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On Close Calls

October 22, 1985

Bill Klem, the legendary baseball umpire, was once asked what he did when he made a mistake calling balls and strikes. "They ain't nothin' till I call 'em," Klem scoffed.

Klem's seemingly simple statement embraced a deep philosophical view, namely that there is no abstract Truth out there to which an umpire's calls can be compared. Klem was saying that balls and strikes are what the umpire says they are, no more, no less. A pitch is what the umpire calls it. Not everyone shares this view, of course, but it does have its adherents.

This comes to mind because videotape has apparently added a new dimension to this metaphysical debate, which stretches back to the ancient Greeks. The instant replay makes it possible for millions of people to consider an umpire's calls again and again and from many different angles. It is possible to catch a glimpse at least of what appears to be an Independent Truth.

Viewers of this year's American League playoffs and the World Series now in progress have seen several apparent umpiring mistakes. The National Football League has experimented with using videotape replays to overrule officials when the tape shows they have erred.

Nor is videotape the only way in which machines add a new dimension to officiating. Earlier this month, Thomas M. Harris of Irvine received a patent for a device that will measure a batter's strike zone exactly and call balls and strikes. This gizmo, called a Baseball Strike Indicator and Trajectory Analyzer, could be used by plate umpires to check on close calls, Harris says.

It is still possible, of course, to hold with Bill Klem and define a play as what the official calls it, thereby making it impossible by definition for anyone to make a mistake. In a sense, that's what most sports do. Calls have to be made when the play occurs, not after consulting the videotape.

But that seems increasingly unsatisfactory to the TV viewers, who sometimes get a better view on the home screen than the officials get firsthand.

Does this mean that there may indeed be Platonic ideals with which we can compare our truths? It is rare for technology to affect perennial philosophical questions, but that seems to be the case here. The trouble is, outside of sports officiating, where and how can these arbiters of truth be found?

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