Robot Umpires: They aren’t coming all the way in yet, but . . .

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27: Umpire Lance Barksdale #23 looks on in Game Five of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27: Umpire Lance Barksdale #23 looks on in Game Five of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The robot umpires aren’t taking over in MLB just yet. However, umpire fallibility and a lack of accountability remain with us.

I could tell you to relax and settle down, the robot umpires aren’t quite here yet and aren’t likely to arrive ready to go for quite some time. But that may depend upon your point of view.

As ESPN’s Buster Olney led off Wednesday, “Hours after baseball commissioner Rob Manfred indicated that an electronic strike zone would be used in spring training games, the executive committee of the umpires’ union clarified that news, indicating that the electronics would not be used in place of a plate ump’s judgment.” This ought to be interesting, to say the least.

How tempting it was to ponder the comic possibilities upon the like of C.B. Bucknor, Angel Hernandez, or Country Joe West trying to eject a robot umpires who might or might not be programmed to argue with them in the grand old tradition of, say, Earl Weaver. Leave it to the Major League Baseball Umpires Association to give the thumb to that temptation, for now, anyway.

An executive committee of the umpires’ union hastened to put its own statement out later Wednesday: “Reports that MLB will use ‘robo-umps’ to call balls and strikes in spring training games this year are completely inaccurate . . . Our understanding is that a camera-based tracking system will be running in the background during some spring training games for technology development and training purposes. But any game in which a Major League Baseball umpire is working will have a human calling balls and strikes.”

That may or may not prove comforting. Even if you believe (as I still do, somehow) that the Bucknors, Hernandezes, and Wests are still a minority contingency among umpires who are generally competent, genuinely care about the game first, and know the distinction between an error of omission and an error of commission.

Of course, when it was thought at first that the robots were coming a fair enough crowd of traditionalists blew up whatever online forums they belong to, harrumphing variations on the theme of “There Goes the Last of Baseball’s Human Element.” And, in a few instances, threatening their final, at-last, once-and-for-all, this-time-it’s-for-real withdrawal as baseball fans.

You get their trepidation readily enough, but if you happen to believe in, you know, getting things right, especially come championship playtime, your stronger temptation (with apologies to Bill James) is to offer to hold the door and call cabs for such people. That temptation is almost as strong as the urge to shout loud how intriguing it always is that the same traditionalists who think the Sacred Unwritten Rules have been disobeyed a little too long and too unapologetically don’t always think the written rules deserve the same respect and enforcement.

Remind me if you will the last time you thought it was acceptable for umpires to call their “own” strike zones instead of the zone prescribed by the actual rule book. Think about all the times you sat down to watch a game on television, saw the outline of the proper strike zone for this or that hitter, saw pitches sailing within the outline called balls and outside the outline called strikes. Now, ask yourself whether something isn’t as rotten as a 21-game losing streak.

“Every time you see technology forced into the game, the rationale from broadcasters and league executives is to try to perfect some ideal of ‘fairness’ or ‘accuracy,’ but the hidden cost is the human imperfection which makes the game a living thing,” writes Ed Condon for The Bulwark. “What they don’t understand is that by trying to make ‘the game’ transcend those playing it and watching it, they are, in a very real sense, moving it away from the humans who collectively constitute this thing we call ‘the game’.”

Condon cites a University of California, Berkeley philosopher, Alva Noë, by way of Noë’s Infinite Baseball: Noë observes, Condon says, “that in baseball the rules of the game cannot be separated either from the act of playing it, or the act of watching it.” So why on earth should Condon object to something that will be designed on behalf of the rules of the game? Such rules as, you know, that the strike zone properly defined “is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the top of the knees,” and “shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball?”

Note the language in the latter citation. The personal strike zone belongs to the batter, not to the umpire. “Strikes . . . are all products of a subjective consensus judgment,” Condon writes. If there was “consensus” in allowing umpires to decide strike zones by their own and not the batter’s or the rule’s lights, I must have missed my chance to eavesdrop upon the ratifying vote.