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Foul Ball

New York has a bad case of baseball fever right now, and those who are suffering from it — long-suffering Mets fans as it were — are happy to be under its spell.

The Mets are going to the World Series for the first time in 15 years and though I’m not a Mets fan (my team from down the turnpike lost 99 games this year and promptly fired its manager, GM and practically everyone else in charge but the mascot), I am an unabashed baseball fan, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the Fall Classic when a local team is in it. I have enjoyed this postseason and am looking forward to more of it.

But along the way I noticed something. Technology and baseball don’t always mix very well.

I love baseball and I love technology. And in some cases, like, for instance, watching playoff games in HD on my 65-inch Samsung curved TV with a DVR for replays, technology and baseball are a match made in heaven. But in other instances, it ain’t so great.

I’m talking about the encroachment of technology in the game itself.

For all its faults — games can be slow, the season is unmercifully long, the best teams don’t always make the playoffs — baseball is a very human game. One of the stronger appeals of baseball is the thought that almost anyone who works hard enough can play it. The average person feels like the average baseball player is closer to the average guy than in other sports. It’s a bit more democratic in that sense.

That also goes for the policing of the game. Umpires are average guys too … they’re human and there’s a certain charm to the fact that they’re fallible. Everyone at some point has wanted to “kill the ump” over a bad call.

The lords of baseball, in their wisdom, decided to do something about umpire fallibility and through the use of some very advanced technology — HD video, super-slow high-frame-rate playback, ultra-sharp and highly sensitive camera sensors, and seamless wireless communication — instant replay, already used for years in most other sports, arrived in baseball with the promise of “getting all the calls right.”

And for the most part, it has worked. But for me, it’s working too well.

During the first two rounds of the playoffs I saw not one, but two runners who had clearly stolen second base cleanly, get called out because of instant replay. In both instances, the runners beat the throw to the bag and also beat the tag by the fielder. But in both cases, under the microscope of high def, super slow-mo replay, it was revealed that for a brief millisecond, both runners lost contact with the bag by about a half inch while the tag was still being applied as they came out of their slide.

Were they out? Technically, yes. Is the game better because those calls were technically correct? I, for one, don’t think so. In both cases, technology corrected a mistake that for 130 years prior would not have qualified as a mistake. It’s one thing to get the call right; it’s another to correct an error that wouldn’t have existed without the technology to correct it.

3D animated strike zone boxes are another example. Why have an umpire at all?

A product manager at CES once told me “the biggest problem we have is we add features to products just because we can, and customers call out that [BS] every time. Sometimes technology is its own worst enemy.”

Baseball should take heed.