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The Strike Zone?

The decks were cleared of all household responsibilities on September’s last Sunday afternoon. It was the last day of the regular season for MLB and has been the practice in recent years; all 16 games were scheduled to start at the same 3:05 p.m. eastern time. In this shortened season, most of the games were of consequence as four teams in the National League were fighting for two remaining playoff slots. The American League’s eight post-season teams were already determined, but seeding spots were up for grabs.

With the TV remote by my side, I was set for an afternoon of a baseball fan heaven with three hours of channel surfing awaiting me. While “my teams,” the Pirates and Red Sox, had long ago been eliminated from any such post-season activities, there were plenty of games that piqued my interest. With the daylight turning to darkness, it turned out the three teams of my life-long rooting interest, the Pirates, Dallas Cowboys, and Boston Celtics, all bit the dust on this day. That, coupled with the end of the baseball season, shed disappointment on a jam-packed sports day.

While my chagrin was just that of a fan, witnessing the final out of the San Francisco Giants loss to San Diego left me thinking what the players were feeling with their elimination from the playoffs on the season’s final day. Going into the last day, the Giants needed to win and have the Phillies and Brewers lose for them to make the playoffs. The Phillies and Brewers did just that, and the Giants batted in the bottom of the ninth trailing 5-4. Down to their last out, Austin Slater took a 2-2 pitch quite obviously below the knees, only to be called out by the home plate umpire. Slater placed his hands on his head as the Giant dugout expressed their displeasure.

A few points of clarification need to be made from my perspective. 1) That particular call didn’t rob the Giants of a playoff berth. They had plenty of chances during the season to win the one more game they needed and didn’t get it done. 2) No umpire intentionally makes a bad call. 3) I have managed, coached, and umpired, and understand any given call may differ depending on one’s perspective.

But watching as much baseball as I have, it is hard to accept how much the strike zone varies depending on who is behind the plate.

By description, MLB defines the strike zone “as the volume of space above home plate and between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of their torso.” While the actual size of that strike zone will vary depending upon the batter’s physical size, it should not vary as to what is to be called a strike at an umpire’s discretion.

In this world of technology in which we live, our sporting events are inundated with a barrage of charts, graphs, and video imaging, which, in many cases, can be classified as “overkill.” However, in most every televised MLB game, a strike zone graphic is in place for every batter that steps to the plate. That box seems quite accurate, and in accordance with MLB’s strike definition, all the ball has to do is touch the quadrants of the zone. Umpires are human, but players should not have to “adjust to an individual umpire’s strike zone.” The umpires should call strikes as they are defined.

I am definitely a baseball traditionalist and feel the human element is an important part of the game. But just as so many other rule changes are being introduced into the game, I am reluctantly changing my thinking that the strike zone would better serve the game by being called consistently as to the rule book’s definition of the same. If that means doing so using technology, so be it. Better yet, the human umpires should adjust to the game, not the other way around.

I am not referencing the strike zone used in sandlot youth sports. In many instances, pitchers have a harder time throwing strikes. The game is more interesting for all when the ball is being put in play instead of a bevy of walks. It is understandable when arbiters at these levels of play ‘widen the strike zone a bit.’ But, MLB is a professional sport. It is a time when everyone, players, coaches, administrators, and umpires have a common understanding of what the strike zone really is.

A few years back, when Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk was in town for the Grand Slam Parade, I had the opportunity to spend some time with him. He told some good stories, but one in particular, I well remember.

During a game at Fenway Park, Luis Tiant was the Red Sox starting pitcher. Usually a pitcher with good control, Tiant walked the first batter on four consecutive pitches. Facing the second batter, the count was 3-0, when the next pitch appeared to be ball four. As the batter began to head to first base, the umpire, to Fisk’s surprise, called strike one. Before the batter got back in the box, the umpire leaned over Fisk and said, “There you go; that should get him going.”

Ah, sports and the human element have created some wonderful moments. Adjusting to various personal interpretations of what a strike is doesn’t happen to be one of them.

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