Bud Selig and Kennesaw Mountain Landis

For the past several years, Bud Selig has been a guest lecturer in Marquette Law School’s 7303 course, “Professional Sports Law.” His daughter (and successor as owner of the Brewers) Wendy Selig-Prieb, was a 1988 graduate of the law school. On Tuesday, the school announced that Selig was formally joining the school as adjunct faculty.

As it turns out, Commissioner Selig has an even deeper connection to Marquette: Kennesaw Mountain Landis lectured there in 1909, when he was a federal district court judge in Chicago, long before he became baseball’s first commissioner in 1921. Marquette law professor J. Gordon Hylton did a little digging and discovered that Landis’s lecture was entitled “Public Criticism of the Judiciary,” in which he used the example of baseball to defend the right of individuals to criticize judges:

Adverse criticism — denunciation that is unjust can permanently injure nothing or nobody. And as a rule its impotency increases with its bitterness. But very great injury can be done even a virtuous cause by an attempt to forbid inquiry into it or comment upon it… I have been going to baseball games for thirty years. I never saw a game or heard of one where somebody did not call the umpire a robber or a thief, and yet no intelligent man doubts the integrity of baseball.

Landis’s words sound anachronistic and naive now. Sadly, because of the twin specters of performance-enhancing drugs and blown calls revealed by instant replay, many intelligent men doubt the integrity of baseball. And the experience of McCarthyism forty years after his speech demonstrates the weakness of his assertion that adverse criticism cannot do permanent injury. However, his central point is correct: a refusal to countenance or engage criticism can be deeply harmful. Bud Selig has been quick to levy fines at people who dare to criticize umpires, even though instant replay on television feeds provides permanent evidence of how wrong many umpires have been on crucial plays.

Selig has been quick to expand baseball revenues, through expansion, the creation of the wild card, and now the expansion of the wild card, but he has been extraordinarily slow to respond to scandals that have threatened the game’s integrity. By contrast, Landis was known for his swift and overly rough justice; he was offered the job in response to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and he banned at least 13 men from baseball during his tenure. His draconian tactics were softened by later commissioners, but there is no doubt that after the eight men went out, the integrity of the sport was never seriously threatened by gambling. (Lifetime bans were handed out to Pete Rose and George Steinbrenner, later rescinded, but neither man came close to threatening the sport itself.) Landis went too far, but at least he took action.

The active steroid era is effectively over, so the window of opportunity for Selig to take action has passed. But the instant replay debate is very much alive, and Selig punts it at his peril. Baseball needs to address the fact that on-field calls are frequently demonstrably wrong, affecting the outcomes of individual games, pennant races, and playoff series. It’s time for the newest faculty member at Marquette Law School to respond to the criticism and take action.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

51 Responses to “Bud Selig and Kennesaw Mountain Landis”

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  1. Jason Kramer says:

    Do you really believe intelligent people doubt the “integrity” of baseball umpiring? The quality of umpiring is criticized, but I don’t believe anyone has questioned the fairness or bias of umpires.

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    • I don’t question their honesty. I question the outcomes.

      When teams lose games because well-meaning men have gotten it wrong, it calls those games into question. Here’s the way Joe Posnanski put it:

      Missed calls are embarrassing the game. More, they are making the results of these games questionable. Why was gambling an issue? Because it made the results questionable. Why were steroids an issue? Because they made the results questionable.

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      • jlive2003 says:

        So … you’re *not* calling into question the integrity of baseball umpires. The outcomes are sometimes “wrong,” but the sense in which the outcomes are “questionable” is very different than in the cases of gambling or steroids — at least, if you really do believe that the umpires are being honest.

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      • I didn’t say anything about the integrity of umpires. Of course we know that honest men can make mistakes. But now we have the technology to identify those mistakes immediately. And if we can identify them immediately, we should be able to correct them immediately.

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      • jlive2003 says:

        Yeah, I don’t think you’re seeing the complaint yet. As far as I can tell, your argument goes like this: (1) umpires are not as reliable as current technology; (2) if umpires are not as reliable as current technology, then the results of baseball games are questionable; (3) in previous instances where the results of baseball games were questionable — in cases of gambling by players and use of steroids by players — immediate action was called for in order to remove the question marks; (4) immediate action is called for in order to remove the question marks with regard to the reliability of umpires.

