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Human referees in the era of robot referees

Posted April. 18, 2024 07:48,   

Updated April. 18, 2024 07:48


“When I called her name, she came to me and became a flower.”

As poet Kim Chun-soo wrote in “The Flower,” a pitch counts as a strike only when a ball umpire determines it in baseball. Per the official baseball rules provided by the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), a presumed strike can be called a legitimate one when a referee declares it a strike. That is, it “was” we people who should judge which pitch counts as a strike.

After all, the KBO has since this year put in place the Automated Ball/Strike System (ABS) that it dubs the “robot referee,” making it clear in a set of specific rules on the operation of the ABS that human referees shall not intervene in ABS results. In other words, human umpires are required to act as a mere messenger who, once notified by the robot of whether a pitch is strike or not through earphones, announces the result instead of the system.

The lowered status of human umpires was witnessed during a game at Daegu Samsung Lions Park in Daegu last Sunday. The robot referee saw a pitch thrown by Dinos starter Lee Jae-hak in the bottom of the third inning as a strike, but the human umpire did not raise the right hand. As recently as last year, there was no issue with moments like this because it was no surprise that the ball umpire did not see it as a strike given what the pitched ball in question was like.

However, it was a different story this year. NC Dinos manager Kang In-kwon stormed out of the dugout to appeal because he found that the ABS judged it as a strike on the tablet computer provided by the KBO. The problem was that after Lee made three more pitches, he realized what was going on because of some technical glitches in the system.

The four umpires met to discuss the appeal but dismissed it as invalid because it was overdue, arguing that it was too late to reverse the decision as the game had already progressed. During the discussion, one of the umpires was even caught on a broadcast camera saying, “Let’s just tell them that it was seen as a ball (by the system). It is the only way out for our sake.”

The baseball rules respect and honor human umpires by describing them as the only representative of baseball on the ground. However, it was a shame that the seasoned four referees, who have 98 years of experience combined, were so nearsighted that they only tried to get away with it by lying. Nevertheless, it is a sad, unsurprising truth that human umpires only look small in the face of the robot referee system, which boasts an accuracy rate of 99.9 percent.