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Don’t Kill the Umps!

If baseball wants to replace an institution with a robot, then the fans need to take their bats up and revolt.

Jim Bouton died on the same July day that the Atlantic League conducted professional baseball’s first game-long experiment with robot umpires, the latter an event that might be likened to Richard Pryor’s introduction to freebasing cocaine, or John Bolton’s first dorm-room game of Risk. Something wicked this way comes.

The free-spirited Bouton, whose Locker Room Confidential memoir Ball Four (1970) remains a sprightly and affecting read, sometimes came across in his writing and public persona as a know-it-all pain in the ass (though a mutual friend assures me he was not). I do admit to cheering when his smugness got blown away by Elliott Gould at the end of Robert Altman’s Raymond Chandler pastiche The Long Goodbye (1973).

But he wrote as a brave and honest man, a radical who was also a reactionary, as the best radicals always are. In his self-published Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark (2003), Bouton recounted his unsuccessful effort to persuade the city fathers of Pittsfield, Massachusetts to scrap plans for an $18.5 million taxpayer-subsidized and eminent-domain-enabled stadium and instead permit Bouton and his partners to fix up Pittsfield’s historic Wahconah Park, where baseball has been played since 1892.

Pittsfield was losing its team in the Class A New York-Penn League to Troy, New York, where the taxpayers of the aptly (if obscenely) nicknamed Empire State had built Joseph Bruno Stadium, its eponym the convicted-but-later-acquitted-of-corruption Republican State Senate leader.

Bouton’s offer? “Pittsfield would get a renovated landmark and a professional baseball team, at no cost to the taxpayers. We’d even sell stock to local investors so no one could ever move the team out of town….We’ll spend private dollars to renovate an existing ballpark for a locally owned team.”

Some radical, eh?

He explained:

“Beyond the sadness, there’s a certain fear involved in tearing down a treasured building. Tearing down is forgetting. If we can forget so easily, who will remember us?” 

“… It’s comforting to live in a community that cares about its history. I’m one of those who cringed when the Taliban blew up those ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, and I’m not even a Buddhist. Nor do I care about religion. Baseball is my religion and ballparks are the temples.”

Bouton never got his team, but neither were Pittsfield’s citizens fleeced for a new stadium. Baseball is still played at Wahconah Park. 

Back in 2001, Bouton and partners had set their sights on a franchise in the independent Atlantic League, which, on the day of Bouton’s decease in 2019, rolled out the robot umpires. These are computers which transmit their ball-and-strike calls via an iPhone to an earpiece jammed in the meatus of the now-supernumerary home-plate human umpire. 

With the flip of a switch, one of the richest traditions in a tradition-rich sport—arguing, disputing, and hooting at the umpire, as well as adjusting to his finely calibrated (or maddeningly arbitrary) strike zone and enjoying his histrionics—vanishes. For the Atlantic’s tide will in time wash over the continent. This sinister experiment is being subsidized by the automatons who run Major League Baseball, whose commissioner, Rob Manfred, is, I regret to say, an Upstate New York native. (Hey, they can’t all be Robert Lax, Jimmer Fredette, and Gore Vidal.)

We talked about this alarming development the next night in the third-base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. Hippie Eddy says the Illuminati are behind it. Then again, Eddy is so delightfully reactionary, baseball-wise, that he’s in favor of restoring the practice of players leaving their gloves on the field when they go in to bat. 

There are points beyond which a man cannot be pushed, even if his response entails violence against property. Disabling a tank rolling toward your town falls within the ambit of morally acceptable behavior, I think, even if the tank is properly licensed by the authorities. 

Edward Abbey, the literary godfather of monkey-wrenching, said when he was only slightly older than I am now: “I’d gleefully take part in a violent revolution—I’d love to go down to city hall in Tucson and tear it down. I’m getting more radical as I get older.” 

I have nothing against Tucson, but I would with great pleasure take the musket down off the mantel and blow any future robot umpire back to the techno-hell whence it came.

It’s a stupid fantasy, I know. Verily, I could do little more than hurl rocks at the evil eye, the cyclopean devil perched high above home plate. But surely a new generation of tech-savvy saboteurs and baseball loyalists will know what to do.

Methinks it’s getting time to unleash the old Sabby Cat, as the Wobblies, those most excellent labor anarchists, called creative explorations in direct action.

Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.



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