        What I am saying (and I think Jason is saying this as well) is that (2) and (3) equivocate on “questionable.” The sense of “questionable” in premiss (2) is significantly different from the sense of “questionable” in premiss (3). In (2), it is just a synonym for “reliable”: as in, “I’m not sure that the outcome of the game reflects what really happened on the field according to the rules.” In (3), it is a synonym for “on-the-level”: as in, “I’m not sure that the game was on the level.” While I agree that games being questionable in the sense of (3) is serious, games being questionable in the sense of (2) is not so serious. I don’t think the reliability of human umpiring has significantly degraded over the last twenty (or hundred and twenty) years. That means that I believe umpires made similar errors in the past that they make now. That doesn’t make me want to go back and put asterisks on everything. The games are not questionable. Not in the strong sense of (3), which is the only one that matters.

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      • Jlive, I appreciate your taking the time to go through the argument so thoughtfully, and I don’t dispute your characterization of my argument. Anyway, I like the way Matt put it. When things are “questionable,” ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s malfeasance, incompetence, or mere human error: it’s fundamentally unfair when a ball is called a strike, or a safe runner is called out, and a team wins a game or a pennant race or a playoff series because an umpire misunderstood reality.

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    • matt says:

      The integrity of the game can suffer while the integrity of the men involved with it (i.e. umpires) can remain intact.

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  2. Mike says:

    McCarthy is a poor example because the man’s outlandish actions ended up discrediting everything he said. If his critiques had done permanent damage then McCarthy himself would not find himself being incorrectly used to support someone’s point on a blog.

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    • McCarthy wound up discredited too, of course. Despite that, many of the people he accused were damaged for years. Allegations of wrongdoing have a habit of sticking.

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      • ben says:

        Not to make this a political debate, but McCarthy (who I despise, and don’t want to defend) was proven right on alot of his statements, though i’m sure they were more stabs in the dark than credible accusations.

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      • The VENONA revelations have demonstrated that there were indeed Communists in government. However, McCarthy had no idea who they were. His allegations were exaggerated or made up, and his claims that he had lists of “known communists” were utterly fabricated — except for his very earliest list, which was a few people who had admitted their involvement long before, and were thus extremely old news. McCarthy got a whole lot more wrong than he got right.

        According to W. Joseph Campbell, McCarthy hired a couple of professional journalists to work for him and write speeches for him, and he asked them to research the issue of communism in America. They wrote speeches for him that were based in fact. However, they were deeply dismayed to watch him go off the text, making wildly exaggerated claims and citing numbers that had no basis in reality.

        Indeed, McCarthy’s destructive behavior and ultimate downfall badly discredited the cause of anti-Communism. It also damaged all of the people he unfairly accused.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        You realize that you linked to a World Net Daily article right? This is the same ‘news’ organization that believes Obama was born in Kenya.

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    • Pennant says:

      Re McCarthy:
      every generation of men finds its reasons for being, often legitimate, and then carries some good ideas to absurd lengths, creating often worse problems.

      the society of 2010 is similar. It is amusing to hear the echo of history, each generation proud that is has matured from mistakes of those long dead, while wallowing in vices as bad or worse than their parents, only because the culture has pretended they no longer exist. I.e., if we’re hitting too many foul balls, just move the foul lines! We’re all good now.

      The standards for acceptable discourse and behavior seem to depend on who has the money, the power. Standards need to be trascendant.

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  3. BC says:

    I find nothing “naive” about Landis’s words. He is speaking from a background of centuries of legal censorship that justified itself by claiming to be necessary in order to protect people’s reputations. His point is that there is more harm in repressing critical speech than there is harm in letting people sling mud, and that seems sensible enough. He doesn’t believe mud-slinging never harms anyone or never sticks. Rather, it is a justifiable cost if the alternative is to criminalize crticism.

    As for the remark about baseball’s integrity, he’s not even talking about baseball. Baseball is invoked only as an analogy. Just as yahoos yelling “thief!” at umpires all day doesn’t really undermine the insitution of baseball (we all know those people are just cranks), so to allowing people to yell “crook!” at judges isn’t going to destroy our judicial institutions. That is, we can tolerate silly and defamatory speech (birthers, 9/11 truthers) without having to worry about society unravelling. It’s an argument against needing censorship, not about whether baseball actually has integrity or not.

