We’re now deeply ensconced in springtime. Flowering trees, the woods no longer transparent, the sounds of Harleys, baseball games, wildlife and insects. These and so much more denote the season of new life. All these sounds I enjoy while, frankly, autumn is my season of choice. I suppose looking forward to the hot temps of deep summer takes spring off the top spot because I am so grateful once they’ve passed.
Of the many spring changes afoot, one that is a perennial highlight for me is yardwork. Oh, no … wait … that’s nearer pure punishment to me, though many others relish in the solitude of mowing or tilling. I’d like to be that type, but the real “get” for me in spring is baseball.
Baseball this year is different from last year. Baseball and practically everything else, that is. Some of life’s experiences will never be what they were last year, while some are still lingering. Baseball, though, was an oddball in 2020 on many levels. The novel coronavirus was losing its novelty by the time spring training ended. Games were put on ice until the abbreviated season kicked into gear mid-summer. One hundred fewer games than normal. National League teams were treated/subjected to the pinch hitter model of the American League. For Cubs fans, the one mainstay was our team’s annual fate, barring mystical 2016. The Cubs again did just fine. Alas, some few days after clinching the division their season ended.
This year things seem to be going back to normalcy—routine spring training, no more NL pinch hitters, Cubs at or near the basement. What may be developing in the longer view, however, could make changes to the sport the likes of which it’s never seen. For you purists, or even casual fans, the alarming phrase is “artificial intelligence.” I’m pointing at you, Blue. The game’s officials, umpires as they are, may at some point way down the road (until we’re there, it always feels way down) be complemented by and then supplanted with AI.
Tennis has taken this approach in at least one recent tournament, the Australian Open. In the replays I watched—I’m not one to wake at 2 a.m. for a tennis match—some of its officials were replaced with cameras, sensors, and related technologies. If you’ve ever watched a “major” you know how critical the keen eyes of the line refs are. The fans in attendance are only more activated after long volleys and excellent play than they are during an official review. They’re clapping in unison as the big screens at the tourney zoom in to catch a hair’s breath of distance between the golden yellow ball and the bright white (sans France) lines on the court. The fate of a tennis match, or a baseball game, can find its way into the official’s hands and calls.
The humanity of officiating, apparently, is one of its downfalls. In tennis, the AI experiment might have come under the guise of social distancing requirements. Don’t let them fool you, though. There was an underlying driver of replacing refs to make close calls in Sidney. We humans make mistakes. We cost a lot. We add risk and affect the game when that should be left to the athletes, some say.
With baseball, for many years though not preceding the technology invoked, I’ve wondered about the umps and their humanity. In the early aughts I was running a hospital’s security program where staff needed a radio frequency ID badge to move about. Without having this little piece of plastic with a chip in it you couldn’t get through a door built with a receiver in it. Something about that tech, and about always wanting to blame someone or something other than the Cubs, made me believe that umps could be replaced someday with similar tech. It appears that the day is still out on the horizon, though it could be nearer than we think.
Was the pitch within the strike zone? It wouldn’t take too much imagination and tech to build out the ballpark in a way that cameras aimed at the plate and sensors in the hardware—balls, bats, uniforms, and such—could answer that. What about the White Sox gimmick of having a little person take the plate (it happened once in 1959, and he earned the walk)? Or what about the current practice of hiring pitchers taller than 6’6”? The tech could account for these, too. A bang-bang play at first base? Same response. Chips could immediately inform the official arbiter. It could come that no arbiter’s needed, and AI responses would simply appear on the scoreboard. A dinger off the foul pole? No question. Only data. How fair and exact the calls would be!
For that matter, why have players? Cannot the SABRmetricians crunch all the data and tell us who will have won the World Series? Okay, I get it. We want to see the players do their thing. That’s the gist of it as a spectator. So, then, what’s with managers? They can be mere programs crunching the SABR data and making lineups, choosing pitching matchups.
Sound kooky as a baseball fan? Here’s one for you. The U.S. Air Force is developing an app, called Arachnid, that’s meant to decide what defenses to deploy, what aircraft to scramble, and similar command messages. Somehow, fair and exact seems insufficient when it comes to national defense. Nikola Tesla invented and predicted so much, digital military among it all. This is scary, albeit inevitable, stuff to me. I’m not only talking about baseball, you see.
Mashing up baseball and military strategy wasn’t my intent this week. As a technologist there’s something basically meritorious about using ones and zeroes to deal with life. It solves problems. You can also see that tech creates some too. We must identify these limits.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.