VERO BEACH, Fla. — Over three days of umpire camp — not to be confused with umpire school, more on that later — there is little attention paid to the strike zone. I’m loath to lead with a detail like that, which lends itself to too many punchlines. At ump camp, which is focused on education and not even evaluation, they don’t teach students how to distinguish between balls and strikes and isn’t that just rich? No wonder they’re so bad, you’re thinking, or getting ready to tweet alongside a screengrab of this paragraph. No wonder they’re all getting replaced by robots.
And in a way it’s schadenfreude as a form of self-defense. The increasing mechanization of all sorts of industries will put people in a huge swath of professions out of work. Robots are coming for all of our jobs; but they’re coming for umpires' jobs imminently and on a public stage.
After a closely watched debut in the Atlantic League last year, the automated strike zone was reportedly ready for testing in the minor leagues this season — back when there was a season scheduled. The coronavirus has thrown a wrench in plans far bigger than experimental sports technology. It’s not clear when or even if minor league baseball will take place in 2020. And, contrary to some reports about how a virus-shortened season could provide a major league testing ground for the electronic strike zone, Major League Baseball has not discussed implementing robot umps in the bigs if games return later this summer.
The system has kinks to be cleaned up and a strike zone to stabilize. But all that said: Robot umpires remain an inevitability. An electronic system for calling balls and strikes at the highest level of baseball is a matter of when and not if.
For the participants of the camp, the goal is to get to any of those levels. Back home, they umpire high school games, or college, or Little League and they make good money for a day rate. But even if your playing days are behind you — most umpires turn to officiating after injuries or the realities of their baseball ability catch up to them — you can still dream of getting the call to the show.
First, however, they got the call to come here: To Historic Dodgertown. After getting scouted by MLB officials at various events around the country, 32 aspiring umpires descended on the sand-colored hallowed halls that previously housed World War II Navy troops and Dodger greats. This opportunity is free, three days between Christmas and New Year’s jam-packed with education on umpiring fundamentals. At the end, some will be awarded one of the 8-10 scholarships available for the annual six-week umpire school. Others will take what they’ve learned at camp and pay their own way to attend the school. From there, students can graduate into affiliated ball.
If they make it that far, they’ll spend close to a decade working their way up through the minors for a chance to be heckled on a national stage. Students at the camp understand that the public perception of umpires is that of the bad guys, or the cops — a necessary nuisance that may soon be rendered irrelevant. That’s the problem with getting good at something that goes unnoticed when it’s done well. Here in Florida, their education entails far more than the ball/strike decisions the world has seized upon. Instead, they are consumed with the art of becoming the kind of stoic, invisible metronomes that keep a whole sport running on time.
‘All I watch is officials’
This may sound sanctimoniously high-minded to the average viewer who barely sees the umpires on the field until they botch a key call, but the people pursuing a dream in baseball at the camp in Vero Beach are actual fans of officiating.
“When I watch sports now, that’s all I watch is officials,” 28-year-old Ian Land said, repeating a sentiment shared by every single one of the participants I spoke to.
They talked about how even amateur umpiring will ruin a person for normal baseball viewership. Once you start officiating yourself, the actual action is boring compared to the umpires.
“Their movements, their professionalism, how they handle stuff on the field, their situations. I don’t even watch the game. My friends hate watching the game with me,“ Land said.
“Their persona, their aura. You can tell if an umpire is professionally trained or an amateur — how they dress, how they talk, how they use their bodies,” recent college graduate Alex Linares said. “When they’re on the field, there’s never a sense of worry, there’s always a sense of calmness.”
It’s hard, then, to accept even an incremental marginalization of their idols and their aspirations.
MLB’s Director of Umpire Development Rich Rieker is forceful and passionate about the opportunity available at the camp. He regularly referred to professional umpiring as a lottery ticket you can control, each number a buzzword from a motivational poster like PREPARATION or HARD WORK, with the ultimate payoff being an intractable, well-paid dream job in the majors.
Perhaps consequently, he did not want to talk about robot umpires. He tried to discourage me from asking the participants about it, too. It would be wrong to say that the specter of robot umpires hung over the camp. If anything, there was an almost eerie disinterest in discussing the biggest existential crisis facing their profession since the introduction of the K-zone. But then again, this is not an event for people who report on umpiring, or informed critics of the trade, or even people involved in its evolution — it’s an event for people who love it, just the way it is.
And I wanted to ask those people specifically — the umpiring hopefuls on the precipice of professional deference to the party line — whether they worry about the robots breathing down their necks.
“Initially I definitely did,” said Josiah Shepherd, an aspiring umpire who just completed a masters in operation management at Rhode Island College, where he coached baseball.
“Initially when I saw all the articles and saw all the reports I was like, ‘Oh man, they say it takes 8-10 years to get to the bigs, is this something I want to commit myself to for 8-10 years to find out that, oh, there’s robots?’ ”
“You see it in workplaces all around the world,” Shepherd said. “Machines are taking over people’s manual labor and stuff.”
He said Charlie Reliford, a former major league umpire who teaches the 12 hours of classroom time in Vero Beach with a blend of encyclopedic knowledge and beet-faced bluster, reassured him that there would always need to be human umpires on the field. Which is true! Even if an automated strike zone is relayed to an umpire via earpiece, there still needs to be someone standing behind the plate to signal the call, just as there’s always been.
Other participants cited the need for technicians to work with the automated zone systems as an antidote to the looming loss of job opportunities. So perhaps unemployment isn’t what’s really at stake — it’s the craft and the culture.
