Mark Clark: Kubrick knew this day would come

Mark Clark: Kubrick knew this day would come

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Remember Stanley Kubrick?

Remember his film “2001: A Space Odyssey”?

Remember what it was about?

Well, you should. Kubrick’s movie is coming to life as I write.

Technology – computers – is taking over the world.

You enter a fast food restaurant and select what you want from a kiosk. Press the buttons and your order is taken. The food you ordered, in some places now, is cooked by a robot. It is then delivered, again, in some places, by a robot.

Heck, order something online and there is a chance it will be delivered by a drone – which is a flying robot.

Cars are being driven by technology. No human needed for this mundane chore.

You say 2001 is long gone and Kubrick was wrong? He was not. He made this film in 1968 when 2001 seemed like 2050 does today. What will we see in 2050? Flying cars ala the Jetsons?

And as if all that is not enough, the independent Atlantic League and Major League Baseball have joined together to experiment with technology calling balls and strikes instead of human umpires – well, instead of human umpires for the most part.

This is not the first time sports have dickered with using technology over humans. No, I am not writing about the National Football League using instant replay – though the Alabama High School Athletic Association is now following in those footsteps. I am referring to the World Football League in the 1970s using laser beam technology to determine whether a ball was advanced far enough for a first down. The league used a device set on the sideline just as chains are set that emitted a beam across the field and if the football interrupted the beam, it was a first down. I kind of liked that one.

But, I never expected baseball to do something like it is doing with a minor league.

The Atlantic League, beginning this season, will experiment with a system for calling balls and strikes for the next three seasons. The system – Trackman – will use Doppler radar to make the calls. The system does have its problems and human umpires will still be on hand to help. Why and how?

Well, the Trackman system will still make a call of a strike if the ball hits the ground in front of home plate if the ball still bounces through the strike zone. It also does not make decisions on check swings by batters. Umpires will be there to override the computer if necessary when those things happen. 

Major League Baseball has used technology to evaluate umpires for years. In 2001 through 2008, the Ques Tec system was used. From 2009 through 2016 the system used was PitchF/x. Trackman has been used since 2017 to evaluate umpires.

Umpires are far from perfect, but so is the technology that has been used and the technology that will be used. There is no perfect system.

You have probably seen these systems before, but did not know what they were. Watch a professional baseball game and you will occasionally see a box pop up to represent the strike zone on television. Then you see dots representing whether the pitch was a ball or a strike within or outside of the box. That is pretty much what is going to be used, but you as the fan will not see that box when sitting in a baseball park around the Atlantic League for the next three years. You will still see an umpire standing behind the catcher. He will have an earpiece that will tell him the decision of the technology being used. The umpire is just there to act as if he is making the call until he overrides the technology as stated earlier.

Joe West, a major league umpire who call his first game in 1976, has called over 5,000 big league games  and is on track to break Bill Klem’s record in 2020, said the 2016 test of the technology was “far from perfect.” 

“It missed 500 pitches in April, and when I say it missed 500 pitches, that didn’t mean they called them wrong. They didn’t call them at all,” West told a writer for the Associated Press earlier this year.

West also noted that people tend to blame someone else for losing and that is usually the umpires. With technology being used, who will be blamed? Who will players turn to when a pitch is called a strike that they did not think was a strike? Are they going to argue with a computer? The only time they will have a person to argue with is when the umpire overrides a call on a check swing or when a call is not made by the computer at all. That will take the entertainment value out of some games won’t it? Or will the computer be able to toss a manager who comes to the plate to argue? 

I can see it now when a manager uses a few choice words to express his feelings about something that happened and the computer says, “That does not compute. You are out of here.”

Oh, there will be a few other changes to the rules in the Atlantic League as part of the experiment. Bases will be 18-inches square instead of 15-inches which will decrease the distance from 87-feet, six-inches to 87-feet, three-inches. The pitching mound will be moved back two feet for the second half of each season. Infield shifts will be restricted by requiring two infielders to be on each side of second base. Infielders will be restricted from setting up on the outfield grass. Breaks between innings will be shortened from two minutes and five seconds to one minute and 45 seconds. Visits to the mound will be banned except to change pitchers or for medical reasons. And each pitcher must face at least three batters or complete a half inning, unless injured.

I hope this experiment fails. This just is not baseball as we have grown to know it.

Mark Clark is a local sports writer for The Citizen of East Alabama.