Autumn Reminiscence & Baseball Ramblings
by Malcolm Macdonald, December 6, 2017
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, when the golden days of autumn turn to cloudy, dingy days in December an American's thoughts can yearn for the halcyon afternoons and long evenings of summer. Summers spent without Russian computer hacks and the disruptive sirens of fake news.
Oh, but even our pastoral diversions have been subjugated to the whims of computer wizardry for longer than we realize. It has been twenty long years since QuesTec first came on the stage. What is QuesTec? Well, if you aren't a baseball fan, let's stop right here and single you out for deportation. Forget race or religion as a stereotypical basis for immigration policy, let's get down to the root of what it means to be a U.S. citizen. If we're building a wall, people who don't care about the national pastime should be on the other side of that Green Monster. Spelling Carl Yastrzemski's name correctly should be a make or break question on the citizenship test, not to mention “Eye Chart” Gwosdz.
I digress, but that's part of the beauty of baseball. It is a sport, a pastime, a divertissement, if you will, that allows for both solemnity and languor. QuesTec was a Long Island, New York, based company that came into being twenty years ago. Through the use of computer technology and something called “Super Vision” QuesTec introduced a mechanized view of the strike zone above home plate.
The initial use of QuesTec came during television broadcasts of the 1997 National League Championship Series (NLCS) between the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins. Right about now, true baseball fans are nodding and saying something like, 'I remember that... Who was that umpire?'
That umpire was Eric Gregg. Up until October, 1997, Eric Gregg was chiefly known for being a pioneering African-American umpire (he was the third, following Emmett Ashford and Art Williams) who battled a sometimes prodigious weight problem. After the fifth game of the '97 NLCS he was recognized as the man in blue who called a plethora of pitches that were six to ten inches off the plate strikes. Most of these egregious errors in judgment went against the Atlanta hitters, to the tune of fifteen strikeouts for Marlins starting pitcher Livan Hernandez. Giants fans will recall how “clutch” Livan was in the 2002 postseason.
Major League Baseball's powers-that-were did not allow QuesTec to show the “Super Vision” view of some of the pitches Gregg called strikes because of the taint such a replay might put on the sacred American game. The irony in all that is a man or woman wearing trifocals could tell how mistaken Gregg was that day. Players and fans alike could see what was going on without QuesTec.
In 2001 Major League Baseball (MLB) contracted with QuesTec to place cameras in several big league ballparks to track whether or not pitches were in or out of the strike zone. MLB was using QuesTec to grade umpires behind-the-plate performances.
It wasn't just umpires who were concerned about Big Brother watching over them. On May 24, 2003, then Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling took to the mound in a home game against Bruce Bochy's San Diego Padres. While Schilling struck out eleven Padres and walked only two in a seven inning stint he also was the victim of poor run support and lost the game. Schilling, like many another high strung, high caliber major leaguer, did not take defeat well. What he did take was a bat, which he swung enough times to destroy one of the QuesTec cameras. His reasoning? Umpires had told Schilling that when QuesTec was pointed at them they called the game differently, taking away corner pitches that usually were called strikes for veteran star pitchers like Curt Schilling.
The umpires bargaining association filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in an attempt to ban QuesTec, but that grievance was dropped as part of the umpires 2005 contract negotiations with MLB. That settlement effectively ended any legal challenge to the possibility of computer's tracking balls and strikes. However, even though MLB relies on computer replay of out or safe calls as well as many other calls formerly the domain of the human eye of umpires, balls and strikes continue to be within the purview of the somewhat subjective eye of the humans in blue. How much longer that lasts remains to be seen.
If one thinks that the subjectivity in baseball rests solely with umpires, take a look at what the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) did to Ted Williams, the last big leaguer to hit higher than .400 for an entire season. That's right, the year Williams hit .406 for the Red Sox (1941) the MVP award, as voted by the BBWAA, went to the Yankees Joe DiMaggio. Of course, Joltin' Joe set the all time mark for hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive games that year, but did you know that during that stretch (May 15th through July 16th) Ted Williams actually had a higher batting average (.412 as compared to .408 for DiMaggio). In addition Williams bested Joe D. in runs scored and home runs. Only in runs batted in (RBI) did DiMaggio have a slight edge (125 to 120). If one applies 21st century statistical analysis to the 1941 season, Williams OPS (on base percentage plus his slugging percentage) was 1.287. That figure has only been bested by Barry Bonds (with something of an asterisk attached) and the singular slugging of Babe Ruth. DiMaggio's 1941 OPS was 1.083, certainly worthy, but a number that has been surpassed one hundred eighteen times in major league history.
If you think sportswriters have it in for Barry Bonds take a gander at what happened to Williams in 1942. In that season Williams led the American League in practically every hitting statistic ever invented: batting average, RBI, home runs, runs scored, slugging percentage, on base percentage, and more. Nevertheless the BBWAA gave the most valuable player (MVP) award to Yankee infielder Joe Gordon, who had a good season, but compared to Williams should have been an also ran at award time.
Therein lies the beauty of baseball and its supreme American-ness. The numbers on the scoreboard continue to be unarguable, objective facts, but votes are based on extreme subjectivity.
(Every pitch is inside at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)