Mother, may I slug the umpire
May I slug him right away
So he cannot be here, mother
When the clubs begin to play
Let me clasp his throat, dear mother
In a dear delightful grip
With one hand and with the other
Bat him several on the lip
Thus begins the anonymously authored poem entitled — brace yourself — “Slug the Umpire.” Written by a baseball fan and apparent prototype for Norman Bates, “Slug the Umpire” was published in 1886.
This was the year the joint rules committee of the National League and American Association convened after the season and established five balls for a walk and four strikes for an out, as well as abolishing the practice of batters requesting pitch location. In addition, the strike zone was established between the knees and shoulders of the batter — a rule that long would outlive four-strikes-and-you’re-out.
Umpires have been challenged to interpret the strike zone ever since. Each to his own is how the system works, or in the case of the 1997 National League championship series, doesn’t work. The late Eric Gregg’s strike zone was so expansive in Game 5 that Marlins starter Livan Hernandez whiffed 15 Braves, sometimes on pitches that resembled actual strikes.
Such an arbitrary strike-zone judgment remains a major source of discontent for hitters, whose job has gotten ever more difficult by the proliferation of power-throwing relief specialists, one after another, a 6-foot-6 guy with a 96 mph fastball, followed by a 6-8 guy who throws 98.
In other words, hitters are a bit cranky these days, and inconsistent versions of the strike zone are not helping to lighten their mood. Solutions? A few months ago, this one occurred to me: Drones behind the plate.
It will happen someday, I figured, maybe not in my lifetime but someday nevertheless. Three-dimensional technology already allows fans with laptops a more conclusive look at pitches than the one-dimensional view of the home-plate ump. The technology has proven to be accurate and, just as important, immediate: It’s either a ball or a strike.
No need to call a timeout for a two-minute replay review.
Turns out I might have been both right and wrong. Technology someday will phase out humans calling balls and strikes for the simple reason that the technology is better at it. But the embracing of technology is happening so fast, it can called a phenomenon.
During a Tuesday night game between the San Rafael Pacifics and Vallejo Admirals of the independent Pacific Association, a home-plate ump was not assigned to call balls and strikes. Balls and strikes were to be called by former Mariners outfielder Eric Byrnes, observing from a SportsVision monitor set up in the press box.
Byrnes didn’t plan to exercise judgment; his role was to announce SportsVision’s determination of each pitch to the San Rafael, California, crowd on the public-address system. A UCLA product and host of a sports talk show in the Bay Area, Byrnes has been an early and eloquent advocate of using technology as the ultimate strike-zone arbiter.
Technology, it should be noted, does not mean a home-plate umpire isn’t necessary. When professional athletes take the field to compete, disputes are inevitable, and umps are more practiced at quelling bench-clearing confrontations than, say, off-duty cops.
Still, Tuesday night posed milestone potential: The first pro baseball game played without a human being determining balls from strikes.
“We’re not just putting on a promotion,” Vinnie Longo, San Rafael’s assistant general manager, told Baseball America. “We’re doing something big for the game of baseball.”
Some old-schoolers will wince at the notion of cameras filling in for umpires. Then again, some old-schoolers surely winced in 1886, when rules changes required hitters to guess about the location of the next pitch instead of putting in a room-service request.
The game evolves. If it didn’t, we’d all be singing a slightly more awkward version of the seventh-inning stretch song.
“And it’s one, two, three, four strikes you’re out at the old ballgame.”
Bring on the cameras. They won’t miss. They won’t be duped by crafty catchers framing the pitch. They won’t be tempted to render makeup calls absolving them of wrong calls. They won’t hold grudges.
The game evolves.