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    • Darien says:

      Agreed. Another reason why the McCarthy analogy is not particularly apt, of course, is that McCarthy’s crusade wasn’t simply a bunch of trash talk — he was invoking the powers of the state to crush people. I don’t think that’s what Landis is referring to.

      Notwithstanding, of course, the fact that McCarthyism was itself a form of censorship. It was all about suppressing unwanted ideas.

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  4. ForkSlideBall says:

    Strike one: “Landis’s words sound anachronistic and naive now.”

    Strike two: “the experience of McCarthyism . . . .”

    Strike three: ” . . . on-field calls are frequently demonstrably wrong . . . .”

    I don’t criticize the occasional useless article on this site, but this particular useless article deserves to be criticized—it pretends to be reflective and intelligent when in fact it’s anything but.

    Speaking of damaged reputations, I’ll be skipping articles by this author in the future.

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    • mttmiranda says:

      I see you gave incredibly detailed arguments why. Except you didn’t. If you don’t like it and you have nothing to add to the conversation, how about you grow up and not be so rude? Thanks

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    • matt says:

      Strike one: “ForkSlideBall”

      Strike two: “I don’t criticize the occasional useless article”

      Stirke three: “in the future”

      If you’re going to have a point, you should make it. Your comment pretends to be intelligent when in fact it’s just rude.
      Here’s the thing about constructive criticism: It’s constructive.

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  5. Chris says:

    I’m confused as to why people think that instant replay is the end all solution. Will this stop arguments? Will people still argue even if people are looking at the same replay? yes.

    The two most important things for any officiating crew are impartiality and stability/confidence. Its important to ensure that umpires are fair and that when they make a call, it isn’t questioned.

    I don’t think that anyone would claim that umpires make biased calls, and if replay was instated all it would lead to is everyone arguing more and damaging the stability/confidence/respect of the umpires.

    Instant replay won’t solve anything. It will just make people question umpires more and slow the game down.

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    • Patrick says:

      I disagree fairly strongly here.

      Lets say that we used a coin flip and agreement system – If a call was so obvious both teams agreed on it, great. If not, flip a coin. Either team could request that.

      That’s totally impartial! It’s stable and we are 100% confident that it will be right… exactly half the time.

      Imagine if we replaced that with an umpire – We are confident that umpire is stable and impartial, and they’re right about 98% of the time. Great, it’s an improvement – And who would oppose that?

      The idea behind instant replay is not that it will remove controversy from all plays. It will improve the overall quality of umpiring.

      And as to delay of game… Just because the current system of replaying home run calls is poorly implemented doesn’t mean full replay would need to be.

      There’s a very simple solution proposed by Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk (among others) – An extra umpire in a booth with all the camera feeds and rewind and slo-mo buttons. On close plays, he could simply use a headset to contact the field crew and tell them they botched it – If they did botch it.

      No need for challenge flags (oh God), and no need for a troupe of umpires to march off in to the darkness.

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  6. smocon says:

    Yet another tally in the “Marquette is one of the most over rated Universities in the country” column.

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  7. Locke says:

    I wanted to like this article, but I think I would’ve more enjoyed a focused history lesson, then a separate article about how and why more replay should be implemented…this was a little muddled.

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  8. KS says:

    I agree completely with the comments that point out the fallacy of calling into question the integrity of an institution, or individuals who are part of that institution, because they sometimes make mistakes. The author attempts to justify his attack on the game’s integrity by saying he disagrees with certain outcomes. Integrity is “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” Disagreeing with an outcome has nothing to do with integrity, unless the incorrect outcome is a result of dishonesty. That is obviously not the case here. So, don’t attack the game’s integrity, or that of umpires.

    The number of obviously blown calls is minuscule in the grand scheme. So much of officiating is making the close calls, and often ten people will see a close play ten different ways. Has replay in football made the officiating better? Maybe, maybe not. Who of us hasn’t seen a replay in football that seems entirely clear to our eyes, only to have an official see it the other way. If it were possible to only use replay to address the most egregious calls, then it would improve officiating. But that doesn’t seem possible.

