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Technology has already made fans and players into cyborgs of one form or another. But the prospect of AI-assisted sports still unsettles many, because it raises tricky questions about what it means to play

Illustration by Dominic Bugatto

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest book is Singular Creatures: Robots, Rights, and the Politics of Posthumanism.

By now, even casual fans of the game realize that baseball as we know it – or knew it for half a century – is over. Enjoy the halcyon playoff days of October as the beloved old game dies a mediated death. Next year there will be bigger bases, no fielding shifts and a clock to discipline fussy pitchers. A clock! In the game that, alone among major team sports, disdains parcelled-out time! Now the game will soon tell a player how fast he must play, where he may stand and how far to run. This is not baseball, the glorious loose summer pastime. It’s Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, body tangled into the gears of leisure-time production and consumption.

Well, not really. True, the coming rule changes are being made to foster more offence and so, presumably, attract a wider, younger and apparently more easily bored audience. Fine, if a little sad. Personally I liked seeing the crazy shifts some teams adopted for predictable pull hitters, the Blue Jays prominent among them. It’s exciting to have the third baseman playing behind first base, say, leaving wide real estate open left of second, or to send four guys into the outfield like in sandlot games. But these cricket-like defensive tactics kill hits, and maybe hitters – you can’t hit ‘em where they ain’t when they’re everywhere.

Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays argues with umpire Shane Livensparger at a game this past August.Cole Burston/Getty Images

Rule changes have been made before, of course, and the game has endured. The ball has been rendered undead (1920), the pitcher’s mound was lowered (1969), intentional walks were made automatic (2017) and teams are now allowed to conjure a scoring-position runner in extra innings by hitless fiat. Maybe most striking, the designated hitter rule was adopted by the American League in 1973 and by the National League this year.

None of that has destroyed baseball. Even fans who hated the DH rule liked the fact that the two leagues disagreed about it. Now that both are DHing, there is still the “Shohei Ohtani” rule, named for the Los Angeles Angels two-way star, which allows a pulled pitcher to stay in the game as a designated hitter.

As with wonky stadium contours and goofy home run celebrations, baseball thrives on this kind of quirkiness and idiosyncrasy – and endless argument about it.

Which brings us to the rule change that isn’t being made next year, and has so many fans and commentators sounding off, pro and con. I mean the prospect of robotic umpires to replace all-too-fallible human ones.

The prospect has been around for years, notably fictionalized in the future-set episodes of Hank Azaria’s hilarious Brockmire television series, but also tried this year in real life in baseball’s minor leagues. The current timeline for MLB’s ump upgrade is the 2024 season. The controversy is just starting.

On one level, resistance to robo-umps is just another example of the kind of anxiety, sometimes bordering on technophobia, that has become standard. Self-driving cars running amok, medical programs making bad diagnoses, robotic companions destroying social life, runaway stock-trading algorithms, and sophisticated writing or deep-fake video programs spreading disinformation – all of these are genuine worries aroused by the growing influence of artificial intelligence and machine learning in everyday life.

We may have moved on from mobs attacking Frankenstein’s monster, and not yet reached anything like the nightmare scenarios of The Terminator or Ex Machina, but the growing influence of AI has many people unsettled. The robo-umps won’t strive for global domination and human extinction, or make poignant pleas for compassion, but they will put a bunch of people out of work.


The Atlantic League was the first professional baseball body to let a computer call balls and strikes, as it did at this 2019 all-star game in York, Pa., though it later abandoned the practice. Ron Besaw, top right, operates a laptop while home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere, equipped with an earpiece and iPhone, gets signals from a radar panel. Julio Cortez/The Associated Press

Dale Scott, a three-decade veteran of umping in the big leagues, is a prominent resister. “We’re never going to beat technology,” he said in 2019. “But do you want a video game or a game played by human beings?” On the other side, Toronto Star baseball writer Mike Wilner speaks for all the staunch get-it-right robo-fans out there. “Human beings will still be calling balls and strikes next season, even though it’s apparent to everyone with a television or access to the internet that they’re not doing nearly as good a job as technology can,” he fumed in a recent column. “It’s incredibly counterintuitive that the only ones watching who don’t know whether a pitch is a ball or a strike with almost near-certainty are the ones whose opinions count the most.”

That last jibe reminds me of the beer-seller at Jays games who used to advertise his libations with this selling point: “See the game through the umpire’s eyes!” It’s true that human umps are fallible, sometimes dreadfully so. As Mr. Wilner notes, a “Boston University study showed that major-league umpires missed over 34,000 ball-strike calls in the 2018 season, an average of 14 per game.” And, according to umpirescorecards.com, even the best ball-strike umpires make a dozen bad calls a game, while the worst make more than 20. What hitters hate the most is inconsistency, the mysterious throbbing strike zone that expands and contracts without warning, and umps who are consistently bad. Surely robotic umpires would solve these problems – and incidentally relieve us of tiresome self-righteous incompetents such as Angel Hernandez.

But this is the wrong argument in the wrong place. The issue for baseball, as for many other AI-driven debates, is not a struggle between humans and non-humans. It’s between two visions of humanness, and of the world.

Consider. An AI umpire assumes that there is, and must be, a strict independent fact of the matter, even before the ball is thrown, about what it means for Mr. Rawlings to bite the strike zone, defined as a space equal to home plate notionally floated between the batter’s knees and armpits, or jersey letters. Pitch dealt; call made; case closed.

But this view is offset by a radically different one, just as prevalent and deeply embedded in game play and in history, that at once relies on the senses (not the algorithm) and knows that they are unreliable. The strike zone is notional, set out in the rules of the game. But there is no ball or strike until the umpire calls it.

