Man versus machine

Will you trust the technology that predicts the flight of the ball after it hits the batsman?

By Tim Mansel

Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, right, puts his hand on the back of tearful homeplate umpire Jim Joyce. (Detroit Free Press/MCT)

No baseball fan can have missed the furore that surrounded Armando Galarraga’s 2010 perfect game that never was. 26 outs, no hits, no walks and then umpire Jim Joyce blows a call at first base.

There’s been much fallout. One is the book “Nobody’s Perfect” authored by Galarraga and Joyce that appeared in May. Another is the debate about video replay. Joyce admitted that he got it wrong as soon as he saw the replay. Why was this not admitted into evidence, why could his call not have been overruled? The question on the lips of many infuriated fans.

Perhaps baseball has something to learn from cricket — a game gaining more popularity across the United States — from New York to Florida, from Houston, Texas to California – albeit mainly among expatriate communities from South Asia or the Caribbean.

Cricket umpires (C Lance Bellers)

In cricket, video replay has been around for nearly 20 years. If an umpire is unsure whether a batsman is out or not, he can ask for a replay. But in cricket they’ve now taken it a stage further and allowed players to ask for a review of umpiring decisions.

Trouble is, the best team in the world, India, wants no part of it.

In cricket a batsman can be called out if he uses his leg to prevent the ball hitting the stumps behind him. It’s a judgment call on the part of the umpire. So in cricket the technology operates in the world of the hypothetical: would the ball have hit the stumps had it not hit the batsman’s leg first?

The ruling is made using a piece of electronic wizardry that predicts the flight of the ball after it hits the batsman. It’s the same technology they use in tennis to determine whether a ball bounced inside or outside the line.

But the Indians don’t like it and so when they went to England in for a series of matches in July and August neither side was able to use it. The Indians say the technology is unreliable and they won’t use it until it’s foolproof. Fair enough, you might think, except that it’s been accepted by all the other top cricketing nations and the international governing body, the ICC.

There are probably other reasons. It could be that having been on the end of a couple of dodgy decisions when the technology was in its infancy, the Indians are now simply spitting the dummy (love that Australian slang). I’ve also heard it said that the senior players oppose the technology because their aura is such that an umpire is inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on close calls. A machine would not be similarly generous.

There have been several moments over the last few weeks when the Indians may have regretted their stubbornness. The number one team in the world at the start of this series, they have been comprehensively outplayed. Accepting the decision review system probably wouldn’t have saved the series for them. But it might have prevented humiliation for some of their batsmen, and made life for England’s a little harder.

I’d be more sympathetic if the Indians had said they didn’t want it because it interferes with the game. Referring decisions to an off-field umpire takes time and interrupts the rhythm. Yes, umpires get it wrong from time to time, but over a season or a series your good calls and your bad calls generally even out.

So where ESPN’s Jayson Stark, in reference to Galarraga’s perfect game that never was, pleads for the introduction of video replays in baseball and asks why it would be a catastrophe if it took ten minutes to get a big call right, my response is well, it wouldn’t be, but you might get an awful lot of people leaving the ballpark.

Stark’s case was reinforced on May 3 when Minnesota Twins starter Francisco Liriano pitched a no-hitter that should never have been. In the eighth a runner was called out on a tag that was never made — an out that should have been a hit.

Stark aimed his fury at the baseball authorities, who couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge “the invention of a scary, futuristic innovation known as “modern technology”.

His logic, the logic of using technology to assist umpires in making difficult calls is hard to challenge. Sport is business, business is money. A bad call can cost millions. So let’s get it right if the technology exists to get it right. But sport is more than business. Sport is passion, sport is fun, sport is human.

So I don’t think it’s true, as Hawk-Eye, the best known producer of ball-tracking technology, claims on its website, that fans now expect and demand it to be part of every event. I think that quite a lot of fans have accepted this triumph of machine over man with a large measure of reluctance.

How is technology changing the way the game is played? How is video replay going to change the experience down at the ballpark?

Discuss this

Imagine what video replay would do to a free-flowing game like soccer. We’re about to find out actually because the world governing body FIFA has finally acknowledged the clamour from around the world for its introduction. The turning point came at last year’s World Cup when England was denied a goal with the ball clearly feet over the line before the German goalkeeper scooped it to safety.

FIFA now says that goal-line technology might be permitted in the next World Cup in 2014 if the right technology can be found. Hawk-Eye is one possible solution. Another involves a computer chip inside the ball and a satellite positioning system.

Michel Platini (Colicaranica)

The question is where this stops. First you introduce it for goal-line decisions, as in the England-Germany game. Then people begin to want it for calls in the penalty area. Then you use it to determine offside. This isn’t me speaking. This is Michel Platini, whose genius as a player drove the French team of the 1980s, and who is now the president of the European governing body, UEFA.

“Football is human, football is organised by people and we have the most popular game in the world because it is human,” he says. His solution: more referees on the actual playing area.

There are some hold-outs against technology; the French Open tennis championship, for example, which is played on clay. When players want the umpire to review a call, he or she has to climb down from the chair and inspect the mark the ball has left on the surface of the court. “Dirt is examined. Sport meets archaeology,” as the New York Times so beautifully put it.

Pointing to a line in the clay at Roland Garros. (Machiavel)

I like the idea of archaeology playing a role. But what I, Michel Platini, and the Indian cricket authorities need to get our heads round is that there is no way back. Video referral is already being used in the NHL, in football, even in rodeo. In Ireland the Gaelic Athletic Association has been talking to Hawk-Eye about introducing it into hurling. It will be in soccer before too long. In a few years’ time we’ll wonder how we ever did without it. But we don’t have to like it.