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    • I am not “attack[ing] the game’s integrity” — I’m saying it’s under attack.

      I argue that the game’s integrity is called into question when the game is decided by factors other than the reality of what happened on the field. When umpires misapply the rule book or botch a play — and everyone watching the game on television KNOWS that they misapplied the rulebook or botched the play, because we can see that by replay and we can hear the announcers quote the rulebook — then the ballgame has been affected by an element that is fundamentally unfair.

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      • Brian says:

        It’s only unfair if the anomalies are unevenly distributed. In the absence of any such pervasive inequality, blown calls are more an aesthetic blemish than a moral one. And as such, I’m in favor of fixing them. I’m all for expanding the use of replay, and I don’t necessarily have a problem with electronic ball/strike calling. But these would not be fixes to the “integrity” of the game in the usual sense of that word (which is clearly the sense that Landis meant).

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      • You can’t presume a normal distribution of error when it’s a pennant race or a short playoff series. Anomalies are always unevenly distributed, until the distribution evens out given a large enough sample.

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  9. KS says:

    One more point: equating cheating (performance enhancing drugs) with honest human mistakes (blown calls) is not only a false analogy, it equate umpires with cheaters… a highly offensive implication.

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    • No, it doesn’t. In the analogy, the blown call would be analogous to performance-enhancing drugs, or spit on a spitball, or an electronic sign-stealing system: inanimate objects that give an unearned advantage to one team and alter the outcomes on the field from what baseball’s rulebook says they should be.

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      • jlive2003 says:

        I’m curious how far you are willing to take your logic. Are you in favor of replacing the umpire behind the plate with a machine that calls balls and strikes? The technology clearly exists. Umpires clearly make incorrect calls on balls and strikes. Why isn’t this just as urgent a problem as mistakes on calls in the field?

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      • Sure, I’d be willing to consider it. Umpires aren’t necessary to the game — for much of the 19th century, there were no formal umpires. So removing them would be as much of an innovation as adding them was then.

        Why would you be unwilling to consider it?

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      • dexfarkin says:

        Your logic is faulty. The example of the PED or spitball involve the use of inanimate object to intentionally alter the playing field for an unearned advantage. A blown call, unless it is intentionally performed, provides an unintentional unearned advantage. Structurally, the ‘bad call’ is uniform as any team in any situation can be subject to it without favour, which essentially negates the impact of it as a structural flaw.

        Furthermore, the structure of professional baseball has always had the aspect of error in judgement on the field as part of the existing construct of the game. Being recognized as such, by both the teams and the fans, is unspokenly explicit as part of the instituition, and does not factor into the considered integrity of the game.

        You’re employing ‘integrity’ in the place of absoluteism, which is incorrect. And the comparison of judgement calls to willful and intentional cheating is as offensive as it is facile.

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      • WilsonC says:

        I wouldn’t say balls and strikes are a less urgent problem, but rather one in which an electronic solution carries more risk than replaying calls on the field. The difficulty with electronic balls and strikes is that the initial implementation has to be nearly perfect in order for it to succeed.

        With replay, having an umpire in a booth reviewing the plays doesn’t change much except that you have a validation process for the on-field umps. In the event of a technical malfunction, the worst that would happen is that the on-field crew would call the game normally without the use of the validation tool until the problem is fixed.

        With an electronic strike zone, you may be able to increase the accuracy of the calls, but you also run a greater risk of a spectacular failure. If there’s a problem with the equipment’s calibration, you’ll have a systematic flaw in how the game is called. In the event of an equipment malfunction, you’d have to expect a fairly significant delay of game in order to fix the problem. You couldn’t work around the problem as easily as with replay, as any umpires would be either inexperienced or out of practice when it comes to calling the strike zone.

        I can certainly see eventually moving towards an electronic strike zone, but we need to proceed more cautiously in that regard. One of the issues is that even if the technology is there to increase the accuracy of the calls on a general sense, even a single major technical malfunction that causing problems for a single game would dramatically decrease the trust of the fanbase toward the new technology.

