Sports’ Achilles heal

I’m talking about the officials. Professional sports and their athletes are top-of-class. But the refs who blow their whistles are struggling against impossible standards: getting it right all the time. Their failures to perform threaten the integrity of the games they officiate.

It has taken me a while to recover from the Warriors’ stupendous collapse, losing three straight after securing a 3-1 margin in the first four games. Officiating had something to do with their demise: ticky-tack fouls on the league’s MVP amidst glaring omissions for slaps across the heads of Golden State players bound for the hoop or simply trying to move from one spot to another on the floor. And don’t get me going on the lack of foul calls on offensive screens. It is evidently legal to physically redirect a defender from one zip code to another.

Of course, the biggest reasons for Warriors’ retreat to ignominy were the “Drunken Turkey” and the “Drunken Pogo-stick,” Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, respectively. Barnes clearly forgot that making points involves putting the ball into the basket. Ezeli, despite his size and strength, shrinks like a wet noodle when near the goal.

Enough of that.

I turn now to baseball, a sport I played through my youth and into college and beyond. The game has changed dramatically since the 60s and 70s, my decades toiling on the mound. Pitching, for one, with the emphasis now on roles: starter, middle relief, set up, and closer. Gone are complete games, commonplace with Spahn, Marichal, and Ryan. Hitters, no matter how tall or small, swing for the fences, increasing strikeouts and frustrating fans yearning for success with runners in scoring position.

Baseball, to anyone who watches, is the most amenable of the major sports to the use of technology. High-definition cameras record every pitch and batted ball, yielding metrics that statisticians could only dream about in my day.

Take balls and strikes. The contest between the pitcher and the batter is the essence of baseball. Nothing happens until the ball is pitched and the hitter swings. This most crucial element depends on the ability of the home plate umpire to judge the location of a spheroid traveling nearly 140 feet per second. Regrettably, the umps miss far too many, calling balls strikes and vice-versa. Yet, before our television eyes we see a pitch tracker superimposed on the field of view. The technology records the precise location of the pitch to within a small fraction of an inch, far more accurately than the umpire—instantaneously.

The diehards will not hear of substituting already existing and working technology for the flawed judgment of umpires. They talk of an umpire’s personal strike zone. How preposterous. We could have all the accuracy we desire and eliminate the variabilities and defects of ordinary humans. After all, we are treated to replays that rely on ultra-high-def cameras and video equipment that reveal within fractions of an inch whether a fielder tagged some part of the runner sliding into a base and when.

I am not proposing to banish umpires from the field. The home plate umpire, for example, could don the inflated shield worn years ago. No need to get into a squat to gain a better view of the incoming pitch. Also, no need to be assaulted by a foul tip traveling 100 mph.

It will happen. Though, like economic fairness and security, not in my lifetime.