League, which consisted of 13 and 14 year olds. I was asked to do it because everyone know I was an umpire and I was in the stands. I was in the stands because my brother was playing for one of the teams on the field. I called my brother out on strikes that day because I was terrified of being accused of favoring my family, not because of where the pitch was. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk or a bad umpire; I was just overwhelmed by the situation and was doing the best I could not to get caught up in it.
Last night, Jim Joyce got himself caught up in a situation even more emotionally fraught than calling your own little brother out on strikes. He looked at a close play at first base and his brain started replaying it and unconsciously said to him, “But what if you call him out when he was safe and give a perfect game to a guy that didn’t deserve one?” and before he even had time to process it the very same brain countered with, “But he was out! And if you call him safe you’ve robbed this kid of a perfect game!” But he only gets to see it once and before his brain even had time to sort it out, he had to make a call. As we know now, he made a call that he truly thought was the right call, but he was wrong.
So why are we blaming Jim Joyce for this? He did his best and he got a call wrong. It happens. Umpiring his hard. People make mistakes. We all try our best not to screw up, but it’s just not possible to avoid it all the time. Why can’t there be a guy in a box with access to replays and the ability to buzz the crew chief when a play needs reviewed, just like hockey has?
People love to argue that the “human element” is part of baseball, but why does that include umpiring? Plenty of players drop pop-ups, throw to the wrong base, run through stop signs and get thrown out, forget to tag up, drop throws, or do any of the million little things that humans do that cost teams games (trust me, I’ve seen ‘em all as a Pirate fan) without involving the umpires. The players are the human element. If you were wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to prison because the jury misread misleading evidence, would that be OK because it involved the human element? The umpires are separate from the games, trying their hardest to make sure that the game can be decided by the human element on the field and not the human element in navy blue slacks standing next to it. We have the technology to help them do that. Isn’t it time we started?