THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
It was doubly late: late on a Wednesday night in late August when I went to my favorite watering hole to relax before calling it a night. The radio that was on throughout the restaurant caused the television sets above the liquor bottles to be muted, leaving me with only the away video feed (no audio) for the game between the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks and the host Los Angeles Dodgers.
Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker was at bat when home plate umpire Alex Tosi called a strike. Using the inaccurate graphic box that simulates the strike zone for visual context, the pitch was outside; it was a two-seam fastball that purposefully started outside the zone and sunk back towards the plate, but it was probably two inches away from the outside corner as denoted by vertical line superimposed on the screen. Tosi’s strike mechanic triggered displeasure from Walker.
Shortly thereafter, Walker grounded out. When the camera panned back to Walker putting his batting helmet away in the dugout, he was still yelling at Tosi for that call. Walker then slammed his batting gloves against the wall, shook his head again, and planted himself against the dugout railing overlooking the field. His eyes were fixated solely on Tosi as anger and displeasure emanated from every orifice on his head. The sweat that glistened on his bald white scalp wanted to turn into steam or smoke simply to escape the awkward tension, like a scared child that didn’t want to be around an inappropriately angry parent.
The camera would switch back to its normal angle in centerfield to televise each pitch, but the ten seconds of downtime in between each subsequent pitch would be filled with another shot of Walker. Without hearing the audio, I began to wonder about the impetus that would require the camera to continue its intent focus on Walker following his routine groundout. Was a director at the network controlling the broadcast and barking orders to keep focusing on Walker, encouraging the commentators to speak in favor of Walker and against Tosi? Or were the Arizona broadcasters going on an anti-umpire tirade that led the director to simply follow their voices with the appropriate visual shots? Regardless of whether control belonged to the director or the broadcasters, the schtick became saturated, causing me to silently beg the broadcast itself to focus on to the next batter and forget about Walker’s plate appearance.
The raging testosterone fueling Walker’s reaction became secondary to the fanning of the flames being done by the technicians controlling the video telecast. Even without audio, I was being told by the moving pictures to focus on Walker’s frustration and empathize with him, which might then manifest into a detesting of Tosi and perhaps all umpires. I wondered if there was a subconscious protocol being implemented by the director to truly influence the feelings and emotions of the viewers in a way that elevated one party on a pedestal and demoted another for the purpose of gaining ratings and revenue.
I considered myself lucky that I had the ability to abduct such information; the average viewer (especially with alcohol introduced into the equation) probably would never reach the same conclusion without being lectured. But the entire ordeal points to the potential that the media wields to control the narrative of the public. A simple repeated visual focus on an angry ballplayer yelling at an umpire, even without audio, can influence the way people feel, usually by invoking anger or a general uneasiness that points to conflict rather than resolution.
We may not be able to control what is put in front of us as we try to watch a game. After all, the media truly can control the narrative, regardless of whether the context is sports, politics, business, or anything else. But we do have the ability to consciously recognize these sleazy tactics. Perhaps the path to peace requires the vulnerability needed to acknowledge this social engineering, relying instead on our freedom to formulate our own opinions without subscribing to a phony gospel.
By Jack Furlong
Watch any Major League Baseball game on television and there’s a chance you will hear an announcer use a phrase that is equal parts passive-aggressive, patronizing, and poor sportsmanship.
“It didn’t have to be.”
The phrase usually refers to an opinion regarding an umpire’s strike zone. Television graphics have advanced to the point where many broadcasts overlay an opaque box from the centerfield camera that attempts to represent the strike zone, and the broadcasters believe that the graphic is gospel when helping determine whether the calls made by the home plate umpire are correct. If a pitch lands outside of the box, yet is called a strike by the umpire, broadcasters take the opportunity take a snipe at the umpire for, in their opinion, being incorrect.
“The 1-0 pitch is called a strike, but it didn’t have to be.”
