Friday, November 2, 2012

On the Perverseness of Umpirical Realism

On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga almost threw a perfect game. By the end of the top of the ninth inning, Galarraga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers*, had already retired twenty-six batters. But when Jason Donald, a batter for the Indians, came up to bat, he hit a ground ball and dashed for first. The ball made it to the first baseman before he did, but Jim Joyce, the umpire, declared Donald safe. The hit went to the Indians, and Galarraga lost his perfect game.

We're left with two questions. First, did Galarraga throw a perfect game? Second, can we call Joyce to task for blowing the call?

No and no.

That there could be any doubt on this question speaks to the pervasiveness of umpirical realism: a philosophy that is as wrongheaded as it is common. According to this school of thought, the relevant fact in deciding the play was whether or not Donald made it to first. The umpire was only acting as a reporter: he was closest to the play when it happened, so he was entrusted to give an accurate account of it. And since instant replay has since made it blindingly obvious that Donald touched the base after the catch, Joyce's call was illegitimate. He failed in the trust placed in him to make the right call. Moreover, the play would likely have been decided correctly if someone else had been the first-base umpire that evening.

But there is another, better way of thinking about umpires. The only reason that umpires are on the field in the first place is to make calls that render disputes between the teams impossible. In the majority of informal games, umpires are not necessary, because the teams have enough goodwill towards each other to be able to adjudicate disputes without a moderator. But when the stakes are higher, and the players more competitive, the game cannot proceed without an impartial moderator to give swift judgment calls. It is not essential that these calls reflect what actually happened: only that they be respected by both teams. The purpose of umpiredom is thus not to make careful scientific analyses of the past trajectories of rubber balls. Who cares about that? The point is to enable an exciting and smooth game. So the relevant fact is not whether or not Galarraga beat the throw; it's whether or not Joyce said he did.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as a bad call—a call that does not reflect the facts on the field. Umpiredom is a craft, and in every craft there are good and bad craftsmen. But a bad call is not an illegitimate call, and it should be given no less respect by fans and players. If the World Umpires Association or Major League Baseball wants to punish umpires whose calls don't correspond to real plays, that's their prerogative: the MLB can hire anyone it wants. I might also fire a potter whose pots I don't like. I won't tell him, though, that his pots are not legitimate pots. Neither will I refuse to use them if they're capable of holding flesh.
plato and aristotle 237x300 Aristotle vs. Plato view of ‘substance’
The man on the left is a lunatic subscriber to the notion that umpires' decisions must correspond to real events in the past. The man on the right is the founder of Western Philosophy.

I want to make one more point about the role of umpires: they're more judge than juryman. An umpire's job is to examine the facts as they appear to him, and then to issue a ruling designed both to give a fair outcome for the teams and to set a precedent that later umpires and players can rely on. There is theoretically no limit on the calls that he can make, but as a judge within a long tradition, he can be expected to follow certain well-established precedents. (If players know that they are almost certain to be ruled out if they're beaten by the throw, they can always play the game with that understanding in mind. Exertion within predictable rules is what makes almost all sports exciting.)

We might object that the presence of a rulebook in the Major Leagues limits umpires' arbitrary authority to make calls. According to this argument, the umpire's job is solely to determine matters of fact as they relate to fixed, clear rules. But this objection misunderstands the nature of the rulebook. The rulebook is a codification that describes the accumulated precedents that umpires have set over the years. It does not command umpires to rule a certain way in each case. So umpires do and should have complete authority in every call they make, limited only by a long tradition of precedent and the danger that they'll lose public support as judges if they stray too far from traditional norms. In other words, if an umpire wants to rule that a batter who gets tagged off the plate is safe, he can, but he'd better be able to give a good reason for that decision.

If you agree with me on this point, you belong to an ancient and noble Anglo-American tradition stretching aeons into the past. If you don't, you're in the company of Napoleon and the Louisianans. Make your choice.

*Correction: Galarraga was a pitcher for the Tigers, not the Indians. 

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