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Bryce Harper Throws Tantrum, Reigniting Debate Over Computers Calling Strikes and Balls

This is a slippery slope for our nation’s pastime, and sports in general, to be traveling down.

Folks, we are kidding ourselves if we deny that we watch sports for the drama.  In particular, the human drama.

That’s why we play the games.

From underdogs to three-peaters, the world of sports is overflowing with characters.  As neutral fans, we often find ourselves rooting against the visiting team, or in favor of the losing team because, after all, sports is just a sweaty form of entertainment.

And that’s why we keep coming back.  We want to watch an entire stadium full of human beings smiling and cheering at the same time.  This multiplicity of emotion makes us feel alive, and it focuses the power of the human sentience onto a small, grassy patch.

In this day and age of handheld computers and self-driving cars, sports are at risk of suffering from a dehumanization of the games themselves.  Instant replay, as common as it is today, is still extremely controversial.  Yes, it does, more often than not, make the sport fairer, but it takes away with a huge part of why we tune in in the first place:  The human drama.

Now, after the well-paid baseball player Bryce Harper threw a tantrum regarding the calls of strikes and balls this week, a new intrusion to baseball could be coming:  The automatically-detected strike zone.

On Thursday, the independent Atlantic League will begin its 2019 season. That circuit will serve as a petri dish of sorts for Major League Baseball this year, experimenting with a series of fairly radical rule changes that include the incorporation of a TrackMan radar system to call balls and strikes. Some fans have been clamoring for an automated strike zone with a plea of “robot umps now” since before such a thing seemed at all feasible. But pitch-tracking technology — like many other technologies — has come a very long way in the last few years.

And it’s time.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The thing is, the same devices that make automated strike zones possible now contribute to the tension between teams and umps over strike calls. Not only do the umpires know they’re going to be judged by their employer with unprecedented precision, but teams enter games armed with data mapping every home-plate umpire’s particular tendencies. If you know a guy has a habit of calling high strikes, you’re more likely to gripe over a pitch at the top of the zone. Worse yet, with more and more broadcasts now featuring annoying, intrusive strike-zone overlays, fans can get in on the discontent, too.

The idea that we are computerizing and “fixing” sports is asinine.  Sports are sports because of the human errors and ability, not in spite of them.  This path could lead us to any number of homogenized and unentertaining “advancements” in the same way that tee ball only sort of teaches a young person how to hit a pitch.

Former Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson said it best, when predictably asked by a reporter how he felt about upsetting a much higher ranked team that was predicted to win on paper:

“That’s why we play the games”.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


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