The use of this phrase furthers the narrative that authority figures do not have to be respected. It is a snide way to take a cheap shot without repercussions at someone who may not have the same opportunity to respond to the remark. Broadcasters are placing guised opinions into the dissemination of information, very much like the biased news casts that come from both sides of the political spectrum, which subconsciously sink into the psyche of viewers and are imitated by the public.
However, rather than attempt to edify against the use of this phrase with opinions, a better method to explain why this phrase should not be used is to explain why the graphic on the screen used by broadcasters is faulty and should be discontinued. If the box is removed from the broadcast, perhaps the opportunities to use the phrase will disappear.
Let’s begin with the height of the box, which does not change from batter to batter. The strike zone for each hitter is defined in the rules as the midpoint between the shoulders and the waist down to the hollow of the knee (the adage being “from the letters to the knees”). As ballplayers are not robots designed with the same specifications, every hitter will naturally have a different strike zone. For example, the strike zone for Aaron Judge will be much larger than the strike zone for Jose Altuve. Yet, the box on the screen has not once changed in height to adjust for these differences.
Second, the strike zone is meant to be three dimensional. A pitch needs only to catch any part of this three-dimensional zone to be deemed a strike by the umpire. The box on the screen is two-dimensional, more like a windowpane with no depth that needs to be touched by the pitch. Further, much like the lack of adjustments made for height, the position of the box in relation to the depth of the plate is never fully clear. Sure, we can be told the box is placed at the front of the plate (or at least in the correct spot), but such a representation cannot truly be trusted, similarly to how the height of the box cannot be trusted.
Third, the statistical analysis of how human umpires view pitches based on their setup and mechanics behind the catcher has shown an exceptional number of trends that have been accepted via convention due to their consistency. That’s not to say that convention is a reason to blindly accept something; rather, this convention allows us to positively use analytics to help us better understand what is happening. Umpires are taught to set up in “the slot,” defined as the space between the batter and the catcher. Their eyes are then meant to split the inside corner, giving them an exceptional look at the inside pitch, but possibly sacrificing the best look at the outside pitch. On average, even the most consistent umpires tend to have a 2-inch margin of error on the outside corner that is widely accepted by all personnel. However, the box on the screen does not incorporate this. (Interestingly enough, this trend is most common for umpires who are right-eye dominant when right-handed hitters are at bat. When right-eye dominant umpires set up for a left-handed batter, a small margin of error develops on the inside corner as well!)
Fourth, based on the fraction of moments an umpire is given to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike, an increased value is placed on the reception of a pitch by the catcher (sometimes colloquially known as “framing”). If a “borderline” pitch is received by a catcher with significant movement on the catcher’s mitt, a subconscious message is sent to the umpire that the pitch was not a strike and the catcher tried to move it back into the strike zone to make it appear to be one. In turn, it’s not uncommon to suggest that professional umpires might etch a picture of the strike zone into their vision to combat this, which does not account for all the minor nuances such as the changing height of the batter. Players like Aaron Judge have suffered because of this: Judge has had the most strikes below the strike zone called on him due to his immense height and the need for an umpire to visualize the strike zone to combat improper pitch framing.
Finally, the system used by Major League Baseball to evaluate umpires on their plate scores is completely different than what is presented on television with these graphics. MLB adjusts the strike zone from batter to batter in a “postgame processing” protocol, then applies a two-inch margin of error around the entire zone before determining how many of the pitches were called correctly by the home plate umpire. The graphics used on television in real time take none of this into account, creating a public persona to hate umpires while cultivating a private system that lauds them and proves they are still more accurate than any computer calling balls and strikes.
Thus, it appears that broadcasters who claim pitches “didn’t have to be” strikes may react in the moment without the educational knowledge of how the process truly operates. These broadcasters choose to be “malignant homers” to appeal to their fanbase instead of objectively remaining true to journalistic integrity. Rather than seek the approval of viewers, perhaps a better strategy might be to emulate the legendary broadcasters whose words painted pictures and truly enhanced a broadcast through genuine excitement, comfort, and familiarity.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
Time has passed since the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII in Arizona. However, many keep focusing on one penalty flag that was thrown towards the end of the game.
