' ' Cinema Romantico: What Movie Robots Could Become Baseball Umpires?

Thursday, April 04, 2019

What Movie Robots Could Become Baseball Umpires?

On Monday’s episode of the Slate Hang Up & Listen sports podcast, co-host Stefan Fatsis, in discussing the just-started Major League Baseball season, asked guest Ben Lindbergh about the professional, independent Atlantic League’s MLB-funded rule tinkering for the 2019 season. This apparently includes robot umpires, which no doubt is less absurd than it sounds, but nevertheless yielded some comical back & forth about what inherent baseball paradoxes could potentially cause these officiating robots to go haywire, never mind the thought of ex-Baltimore Orioles manager, the late Earl Weaver, hauling himself out of the dugout to go scream at a machine about some horse’s ass of a call.

If we’re making a comedy, where John C. Reilly is the anti-science manager of the Norfolk Tides, then you’d have to draft the “Short Circuit” robot, I suppose, or WALL-E, though Disney would never give up the rights without paying Mike Trout kinda cash. It’s comical to imagine hapless C-3PO getting inadvertently plunked by Rick Vaughn and reacting like Han Solo just threatened to leave him on Hoth. I liked Fatsis’s suggestion of Woody Allen’s robot from “Sleeper”, which isn’t really a robot at all but Allen’s character pretending to be a robot. That would be comedy gold! A real person pretending to be a robot umpire! It’s like Frank Drebin as Enrico Palazzo as a Robot! Imagine John C. Reilly yelling at him!

If we’re making a cautionary tale then HAL 9000’s gotta be the guy, foolproof and incapable of error, going off script during the World Series and seizing control of the game. Then again, you could go the other way and have RoboCop installed as the Robot Umpire, less about getting balls and strikes correct and more about cleaning up a game that takes too long and is rife with PEDs, leading to him laying down the law against greedy owners who fleece taxpayers for new stadiums they don’t actually need. “Make ‘em robots,” guest co-host Mike Pesca said of the umpires, “but don’t tell the players”, an idea suggesting “The Stepford Wives”, where only after the crucial, controversial out of the World Series does the incensed son of Willie Mays Hayes takes his bat to the umpire and discover the truth, or an “Alien”-like behind-the-plate Synthetic revealing sinister motivations at the wrong time.

If we’re making a more action-oriented product then you could have a manager, on the hot seat and on the wrong end of too many robot calls, creating his own automated umpire which inevitably unleashes inadvertent but very destructive chaos, sort of a “Mechagodzilla vs. Robot Umpire.” You could also put the T-1000 behind home plate, eliminating any player and/or manager who dared argue his calls, accruing so much evil power that true baseball believers call up the T-800 umpiring the minor leagues to try and save the day.

If we’re making a heartwarming, “Angels in the Outfield”-ish story perhaps The Iron Giant could begin umpiring in some Independent League though the conservative MLB Commissioner seeks to eradicate him, explaining “robots are no match for human aptitude.” Yet despite the MLB’s attempts to destroy the robot umpiring Iron Giant, he saves the day by stepping in front of a Sidd Finch-level fastball to rescue our youthful co-protagonist. Or, of course, Gort of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” could show up with a humanoid explaining that Gort is the answer to human umpiring’s inexactitude.  When the Commissioner and owners, however, tell the humanoid to buzz off, the humanoid goes undercover as a duplicitous, backstabbing owner to work his way into the game to convince the other owners and the Commissioner to let Gort in. And as umpiring only gets worse and worse, the World Series decided by a series of unspeakable umpiring gaffes causing the public to turn against the game, it becomes clear that if baseball continues on its present course, the sport will die.

In the end, though, I most like the idea of our Robot Umpires being rendered as “Blade Runner” Replicants. Are the umpires real people or are they merely eerily human-like? Is that bad call we all remember from Game 7 of the 1984 World Series real, or is it just a figment of our imagination? And, of course, the Blade Runner tasked with ferreting out these replicants comes to wonder if he too is a Replicant, leading us all to wonder if, in the end, fans and umpires are not really so different.

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