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Posted by Thomas Rochon at 3:28PM   |  Add a comment
Booing the umpire before there was an internet

In my last blog post, I described the other-worldly reaction by my hero, Armando Galarraga, when an umpire’s flawed judgment in June 2010 cost him the immortality of having pitched a perfect game. He smiled.

As Gallaraga later wrote about his thoughts at that moment, “The only thing for me to do is feel proud of the work I have already done, and worry about the next batter, and remember my many blessings. … I have just pitched the best game of my career. And now there is a runner on first base and I am still pitching the best game of my career.” 

I believe those comments make Mr. Galarraga a hero. He kept his priorities straight even under extreme duress and did not lose perspective under the most trying of circumstances. The umpire, Jim Joyce, also displayed a consummate professionalism by admitting his mistake. Elsewhere, though, things were not so pretty.

Thanks to technology, anyone who was interested in doing so could see (in slow motion and with the perfect camera angle) the play that umpire Joyce (in real time and at full speed) did not correctly see. Video reply did not correct the error or lead to any other change in the scoring of the game, but it did make a lot of people mad. 

Also thanks to technology, anyone could communicate their thoughts about the umpire’s judgment both to the world and to the man himself. Joyce drove from the game to his mother’s home in Toledo, as he always did when his umpiring assignment took him to Detroit. While he was driving, his wife called from their home in Oregon to ask if he was OK. She also had a warning for him – “Delete your Facebook account immediately. Don’t even look at it.” She mentioned that their two children had already each received about fifty ugly messages via Facebook. 

We have long had means of communicating over great distances, such as through telephones, telegraphs, and the postal service. But the internet takes to new heights the ability to be connected to anyone we wish through the effort of just a few clicks of the mouse and strokes of the keyboard. That level of access creates heightened levels of communication of all kinds. It enables far-flung families and friends to keep in touch with each other. It enables people who have never met each other to work effectively together on shared projects.   

However, new channels of communication also appear to have led to a greatly increased number of expressions of anger and disgust. Look at the comments written in response to almost any article in an online newspaper. They will register disagreement with a statement or a decision made by some public figure, which is fair enough. But that disagreement will in many cases be accompanied by disparagements of the individual’s intelligence, ethics, and possibly fitness to hold their job. Even the Sesame Street character Elmo comes in for some pretty harsh comments in reaction to his charming videos and songs on Youtube.

What’s going on here? One theory holds that people have always been this way, and that communications technology today simply gives us fuller freedom to vent. After all, “Kill the umpire!” has been in the baseball lexicon for a long time, and the term baseball “fan” is a shortened version of the word fanatic. 

However, this communicative style may also result from the fact that the growth of the internet happened to coincide with a loss of trust in authority of every kind. That loss of trust has been well documented in surveys carried out over the last forty years, both of the American public and abroad. Without trust and its companion, respect, disagreement becomes much more personal and mean spirited. As the famously combative Leo Durocher said back in the era of greater trust, “I never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.”

Today we are able to project our words across a global stage, accessed by anyone whose search string matches up with what we have written.  We are still in the infancy of using this power.  I hope we may yet learn to communicate consistently in ways that expand mutual understanding rather than in ways that close off real communication.


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