With less than two minutes left in the game, Eagles defender James Bradberry was called for a holding penalty, giving the Chiefs an additional first down that increased their chances of taking the lead with little time for the Eagles to respond. The penalty was criticized by many across the sports-talk universe and the blogosphere, but Bradberry admitted in a postgame press conference that he did commit the penalty and it was the correct call.
The excuses given by those who disagreed with the call included a lack of consistency from the officials, a lack of severity of the hold, and everything in between. Claims were made by some fans that the game was fixed so that the Chiefs would win. The streets of Philadelphia were filled with angry fans in protest of the game’s result. Regardless of the arguments made, everyone making them ignored one fact: it was the correct call, and the offender admitted it.
Unlike many other topics in the public arena where facts and opinions are commonly confused and cause constant conflict, sports align more with inconsequential “watercooler talk.” They are a common topic of entertainment that break the ice between people who wish to socialize, and yet they are worshiped like gospel and must be protected from heretics. This begs the question of why sports are so sacred to so many, leading to outcomes like the denial of a penalty to make sense of a situation.
The answer boils down to a study of projection. Fandom develops through projection: people like to be associated with winners or with other brands where a common bond exists (family, location, school, etc.), so they project themselves onto those entities (be it a person or a team). This explains why many people across the globe become fans of teams such as the New York Yankees: their brand is the winningest franchise in the history of team sports. Similarly, people born and raised in the greater New England area (or with parents who were born and raised there) are usually rooting for the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Bruins, either due to the ties in proximity or loved ones. Along the same lines, the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of any college or university (or even high school) will tend to support the athletics of said school out of a pride like the bonds caused by family or location.
As these cliques of fans develop and grow, any perceived slight against the team automatically becomes a slight against the fanbase as well. A penalty flag thrown for a foul committed by a player on the Eagles might be viewed and interpreted as an attack against everyone who roots for them. This causes defenses to go up immediately and can result in poor fan behavior.
When this phenomenon occurs, those feeling attacked immediately try to deflect the attack back onto the attacker. In other words, the best defense is a good offense. The fans who feel attacked when an official penalizes a player on their team will point the finger at the official instead of objectively considering the facts that show the player might have committed a foul. Humans tend to lack the ability to look inwards at potential shortcomings and would prefer to point out the faults of others instead.
As if the simple examination of this experience with the fan base isn’t enough, the media has developed a reputation to make these situations worse.
Consider the number of analysts, talk-show hosts, and other media members who edified and opined about the call in question against Bradberry. Many of these voices lack the experience of officiating and do not necessarily offer their take with the proper background to justify their claim as to why the call may have been incorrect, citing opinions, feelings, and other intangibles with the hope it holds up in the court of public opinion. As a result, the arguments made were tailored to conveniently forget the rule that defines a holding penalty: they ignorantly ignore the fact that it was correctly enforced as well as Bradberry’s admission that it did, in fact, occur. This amounts to a defense attorney trying to sway a jury with emotion when a smoking gun is in their midst.
With the power the media holds in our society, fans tend to be more likely to blindly believe the words of these talking heads rather than to use their own critical reasoning to draw a conclusion. At this point, projection utilizes the “fanboy” experience, as fans pick sides on the opinion with the subconscious goal of ignoring facts simply to be on the correct or winning side of a debate. The resulting effect is a populus that declares the truth to be whatever the group decides rather than what the facts state.
None of this is to say that officials don’t miss calls. Incorrect calls are made, and officials tend to lose sleep over their mistakes. But officials make the fewest mistakes out of anyone on the field, pitch, rink, or court that day. Statistically speaking, players who strike out, drop passes, and miss shots happen all the time; are these failures not mistakes? Projection due to association causes fans to ignore these mistakes but recognize the ones from the officials which are few and far between.
