Armando Galarraga's near-perfect game raises the question: Are umpires necessary?

The stadium scene.
June 3 2010 6:13 AM

You're Outta Here!

Armando Galarraga's near-perfect game raises the question: Are umpires necessary?

To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss baseball's recent spate of perfect games on Slate's sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 25:35 mark:

A perfect game, it turns out, doesn't merely require perfection from the pitcher and the fielders behind him. On Wednesday night, umpire Jim Joyce mistakenly called the Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald safe at first base, depriving Detroit's Armando Galarraga of the 21st perfect game in baseball history (and the third perfecto in the last month). Joyce admitted his mistake after the game, cursing himself out and lamenting that he "took away a perfect game from that kid." Galarraga gave the umpire a consoling hug, reporting to ESPN's Baseball Tonight that he told Joyce, "Nobody's perfect." To his credit, the pitcher didn't add: Yep, that's right—I'm not perfect either, all thanks to you. Great job, jerk!

The baseball commentariat, it seems, feels more aggrieved by Joyce's horrible call than the pitcher who was wronged by it. Keith Olbermann and FoxSports.com's Jon Paul Morosi have called for Commissioner Bud Selig to decree that Jason Donald was in fact out—the sports-world equivalent of turning back time to undo a grave injustice. Other baseball writers, believing in the ancient precept of "no backsies," have called on the major leagues to prevent future crises by expanding the use of instant replay. (As of now, umpires can consult video replays only in the case of a potential home run.)

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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While there's almost no chance Selig will overturn the call—what would he do for his next trick, reverse the outcome of the 1985 World Series?—it's hard to imagine the more-replay crowd won't get its way. In the next few days, no doubt, Major League Baseball will announce that it's looking into the replay question. And perhaps in the next few months, terrible calls by first-base umpires could, like Mark McGwire's biceps, will become relics of the game's woebegone past.

There's not much of a rational argument against ridding baseball of blown calls. Still, the present debate over the nuances of a potential replay system—should baseball managers, like NFL coaches, get a certain number of challenges per game?—seems piddling and beside the point. So long as we're talking about the fallibility of umpires, let's raise the obvious question: Does it still make sense for men in blue to rule on who's out and who's safe?

There are two big-picture problems with 21st-century sports officiating. First, on account of HDTV and slow-motion replays, fans watching on television can umpire better than the actual umpires, who are unfairly handicapped by having to rule in real time with their own eyes. Second, there are now robo-umps that can arbitrate sports disputes with more precision than any human referee.

These new technological realities haven't led to any sort of universal standard about how our games should be refereed. As Slate's Farhad Manjoo pointed out two years ago, tennis has come the closest of any major sport to going full robot. If a player challenges a call made by a human linesman, a computer called Hawk-Eye is brought in to decide the dispute; it seems inevitable that, at some point, the lords of tennis will cut out the middle man and leave everything to the electronic eye. Meanwhile, soccer's world governing body, FIFA, has resisted every tech-y idea—replay monitors, a chip in the ball—that might potentially help the referee and the linesmen make more-accurate decisions. "[N]o matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being," FIFA President Sepp Blatter explained in March. "It is part of the human nature of our sport."

At least before the Galarraga affair, Major League Baseball was closer to the soccer side of this continuum. "The commissioner is a very forward-looking person, but he has an ample respect for tradition," MLB exec Jimmie Lee Solomon said in November, explaining Bud Selig's thoughts on instant replay. "He doesn't take this lightly. He doesn't make a lot of changes in the game without giving it a complete vetting."

Baseball's aversion to change hasn't been dictated by a lack of technological solutions. If MLB wanted to diminish the role of umpires, it could do so today. The game already has its own Hawk-Eye—a pitch-tracking system called Zone Evaluation that evaluates umps' implementation of the strike zone. (Not surprisingly, umpires have long groused about Big Brother monitoring their ball and strike calls.) It wouldn't take much to convert Zone Evaluation to Zone Pronouncement. At that point, it's strike three for Enrico Pallazzo.

If baseball does come for the umpires, though, it probably won't be because Bud Selig is installing chest-protector-wearing robots behind home plate. The game's sentimental streak makes it an unlikely candidate to replace its Jim Joyces and Joe Wests with computer arrays. Baseball also requires all manner of subjective calls—balk rulings, baserunner interference—that only a human could make.

Calls on the bases live in a middle ground that will be trickier for baseball to navigate. Considering all the variables in play on every throw to first base—the ball, the base, the feet of the fielder and the runner—it's difficult to design a gizmo that could render the out-or-safe question moot. Nevertheless, Jim Joyce's bad call shows that it doesn't make sense to trust an umpire's instincts.

The ump's role as baseball's on-field dictator dates to the pre-television era, an age when the guy standing beside the first baseman had the best claim to knowing what just happened on the field. Today, with the benefit of HD freeze-framing, we can all see what happened in the ninth inning in Detroit. If it's objective truth we're after, why should the one guy who isn't watching in slo-mo have any say at all, much less the last word?

Rather than fact-check Jim Joyce with television screens, why can't Major League Baseball use screens as a first line of defense? Forget giving baseball managers challenge flags—take a couple of umps off the diamond and put them in a booth with a bunch of high-def monitors. On every close call, the upstairs umps could tell the downstairs umps whether the runner was out or safe. Sure, that system isn't perfect—replays, after all, aren't always conclusive—but it's preferable to any scheme in which acquiring the right answer is the backup plan. Besides, perfection isn't the standard here. What we need is a system that makes the correct calls when we know what the correct calls are—a system, that is, that knows a perfect game when it sees one.

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