This week, pitchers and catchers showed up for training camp ahead of what will be the last season of human-governed Major League Baseball.
Artificial intelligence (AI) officiating is slated for MLB introduction next year, which should reduce lapses of judgment to an irreducible minimum. The human home plate umpire’s job duties will shift from making snap judgments to being the meaty representative of his robot magistrate.
That means discussing proms and strikes is destined for the obsolete dustbin of humanity, joining old-fashioned pastimes like “waiting in line for a phone booth” and “learning to write cursive.” Sounds like progress. But progress is impossible without collateral damage.
In the case of baseball, the fun and delicate art of framing the field will lose all use. Catchers may be able to fool umps with nervous mitts, but the bots lack the humanity to bite into the gray patch trickster. Then pour one for the game within the game.
The tighter umpiring should help hitters, who can now focus on swinging only to hits with the edge things off the table. As with all sports, offense is good for ratings and ticket sales. Once normalized, AI-driven baseball will feel completely natural, and the entire sport should benefit.
Human officials understand that applying their rules to the letter would make games unplayable. imagine what the edge of every freeway in America would look like if it were ticketed for 56 mph.
As for football, I thought about how AI might benefit the sport Sunday night when human officials abruptly decided how the 2022 season would end in the waning moments of Super Bowl LVII (which is 57 in Roman numerals, which would already be in the obsolescence of humanity’s dustbin if not for the Super Bowl).
If you missed it — and you didn’t, because everyone watches the Super Bowl — the Chiefs faced a 3rd-and-8 from the Eagles 15-yard line with just under two minutes remaining and the score tied 35 .
The biggest game in American sports was heading to a classic finish. I have no feelings for either franchise and I didn’t bet on the Super Bowl this year, so I didn’t care who won or lost. I was just stuck in the drama.
But then Philadelphia corner James Bradberry held Kansas City receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in his course, drawing a flag that as a rule gave the Chiefs an automatic first down. The four yards they gained were inconsequential; now they had four additional plays to mess around with. The call effectively handed the title over to the Chiefs.
Kansas City could now run out the clock and win the game on a field goal, leaving Philadelphia with little to no time to try and respond. The flag put the Chiefs in a similar position to the Buckeyes at the end of the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, when they could have finished the game on their own terms.
Fourteen years ago, the Texas defense wisely allowed Boom Herron to score a touchdown on 2nd and short, which allowed his offense to get the ball back and escape a sure loss.
The Eagles attempted to run Pat Mahomes off the field likewise by giving up all effort on 1st down that followed the penalty. But running back Jerick McKinnon got it right and it crashed into the field, intact. The Chiefs wasted some more time and hit a field goal attempt to leave the Eagles in shambles.
Those final two minutes would belong to the Philly offense, as the flag was thrown on the 3rd and 8th. Regardless of what happened with Kansas City’s field goal attempt, the Eagles would have 100 seconds to do anything.
That flag took all that drama off the table, which made officiating the center of attention.
This controversy can’t be dismissed as just underdogs complaining about calls that didn’t go their way: Kansas City scored on every one of its second-half possessions and Philly’s defense picked the worst possible time to produce one of the worst performances in franchise history.
The infringement is not in dispute. Bradberry permanently owned Smith-Schuster. He even admitted it postgame and his infraction was as evident in real time as in any of the 37 different slow-motion angles that a televised game like the Super Bowl can provide.
The problem is that soccer refereeing is not conducted by a rulebook or by AI-programmed robots. It is performed by humans. Consider this late 4th quarter roughing the passer flag from the 2019 AFC Championship, which extended a possession for New England and indirectly cost the Chiefs a Super Bowl trip.
It’s a technically correct penalty for the Chiefs. But come on.
Football judgments can be analogous to balls and strikes in large but limited doses; in or out of bounds, catch or no catch, fumble or no fumble. Baseball is almost entirely dichotomous: fair or foul, safe or out, ball or strike.
His nuanced parts like wandering off the base path, hesitating, or any other baseball trivia that appeals only to his true nerds are lost on a wider audience. They rarely decide games, and if they do, baseball plays 162 games every summer. It takes about a decade for football clubs to do this.
Baseball games of real importance are few and far between. Football referees don’t have that luxury.
Their penalties are downloaded subjectively, creating gameplay that varies between the referees let them play where everything and anything goes, right up to the uh oh, ref show where every single infraction that occurs is flagged or booed, along with some imaginary ones.
Could the AI thread the needle and constantly call the optimal number of penalties, deciding what is and isn’t allowed without suddenly deviating? See, that would be interesting.
To be able to do this without artificial intelligence requires extraordinary officials. Alas, we are stuck with ordinary ones.
The ordinary umpires — Sunday, the best the NFL had to offer — were in charge of Super Bowl LVII, and let them play it in classic fashion until that catch on Bradberry, the first reported all night.
And it happened in the 58th minute not even 10 yards from OT by Chiefs Orlando Brown Jr. by committing a textbook catch on Eagles DE Josh Sweat. No, not the free, unnamed one pictured at the top of this column.
below. You can see Smith-Schuster held in the same frame. Don’t get sidetracked by Chiefs OG Trey Smith (#65) taking on Eagles LB Haason Reddick.
Chiefs OT 57 and Eagles DB 24 both engaged in this game, a regular occurrence in football.
A few paragraphs earlier:
It’s a technically correct penalty for the Chiefs. But come on.
That would have been a ticky-tack flag, but it’s a trick nonetheless – a trick that the umpire rightly didn’t call. Not called hold almost every game is football’s version of driving 62 in a 55 in front of six cops, like oh shit cops ahhhh alright they won’t come after me.
That’s what Brown did to Sweat here, though his catch probably prevented Mahomes from being sacked and instead produced a desperate ball so uncatchable that downfield pass interference would have been nullified.
Sockets are sockets. This is holding. Brown is holding. So is Bradberry. So it is… everyone, often. We all like to drive 55ish in a 55 zone, and when we get ticketed it’s attributed to bad luck, or worse, prejudice.
Brown’s catch was not called, along with all other qualifying holding infractions of the night, including the one pictured at the top of this column. Neither Mahomes nor Eagles QB Jalen Hurts took a real sack that night (Hurts was tackled twice for one-yard loss on rush plays).
If you were wondering which team had the best sack defense in the NFL this season, you might be surprised to learn that it was Philadelphia. Just behind the Eagles at No. 2 in the league, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Zero bags combined. Zero take on linemen. This is only possible when boos are swallowed.
The officials were letting them play until the 58th minute, when Super Bowl Ted Valentine suddenly showed up and diverted everyone’s attention to the umpiring crew. If advances in AI could fix these extremely human moments, it might be worth a look.
Ordinary people and human judges understand that applying the rules to the letter would make games unplayable. Just imagine what the edge of every freeway in America would look like if going 56 miles an hour — technically, a traffic violation — were fined. Humans who wear stripes hold the sanctity of entertainment and competition in their own hands.
That’s why that flag should never have been flown. The 37 different slow-motion replays that confirm its validity are not as relevant or harmful as the previous 58 minutes of officiating. Each prison penalty is subjective, and when such calls are made it arouses cynicism, skepticism and conspiracies. The Chiefs probably would have won anyway!
Officials let them play for just over 58 minutes. They should have let them go for the full 60.