It's always possible that an incorrect call could change the trajectory of a game, but the odds of it being the sole fulcrum that influenced the outcome of victory versus defeat is microscopic. Those who criticize the holding penalty easily forget that the Eagles’ defense was putrid that day: out of the 23 games they played all season (from preseason through Super Bowl), they gave up more than 30 points in six of them (including the Super Bowl), winning only two of those six. Regardless of the circumstances (preseason vs. postseason, for example), it’s very difficult to win a football game when your defense gives up more than 30 points.
It’s perfectly fine to be disappointed that the Eagles lost. It’s not okay to blame the officials when it was the correct call.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since March 2020, it’s that fear is one of the most, if not the most, powerful tool in the woodshed.
The concept of fear is rooted in our human ability to sense danger and to avoid it. Ancient man would fear predators in the wilderness for the sake of survival. Presently, we can use fear in more conventional ways, like when we feel uncomfortable around the possibility of skydiving. It’s quite a reasonable barometer in these contexts.
Fear usually encompasses the unknown: we fear what we don’t know. What will happen if I approach this predator? Could I sustain injury if I skydive? Even in situations where we have reasonable security that we can predict the outcome of actions, we’re never one hundred percent sure. A parent may naturally fear his or her child going away to college due to the unknown that awaits ahead, but the parent usually comes to terms with this, perhaps drawing on his or her own experiences, and understands that, although there is no absolute guarantee of safety, the odds are that the child will be okay.
On a simpler scale, fear of the unknown may be the motivating factor for a child to resist trying a new food. Young minds may default to not liking something simply because there is no experience of it yet. If we have yet to understand something, we tend to default to a dislike of it or a fear of it.
Sometimes, fear comes from trauma. If we are bitten by a dog when we have our first experience with one, the pain caused by the physical bite may cause us to fear dogs for the remainder of our lives if we do not work to overcome the fear. If fear can manifest from both the the unknown and the experience of trauma, we can see why fear is so powerful.
Where fear becomes abusive is when our human behavior is altered beyond reason for abnormal motives, such as control, revenge, or wealth. When fear controls us, we are the prime audience for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
When the tool of fear falls into the wrong hands, it can be used in acts of poor sportsmanship. Sports teams can use fear to psychologically intimidate opponents, perhaps through embarrassment or threat of injury. Parents can use fear to try to control the actions of their children, causing the children to fear the repercussions if they do not do as the parents say. Coaches may fear their future when their job is on the line. Officials may fear the possibility of a player or coach arguing with them. The list of possibilities is endless.
If we consider the six roles discussed in my book, “On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook” (available now on Amazon for Kindle and in both paperback and hardcover), that encompass the first part of the text, we can see from the above examples that players, coaches, fans, parents, and officials can be affected by fear. What about the media, though?
The fact of the matter is that the media can manipulate the public through fear very easily, and that is an act of poor sportsmanship. These entities have the power to dictate to us how to feel based on what is reported, regardless of whether it is fact or not. If we are told that sports officials are bad by the media, then we can subconsciously begin to believe this. If we are told that our team’s archrival is the enemy, we may see them as opponents in a theater of war rather than on a field, court, rink, or pitch.
Not all media outlets are bad, and not all journalists are nefarious. Further, we can be our own worst enemy in terms of fear, hearing and believing only what we want and refusing to use the concepts of critical thinking and analysis to formulate new breakthrough thoughts.
Consider the path of fear that has traversed the public during this pandemic. We defaulted to fear because the virus was novel; without prior information or evidence, we assumed the worst rather than waiting to examine evidence and compare data. We feared what could happen to us if we left our homes: we didn’t know what might happen if we contracted the virus, so we forced ourselves to stay safe, especially without a cure or vaccine. We convinced ourselves that wearing multiple face coverings and social distancing would stop the virus while we diligently worked for a vaccine. What’s worse, though, is that we convinced ourselves that anything reported to us with a twist of fear had to be fact and, thus, feared.