Missing the human element
“It’s how I feel about turf: I don’t like it,” said Houston native Isabella Robb, one of 12 women who participated in the camp this year. “It’s not the core of what baseball is. I understand the want of a minimization of human error. But it’s just a cultural aspect of baseball that a lot of other sports don’t have. There’s such a close relationship between umpires and players determining every aspect of the play all the time.”
Land said robot umpires will sterilize some of the intimacy out of baseball — not just between players and officiating crew, but for spectators, as well. “The fans complaining about umpires is part of the game,” he explained.
The idea that a couple of missed calls is all part of the fun is a common refrain.
“Hate it. I don’t like it,” Macon Hammond, a science teacher from North Carolina, said about robot umpires. “Baseball is a game of adversity, it can be a great character-building game. And just to take that human aspect and human error of it, or even the thought of that, kind of bothers me.”
All of that is understandable — people are inherently resistant to change, and colloquially robot umpires seem to make a mockery of the position. Yet there’s reason to believe it wouldn’t be nearly as disruptive as the students feared — either to the experience of watching a game, or to what’s at the heart of umpiring.
“I can say two years before it came out when we started hearing about replay, [people said] ‘I don’t think I like this. I have to stand on TV and say I messed up,’” Reliford, the longtime major league umpire, said. “But as you know, I think the umpires are very appreciative of replay.”
It’s true. The parallel between automated strike zones and replay reviews is salient — especially at the officiating level. Both allow technology to correct some of the human errors committed by the men in blue, seemingly at the expense of their egos or ultimate authority.
And it’s also true that replay has been warmly embraced by those that aspire to the major league umpiring ranks.
“I like replay now cause it takes a little pressure off us and helps us to get the call right.” said Sal Fernandez, who was working at an In-N-Out in California. “Cause as an umpire, we just want to get the call right.”
“If I was offered the opportunity to see replay on a lot of my plays, I would,” Land said. “Because not only is it a confidence booster if you got it right, it’s a learning experience if you got it wrong.”
‘Never let them see you sweat’
You might be wondering what exactly they do for three days in Vero Beach if not practice calling balls and strikes. Well actually, they do practice calling them — for hours on end. They don’t practice determining them.
The way Reliford tells it, accuracy is honed not through instruction, but through sheer reps. Every year in the minors, affiliated umpires will see thousands of pitches. The ones who make it to the majors get good — and they are good on average — because they’ve been doing it for a decade and because they got promoted between levels.
The ability to see a strike zone accurately comes with practice. The ability to command a baseball field has to be there from the first at-bat.
At umpire camp, they focus on two main subjects: esoteric rules that they may only reference once in an entire career, and the carefully choreographed authority that keeps games from going off the rails.
In a pair of contiguous batting cages, student umpires pantomime at-bats. An umpire for a catcher, an umpire holding an invisible bat for the batter, a pitching machine, set as slow as it’ll go. They take turns rotating through who gets to be the umpire. And then, over and over, they practice the act of calling a ball or strike. The path of the ball is irrelevant. The point is to assume the correct position, crouch when the pitcher sets without losing a view of the strike zone, make the call quickly and definitively. Be strong and assured and loud. Be consistent. Don’t add any flair. Don’t look weak-willed or wishy-washy.
On a backfield, standing in rows wearing black or blue polos and anonymizing face masks, they perform similar drills for calling runners safe or out. This big self-serious group simultaneously performing the same motions any schmuck at home will dramatically reenact on a close call looks like a comedy routine. How hard can it be? That depends on how important it is that you get it right without a moment’s hesitation.
Next they move to a diamond and run routes for more obscure plays. With the help of high school baseball players, they practice how to maneuver and where to look and when to make a ruling for tagging up and interference and when a live ball is inadvertently thrown into the dugout or the seats.
Over and over, Reliford coaches his disciples: “Never let them see you sweat.”
And, to put a finer point on what’s at stake: “Sell it, that keeps everyone in the dugout.”
And, without a hint of irony: “Don’t look at the ball.”
In between active sets, students sit in a classroom and study the Major League Baseball rulebook. From front to back. Cover to cover. Reliford editorializes, draws parallels to famous games and even more famous controversial calls. But still, it’s a staggering amount of information. Within the first hour, a sportswriter who watches the game for living could get confused. Fifteen years from now, if the kind of esoteric rule most of us never knew existed suddenly comes into play, the umpires can’t be confused.
Perhaps even more so, they can’t seem confused.
“On the field you are the ultimate authority,” Reliford said at one point amid an F-bomb laden tirade about laziness the previous day. “An appearance of lack of confidence, or worse lack of desire, hurts your credibility.”
The unkind interpretation would be that umpires are taught to exhibit unmerited bravado — an embarrassingly human sense of hubris that will be phased out when a better option comes along.
But three days in umpire camp underscored the way seamlessly rote officiating is required for baseball games to unfold smoothly. On every pitch, every slide, every ball hit down the line, the difference between chaos and the unremarked upon continuation of the game is a quick and decisive call from an authoritative presence. When it happens correctly, it’s easy to take for granted.
Many of the students pointed out that while computers are accurate, they’re not endlessly reliable. Electronic strike zones can glitch, leaving a pitch uncalled. In those moments, the figurehead behind the plate will have to issue a ruling — without letting a lag undermine the energy of the game.
This seemed sort of sad, at first. Like they were relying on being relegated to backups. But that’s not the case. The robot umpires, whenever they get here, will be merely a tool in the arsenal of an umpire — whose real job was always to be the scaffolding upon which the fun stuff is built.
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