Umpire Gabe Morales experienced a glitch in his cognitive machine at precisely the wrong moment on Oct. 14 in San Francisco, resulting in a terrible call to end one of the epic games in the long history of Major League Baseball. A handful of baseball purists — poetical types who tend to confuse the game with theology — will find this a beautiful object lesson in the vagaries of life. But chances are it will further the encroachment of technology on the godlike authority of the ump.
What a game it was, up to then, a classic even before the teams took the field. The San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers — two franchises with long and grand traditions — had waged perhaps the greatest regular season contest in history. For the first time, two teams in the same division won as many as 106 games; then, on Oct. 3, the last day of the long campaign, the Giants won their 107th, sending the Dodgers into a do-or-die wild-card game to earn a postseason rematch.
Would you believe the two clubs entered the ninth inning tied 1-1? It got better: the Dodgers scraped and hustled their way to another run, then called the great Max Scherzer to the mound to get the last three outs.
He was magnificent. Still, the Giants had a man on with two outs and infielder Wilmer Flores at the plate. A well-hit ball could tie the game. A home run would win it. This is baseball’s apotheosis — in the long, slow buildup to a moment of exquisite drama. To have the buildup last an entire season, through 218 victories between two teams, only to fizzle away on a blown call seemed to confirm T.S. Eliot’s tragic prediction that the world will end not with a bang but a whimper.
Where I live, a bad call shaped an entire generation. Missouri’s two major league teams — the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals — met in the World Series in 1985. The Cardinals were rolling toward winning the title in Game 6 when first-base umpire Don Denkinger wrongly called a Royals runner safe, unleashing a cascade of lucky breaks for Kansas City that carried them to the title.
The word “Denkinger” still boils blood in Eastern Missouri, while in Western Missouri, fans of a certain vintage would happily name a street in his honor. But just as Denkinger’s dud laid the predicate for the use of instant replays to decide close baserunning calls, the Morales muff will undoubtedly hasten the arrival of robot umpires to decide balls and strikes in the majors.
Much like players, robo-umps have been working their way up through the minors in recent seasons, their performance carefully scrutinized by the powers that be in the big leagues. As Zach Helfand explained not long ago in the New Yorker, technology — notably radar-based pitch tracker that calls balls and strikes — outperforms human umpires in accuracy and consistency, and it doesn’t care what fans might yell about its mother.
Accuracy appeals to an audience highly prized by today’s sports establishment: gamblers. The most valuable content in television is live programming, watched as it happens — because the viewers can’t skip over ads. Sports fans who are placing digital bets as the action unfolds are the ultimate real-time viewers. And they don’t want their money riding on the foibles and caprices of human officials. So here we are.
The call that ended Thursday’s Dodgers-Giants epic was not a matter of strike-zone interpretation. Batter Flores coiled to swing at a stray pitch, but clearly stopped himself. Watching from up the first-base foul line, umpire Morales ruled it a swing. Game over — and many wagers lost, presumably. Rules don’t allow such calls to be overturned by camera evidence.
So the rules will surely change. The genius of inventors and engineers and technologists will fill yet another gap through which human error peeps. But let’s not think that we are headed toward perfection. Hubris is perhaps the most glaring human error, and by far the most dangerous. Unless we are reminded of our fallibility on a steady basis, we’ll end up with mistakes that cost far more than mere dollars or ballgames. You can bet on that.