Before the warmer weather of 2021 and the distribution of vaccines, plausible arguments could be made to support any claim on how to combat this threat; there was reasonable doubt and a lack of supporting evidence that allowed our fear to maintain its hold on us. In fact, fear spread quicker and did more damage than the virus could ever do, harming our mental states in ways that will stay with us for years, if not decades, after this story has run its course. However, we now live in a time and an environment where we have a choice. We have reached the fork in the road, to call back to our post from last month!
One path leads us to sanity. We will come to understand that we have the tools to live normal lives without fear of this virus. We have vaccines that work when we receive our full dosage and booster (not to mention that will continue to be studied since they were expedited without the examination of long-term data). If you’re not a fan of vaccines, we still have plenty of other things to help protect us, such as using good hygienic practices (washing our hands, not touching our face, etc.) and staying home when we’re sick. And we also have the medical tools to help us feel better when we are sick, either via at-home remedies or in medical facilities. We can take off the masks, throw them away, ditch the mandates, and be ourselves.
The other path leads us back to irrational fear. We can sit at home and not live our normal lives, afraid that the virus will get us if we leave the four walls that surround us. We can think that contact with anyone could lead to contracting the virus. We can think that the vaccine and all other methods of prevention and cure are simply not enough, perhaps tainted by other entities such as the government. We can wear multiple masks, believing that this piece of magic cloth has the power to prevent all illness and is the key to preserving what remains of life in this apocalyptic existence. We can never go back to the way our lives were because the fear of what if will keep us safe and prevent anything bad from happening. (Spoiler alert: said fear will not prevent bad things from happening.)
One path teaches us to fight fear the same way we fight poor sportsmanship: leading by example, empowering those who support the same ideals, and being beacons of good morals. The other path encourages fear and poor sportsmanship, promoting its growth and spread like a virus.
I know which path I’m taking. Which will you choose?
As 2019 comes to a close, we wrap our year with one final topic before we move on: the ignorance of pundits to facts.
However, we're not talking about politics or the news. That's beyond the scope of this blog. The one item to address: Game 6 of the 2019 World Series.
In Game 6, the Washington Nationals almost self-destructed into handing a championship to the Houston Astros. Trea Turner was called out due to runner's lane interference by umpire Sam Holbrook, causing a frenzy both on the field and in the media. Manager Dave Martinez was ejected from a World Series game due to this. Fans all over social media were ready to lynch Holbrook. The championship of baseball was about to be determined by an umpire's call for interference...until Anthony Rendon hit a ball into the seats and extended the series to Game 7, where the Nationals would ultimately win.
The problem? The call was CORRECT.
Every person who complained about the call failed to realize that it was the correct call. The runner cannot run outside of the lane in the last half of the distance from home to first base. But even after cooler heads prevailed and Thanksgiving approached, Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo and his cohorts continue to harp on the fact that interference should not have been called.
Russo doubled down on his claim by stating that MLB officials were thankful for the Rendon home run because it took the focus off the play in question. Perhaps the statement was more opinion than fact, and perhaps MLB was prepared to stand by the call if necessary as the correct call, even if it meant the entertainment value of the sport was severely diminished. But the constant pushing of such an opinion rings of the older pundit who refuses to accept that the opinion is simply wrong.
Maybe this is a microcosm of our society in general. We dig our heels in when our opinions are challenged and claim that we are allowed to have our own opinions, even when they are wrong. Our defenses go up because our integrity appears to be challenged. It's a tired song and dance that speaks to our inability to have a meaningful conversation and progress as a society.
Note this, though: to progress as a society does not have a correlation to being a stereotypical progressive. It has nothing to do with the alignment with the left and the right of the political spectrum. It simply means being respectful to the facts and understanding that nobody will think less of you if you happen to change your opinion.