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      • I simply disagree that intentionality matters when it comes to outcomes. If a team gets screwed out of a pennant because umpires blew a bunch of calls, it doesn’t matter that the umpires didn’t mean to blow the calls. The team still lost, and the verb is the same: many fans will say that they “felt cheated.” The result will be the same as if a team gets screwed out of a pennant because the other team cheated by using banned substances or practices.

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      • WilsonC says:

        The difference is that people are usually much more accepting of mistakes than corruption.

        If an ump blows a key call, fans will complain and may “feel cheated”, whereas if it surfaces that the ump in question was known to have dealings with gamblers, it goes beyond the feeling of being cheated. In the first case, a fan feels as though they should have won but didn’t due to an honest, random error, whereas in the second he feels as though his team had no chance to win because a non-random form of corruption stacked the deck against his team from the outset.

        The impact on the competition may ultimately be the same, but the second leads to a much more severe loss of faith, and it’s far more urgent that the league deal with the situation immediately and harshly. If the league takes its time before doing something to reduce the cost of umpire error, that may lead to a gradual loss of some fans, but compare that to the impact of if the league were to knowingly allow a corrupt umpire to continue working for them. A bad call leads to frustration or sometimes anger, but will either be forgotten or remembered as a topic of passionate complaint among the fanbase of a particular team. A corrupt umpire would lead to more pronounced anger, but also numbness, and a widespread loss of faith among the fanbase. I suspect that even the fanbase of the winning team would feel cheated by a corrupt umpire.

        Whether we’re dealing with corrupt officials, corrupt players, PED’s, a lack of honesty is a lot harder for the fanbase to forgive than an honest mistake. The logical results on the field may not be the same, but the emotional impact on the fanbase creates a difference in urgency between the two.

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      • jlive2003 says:

        Alex, just to lay my cards on the table, I am opposed to instant replay in baseball because I think baseball is and should be a human endeavor. I take seriously a sort of poetry-of-baseball idea. I used to think that umpires should be replaced by more precise machines. I used to think that there is a substantive truth about what happens on the field and that the entire point of umpires was to issue calls that accurately reflect that reality. But the longer I think about it, the less I like that view of the game. I actually think that if you were to remove human umpires, you would lose something important about the character of baseball — at some point, the game would stop being baseball and start being something else. I *like* the occasional blown call. It reminds me that humans are limited and that life is not always fair. I think that there is a kind of beauty in baseball’s imperfections and that removing those imperfections would actually make the whole thing worse aesthetically.

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  10. MookieTheCat says:

    Another interesting note on this, and it relates to Marquette Law. Chad Oldfather, currently a professor there, once wrote a paper on baseball metaphors and the law for the Connecticut Law Review. I edited one of his later papers and through that found his resume, and this gem, and was able to speak about it with him once or twice. His enthusiasm was apparent from these conversations. I would be surprised if Professor Oldfather was not involved with Selig coming to the school.


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  11. MikeS says:

    I would disagree with the assertion that “the active steroid era is effectively over.” The use of PED’s has been curtailed some and there is finely a system for punishment in place so MLB has at least admitted that the problem exists. The fact that suspensions continue to be handed out on both the major and minor league level shows that players continue to try to improve themselves through chemistry. They just have to be more sophisticated about hiding it. New drugs and methods are developed all the time and they are developed specifically for professional athletes to avoid the testing in place in their leagues. Just as one example, there is still no testing (or good test available) in any league for HGH.

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  12. Mark says:

    If you want to bring in instant replay, that’s fine. Here’s what drives me nuts about it though. When they have instant replay for these home run calls, it is taking a very long time to get the call right. Why do all four umpires have to leave the field? Why can’t they just do what the NFL does and get the call in about two minutes.

    In the course of a three to four hour affair, people argue what’s another ten minutes? I argue it’s another ten minutes! Replay won’t speed up the game that desperately needs to move faster. I suppose a call that is blown and ultimately wastes the whole three hours is important, but at least a blown call is entertaining.

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  13. Pennant says:

    I would like to see baseball experiment with ball and strikes called by an electronic computerized method, as well as use of replay. Obviously technology needs to be embedded as seamlessly as possible.