Much of the debate about robotic umpires has been driven by fan experience of electronic strike zones. Like baseball’s recent addiction to analytics and the limited instant replay option (something that really needs a hurry-up clock), these have become staples of most people’s experience of the game. We’re all baseball cyborgs now, in other words, like it or not. When we watch baseball on screens, we rely on that little rectangle and the go-to video review like gods seated above the fray, or scientists running an experiment.

Fans take photos on their smartphones as Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees bats against the Pittsburgh Pirates this past September.Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

At field level, things are different. Dale Scott, clearly a philosopher of gifts, spoke for many discerning fans. “Do you notice how the zone is the same for [6-foot-7] Aaron Judge and [5-foot-6] Jose Altuve?” he asked. “But people take what they see on TV as gospel. Then you see a 92-m.p.h. pitch with a lot of movement miss the box by a half-inch and the fans go crazy. It’s like, my god, what was that guy looking at?” Likewise lost to view is the fact that, while the plate is 17 inches wide, the strike zone is three-dimensional and extends back. A breaking pitch might enter the zone beyond the lip of home plate and finish on the ground, or sky in entirely from above, the dreaded 12-to-6 hook.

There are numerous conventions and norms around the strike zone that are not part of the rules, and that therefore may never be captured even by a sophisticated self-learning algorithm. Catchers frame the pitch to make a ball look more in the zone than it was. Batters crouch or twist to alter the contours of the zone as the pitch comes in. Rookies often face a looser zone than seasoned sluggers, even as Cy Young winners, like NBA stars who never seem to travel, enjoy a little more painting room at the corners than tyros from the bullpen. This isn’t just the vaunted “human factor” in athletics, it’s the essence of this or any other game. Baseball is nothing without its subtleties, the wide expanse between formal rules and the conventions, norms and culture that sustain it.

This disputed and shifting terrain has always been governed by the tension between arbitrary and fixed. Why, for example, is the distance between bases 90 feet? You can tell me about a field in Cooperstown or an intersection in Hoboken that was once the Elysian Fields, but the correct answer is: because it works. There is something about the physics of throwing and hitting, and the abilities of athletic humans, that makes the prospect of a groundout or steal meaningful. There is a contest, a striving, we find entertaining. The struggle between pitcher and batter is the heart of the game. Take away its meaningful ambiguity, its rough edges and doubts, and the game dies.


Illustration by Dominic Bugatto


How do we really know, after all, what makes a strike a strike? Rules don’t help very much. “A strike is a ball that passes through any part of the strike zone in flight.” Sure, but this is just the beginning, not the end, of a deep metaphysical and epistemological dispute. The prospect of AI umps is merely its most recent prompt.

We’ve been here before, in fact, though diamond fans may not realize it. In the early 1640s the French philosopher René Descartes decided to throw himself an epistemological curveball. We know the story. What if I put into question everything I thought I knew? Would there be anything left that could not be doubted? Luckily, yes: the cogito, or “I think,” since even the most hyperbolic doubt could not erase the awareness of doubting.

On this basis, and with a little help from God, Descartes affirmed the existence of a priori knowledge. We know some things in advance of experience; in fact, these things make experience possible. This is the beginning of Rationalism, the modern era, and global digital dominance, that endless parade of zeros and ones, that today makes robot umpires possible. Descartes’ doubting off-speed pitch was not just a strike but a caught-them-looking third dart for the final out in the universal World Series.

René Descartes and David Hume were philosophers who died long before the invention of baseball in the 19th century.Public domain

But it hasn’t been all cheers and curtain calls. David Hume, that brilliant Scotsman, was more impish about the knowledge-games we play, and his skepticism was no performance: This wild philosophical curveball hit the batter and stopped the game. We form perceptual connections over time, Hume said, and start to think, through habit and convention, that they’re necessary. In fact they are contingent. The only source of knowledge is experience. Its always jumbled nature ordered and arranged by our a posteriori natures. We might fool ourselves that some things can be known before the fact, but that belief itself is an after-the-fact delusion.

Two teams need two general managers. Immanuel “Old Jacobin” Kant will be the dugout boss for The Rationalists, threatening to take over head office with a list of 12 categories and a newfangled but surefire game plan he’s nicknamed “It’s the Synthetic A Priori, Y’All.” George “The Irish Bishop” Berkeley, rumoured to be drunk and raving in the locker room, is setting the lineup and calling for bewildering “falling tree” shifts on The Empiricist side. In late innings he sometimes denies that there is even a ball, let alone balls and strikes.

The contest between these two teams is not easily decided. It is, indeed, never-ending. How do we even know the world?

Baseball’s home plate umpire is the game incarnate, the rules and norms made flesh. Arguing with umps is integral to the game, a sign of shared commitment to play. If nothing else, where would we be without bench-rousing tantrums over bad calls and dramatic manager ejections? I like to imagine Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa, or these days Terry Francona and John Schneider, shouting that at the AI versions of Joe West or Jim Joyce. “It’s a posteriori, you brain-boxed mook!” “Get stuffed, you grubby category-pimp!”

Okay, maybe not. For the record, while I appreciate both the conceptual neatness of a perfect strike zone and the benign messiness of judgment calls, I play for Team Phenomenology. We like to think about what makes experience possible on all sides of the plate. We know that a human baseball umpire, despite what he may think now and then, is not a god. (There are no gods.) He or she can be wrong. But this is a good thing! It’s a constant reminder of how tricky, and how much fun, negotiating the world of experience can be.

Baseball is, above all, a theatre of failure. It is fiendishly difficult, heartbreaking and exhilarating all at once – especially in the fall, season of the soft-dying day. We don’t watch it to witness perfection. Quite the opposite: We watch it because ours is a fallen world, as we are likewise within it.

Mark Kingwell on technology: More from Globe Opinion

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