The issue is that it's easier to just turn off the television or the radio than to actually offer a differing opinion.
The fact of the matter is that we're not here to push an agenda. We're here to simply awaken people to civil reality and ask that they treat others the way they would wish to be treated. It has become a difficult task, but one we at OSIP are proud to undertake.
That's why we are here to announce that our blog, The Strike Zone, will be changing. Namely, the posts will be few and far between. The success of our podcast, How You Play The Game, has taken more of our attention, and there is only so much time to go around. Both the blog and the podcast duplicate the same purpose: for us to discuss issues of sportsmanship in a particular manner. We may continue to use the blog for some posts from time to time, and we will not be taking our posts down. But the regular posts on the third Wednesday of each month will cease, and we encourage you to listen to our podcast, which is released on the 1st and 15th of each month. And like we said above, perhaps we may change our minds later and come back to the blog. We know you won't think less of us!
Until next time, as we say on the podcast, treat each other with respect.
Put aside the tumultuous ride that was Mike Francesa's "retirement" and return to sports talk radio in New York for a second and look at where his content and opinion is headed in the future.
Francesa has been very clear that much of his future plans involve interaction with fans (as sports talk radio usually does), but it goes beyond just calling in to his show. He has an app for fans to use. In conjunction with this plan, he did something that he said he would never do (until they told him to do it): join Twitter.
In an interview with ThePostGame.com, Francesa was asked about his methodology for Tweeting, and the answer is not surprising because it works: negativity sells.
Think about it. Whether you read, watch, or listen to any news, be it sports, politics, or any other topic that gets reported, discussed, and dissected, the negative news gets far more play than the positive news. The report about the good deeds being done at the local animal shelter are pushed to the last segment of the local newscast so that doom and gloom can headline the show.
The same goes in sports. The discussion about a player's inept play gets far more attention than the praise of a masterful performance. People are looking for heads to roll or a target to point their finger when their team doesn't win, and this type of outlet feeds that.
Nobody is suggesting that sports talk in any form should be eliminated. Debating sports is a great escape. But perhaps all sports fans need to take a step back and savor the sport for what it is: sport. It's supposed to be fun and entertaining. It is never supposed to be life and death.
Newsday published an incredibly interesting article back in June that discussed the growing culture of hate that surrounds announcers in the world of sports. The article interviewed and discussed the topic with some of the biggest targets of the hate, such as Joe Buck, Beth Mowins, and Suzyn Waldman.
A lot of different theories were offered regarding this phenomenon, many of which were interesting in their examination and the changes within society that act as catalysts for such movements. Social media played a big role in the discussion, which makes sense in this age of instant gratification and demand to share your opinions. Other factors included the national broadcast vs. the local broadcast, color commentators who played for certain polarizing teams, and simple psychology and jealousy.
One interesting point that was made was the advent of technology that allows fans to choose their broadcast team in most circumstances, especially with local broadcasts (since national broadcasts usually don't provide multiple options due to their exclusivity). If you purchase the MLB.tv package, for example, you are given every audio and video feed of every game all season so long as you are not blacked out. So if you're not a fan of the home broadcast team on television, you can always switch over to the visiting radio feed while you go run some errands. Sometimes, having this choice gets fans to shut up because they don't have to listen to announcers they detest; other times, it fuels their fire even more by simple contrast.
Whatever the reason people may have to hate announcers, the biggest question that I raise is: who cares about your opinion? Why do people feel the reason make sure everyone knows their disdain for someone behind the microphone? And why do they feel the need to make sure the announcers know it as well? That would be like if random people came to your job and complained about how you do it. Eventually, you'd go crazy.
Look, there are even announcers for which I don't care. But I don't take the time to send a Tweet to those people to let them know they're terrible. If you can't escape what you deem to be awful announcing, just hit mute! Why spread the hate?
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.