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  14. airlifting says:

    how seamless could robot umpires be? in regards to the potential technological failures mentioned above; why does baseball have to tell us that robots are calling the game? simply the ump could simply have some sort of object (small hearing aid, some sort of flashing ticker, etc.) that tells him whether the call was a strike or not. i guess the reaction time (from pitch, to the “alert,” to the B/S call) would be a problem, more so if the machine fails and he’s unaware of it.

    at the very least, in the event of catastrophic technological failure, umpires would be on-hand at games in order to “take over,” right?

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    • WilsonC says:

      I’d think that some sort of aid for human umpires would be the first step in moving toward an electronic strike zone. If each ump were given a handheld device that shows pitch location data,for instance, you’d give umps the ability to verify uncertain calls at a glance while calling the game normally otherwise. You’d still leave room for umpire judgment, but it would be a step in the right direction. It would take time for umpires to get more comfortable relying on the aide, but it would create a nice buffer zone to minimize the risk impact of technology failure, and would serve as a period to test the reliability of an electronic system before fully committing to it and to iron out any bugs that may exist in the system.

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  15. Ray says:

    Not alot of intellegiance in this article or on this site-Clearly Landis and McCarthy were no good for anyone or anything-History has shown how bad they were-Black Baseball players never had a chance with Landis remember? McCarthy should have been shot! Selig is an owners buffoon-This is what is needed in Baseball NOW!
    1) Put the DH in th NL
    2) Make all divisions 5 teams–(4 teams in the AL west–6 teams–NL central)
    3) Add 2 new teams-32 teams-4 divisions 4 teams AL -NL–4 winners no Wild Card
    4) Reassign each division every year based on the year before-Thereby helping to eliminate problems like what is in the AL east–Baltimore has no chance for years and are as good as almost half the teams in Baseball
    5) Come up with a Salary Cap the will help balance the League as a whole

    Finally -GET RID OF FRANK McCOURT and BUD SELIG Altogether!

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  16. Ray says:

    +These changes are just plain no-brainers–Yankees payroll in 2012?
    250 million–Padres payroll in 2012–40 million?-Many other teams at about 40 to 60 million–Thats even?–The DL makes both leagues play totally different games–The Play-off picture is also crazy–Wild Card winners are not WINNERS- They came in 2nd PLACE! At least make all divisions have the same amount of teams–4 in one and 6 in another?–Thats fair?—This is partially what is wrong with Baseball and the owners just dont give a shit and niether does Bud Selig-He closed his eyes to all of the steriods in the 1990s because it was making everyone money and now we have about 15 years of True Baseball records that are tainted !Mcguirre has as many homers as Frank Robinson! And on and on-There are so many great Baseball players records that are just screwed because of what happened not just Aaron and Ruth because of Barry Bonds et all–This has as much to do with the owners as the players themselves—Make these changes-Make Major League Baseball the same for both Leagues and for all of the teams and players EVEN!

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  17. Darien says:

    Have to disagree with you, Alex, on the merit of taking action just for the sake of taking action. If Landis went too far, then there are several people he wronged — and for what? To make a statement? Ruining the careers (and potentially the lives) of a number of honest men for the sake of being real sure you catch the dirtballs is a very bad policy.

    Selig should not take action on replay just so he can say, hey, he did something. Too many people’s livelihoods are at stake to be so impulsive. I do personally support the adoption of replay in baseball in some capacity, but it’s important to take the time and get it right, not just go fast for its own sake.

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  18. merizobeach says:

    Technology is inevitable, and some thoughtful, tested synergy of umpires and technology would ultimately benefit the sport. Spring training may be a decent forum to test experimental new technologies.

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  19. merizobeach says:

    Perhaps technology might be used to tally the right and wrong calls made by umpires over the course of a season–perhaps even with some weighting with regard to the gravity of the call–all of this without interrupting on-field game play; and then at the end of each season the umpires would receive an evaluation and ‘scorecard’ of their own performance; underperforming umpires could be sanctioned or released. (Good luck breaking their union for that last thought.)

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  20. Oakland Dan says:

    On a tangentially related note, I’d just like to say that Phil Cuzzi should be fired for intentionally blowing that call in last year’s Yankees/Twins playoff game. That is the one time in my life that I questioned the integrity of an umpire. Go back and look at that call, the “foul ball” off the bat of Mauer. It was blown intentionally. I am still disgusted when I think about that call, and I’m not a Twins fan.

    Bring on the robots.

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