The long Memorial Day weekend provides opportunity to partake of the social life at the Liquor and Rubber Balls Sports Emporium and Custom Gift Wrapping, so Saturday late afternoon I trip in (literally — just not used to shoes yet, I guess) and engage a few regulars. Professional gambler Duck Diamonds is eyeing a few baseball games flickering on the flat-screens, simultaneously embedded in a heated discussion with retired sportswriter Vera Lu Senz.
“Like this is news?” Lu asks him, as I sidle in and park my beer on the bar (Goose Island Honker’s Ale, from Ft. Collins, CO. Very smooth on tap). “Like taking the game away from the umpires is gonna improve the game or the experience somehow?”
“The game ain’t theirs to take away to begin with,” declares Duck, sourly. “And now that there’s technology to straighten out some of these old blind moles, yeah that’s gonna improve the game because it’s gonna lead to more accurate calls. How can you be against getting the calls right?”
“Because first of all, they get it right enough most of the time,” Lu retorts. “But really, this isn’t about getting it right, this is about filing the edges and drying out the juicy parts that make baseball the craptacular human circus that it is. It ain’t supposed to be computer chess. It’s a whole scrum of head-games and hip-fakes and on-the-spot politics chucked into the pot along with pitching, hitting, and catching the ball. A BIG part of that is sizing up the umpires and knowing how their heads work.”
Now I get what this is about. A couple of obnoxiously nerdy types have a study coming out that provides data on the inaccuracies just oh-my rampant in umpires’ calls of balls and strikes. They calculated how umpires favor certain pitchers and batters based on those players’ reputations, how statistics reveal they inevitably favor the home team, how they actually grow less accurate when a game is on the line, etc. They note how some umps call borderline pitches strikes, while others call the same pitches balls. The horror. Some have “high strike zones,” some have low. They conclude that because there now exists the technology to enforce a 100% accurate and uniform strike zone, that decision should be removed from the umpires’ discretion.
And that’s horseshit.
“That’s not even horse shit,” says Lu. “That’s fish shit. That’s grasshopper shit. One of the things these geeks calculated was when the count’s 3-0, umpires call a strike more often than when the count is 0-0. But when the count’s 0-2, they expand the strike zone less than half the time. And they think this is the umpires being inaccurate, making mistakes.” She gulps her beer.
“That’s no mistake. The umpires have a sense of what it takes to make the game competitive, to spread the breaks around in the course of 9 innings. You’re in the hole with a 3-0 count, yeah, all the next pitch has to be is in the same zip code and Blue gives you a strike. The Old Automatic. Batters understand. Fans understand. Give the pitcher some slack here and make the hitter work a little harder for his free pass. 3-1 Blue won’t be as generous — but if the guy on the mound has any fuckin sense, he’ll appreciate the extra pitch and sharpen his delivery.
“Meanwhile, the pitching coach knows it, the opposition pitcher sees it, both managers make note. They work all this in, managing not just the game on the field but the one inside everybody’s heads. Because that’s what baseball is, Duck. That’s the game.”
“That just muddies it up,” complains Duck. “Why should the strike zone change from umpire to umpire, let alone batter to batter? You wanna move the bases closer, too, when a guy with short legs comes up?”
“What you call mud, baseball fans call gamesmanship,” Lu chuckles. “Actually, in Chicago we called it clout. You have a good eye at the plate, the ump respects that and you get the calls. You behave yourself out there on the mound when you’re unhappy with a call, maybe the ump gives you the next one. You put on a display, show up the ump, whether you’re the pitcher or the hitter you might not get a call to go your way the rest of the season. When you’re working up your game plan, going over the batters with your catcher, you factor in who’s calling balls and strikes tonight and how to take advantage.
Lu must have been a helluva sportswriter. All those years with the Cubs.
I see Duck’s point. He makes his living calculating the odds. The more factors he needs to consider, the harder it gets. Give him a stack of batting averages, ERAs, lefty/righty match-ups, day vs. night, injury reports, etc. — and now with armies of anal-ysts and their complicated sabermetrics, the data roll in on endless crushing waves — and now he’s supposed to figure in whether or not the umpire is on the rag?
But that’s Duck’s problem, not baseball’s, and certainly not baseball fans.’ Lu is absolutely right. What I like about the game is the sideshows, whether it’s inside the locker room, manager’s office, or bullpen; the pushing and shoving of high adrenaline competitors, some of whom are little more than “hillbillies with great eyesight,” in Jimmy Breslin’s words, manipulated by managers and media and forces they don’t bother to try to understand. The unwritten rules. The communication of a knock-down pitch and spike-high slide. The 4-seam manipulation.
“All baseball season long I make half the money I get in a single NFL Sunday,” he growls, pretty much confirming my suspicion.
Duck — why not give up the gambling and just enjoy the game?
Duck stops, whiskey half-way to his mouth, and stares at me. “Enjoy sports?” he asks incredulously. “Enjoy sports? Really? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard all night.”
“Why, thanks Duck,” chimes in Lu. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Yeah, well it’s early,” mutters Duck. But he’s smiling.
Note: the “obnoxiously nerdy types” referenced above published an essay with a tantalizing look at their findings and conclusions this spring. Read it here.