Should Baseball Robots Break the Metal Ceiling?
Could God throw a slider so nasty even He couldn’t hit it? Of course, God, being perfect and omnipotent, should be able to throw a pretty nasty slider. But of course, God, being perfect and omnipotent, would not chase a slider in the dirt, and could certainly drive even a nasty slider to the opposite field at least.
God’s relation to perfection is complicated by such paradoxes. Humans’ relation to perfection is complicated by ambivalence. Though we watch the big leagues, not little leagues, because the former is closer to perfection than the latter, and we want players to practice so as to make perfect, we balk at the idea of performance enhancing drugs, even though they, well, enhance performance. People want their children to be the best they can be and live in a perfect world, but cringe from genetically modified progeny and fear dystopias.
Hiding behind its ‘on the lighter side of the news’ aspect, that University of Tokyo professor Masatoshi Ishikawa has invented baseball playing robots is a reminder of our ambivalence towards perfection. According to the AP,
“The pitching robot, with its three-fingered hand, can throw 90 percent of its pitches in the strike zone, won’t need any relief from the bullpen and never asks for a pay raise. The batting robot, which has a sensor to determine if pitches are strikes or balls, hits balls in the strike zone almost 100 percent of the time, doesn’t swing at pitches outside the strike zone, and is guaranteed to pass all drug tests.”
The batting robot’s feat becomes less impressive upon hearing that the pitching robot only throws 25 miles per hour, and we will probably not see the Branch Rickey of robotics anytime soon. But the very possibility provokes the question (but does not beg it): What if robots could play The Game? Would we watch? What if there was a robot team that could beat the best major league squad? What if the robots could throw 150 mph, or were so fast they could steal second and third on the same pitch?
These futuristic scenarios need not become actual to test our values, as we can consider now whether this improvement in the level of baseball play is something to strive for. No longer would roster space be squandered on light-hitting utility infielders; robots would surely be 5-tool players. With a robot first baseman, the Curse would have ended earlier. But in the sci-fi horror film, the robots would be too good. Are perfect robot ballplayers to be avoided? (More concretely, should their development be funded?) In November of 2005, and before he was for it, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said he was not in favor of instant replay because “Human error is part of our sport.” But the principle “x is part of the game, therefore, x should continue to be part of the game” is less appealing when ‘x’ is plugged in with ‘segregation,’ for example, and so the appeal to tradition is a weak argument against developing robot baseballatons.
Furthermore, appealing to the value of human error appears ad hoc, a kneejerk reaction to the prospect of change rather than a genuine value. Typically, valuing something implies believing that more of it is a good thing (including even ‘temperance’.) But few would argue to increase human error (“human, all too human” is a lament, I think), or advocate the use of performance decreasing drugs. Or, perhaps we might feel there should be neither more nor less human error, and, perhaps, as a result of a cosmic coincidence, there is just the right amount of human error in the universe.
How convenient. Our pro ballplayers are good, of course, and far better than the average fan, but not too good so as to be… scary. (Pujols excepted.) But this sense of normality, from which we derive a notion of the creepily enhanced, must surely be conventional, a result of habituation, and could change. And here we slip on the slope; who wouldn’t want to find that next young ballplayer just ever so much better than Pujols? And when the Yankees are the only team able to afford his signing bonus and he falls to 27th in the draft, won’t the Sox and the Mets and the Dodgers clamor for the next uber-post-Pujols? Aside from financial inequities, this is not likely to provoke ethical ire. We are typically happy to see improvement, at least on our side. And if down the line, the best young player isn’t Dominican or Japanese or Canadian, but Mechanical, would we not want his perfect mechanics anchoring our pitching staff? Leo Durocher, the Brooklyn Dodgers Manager, defended the addition of Jackie Robinson by saying he’d play an elephant if he could do the job. (Robots playing for peanuts jokes not allowed.)
And should one worry that fans could not identify with ballplaying robots, it is worth remembering that racist fans before Jackie Robinson could not imagine identifying with any but white ballplayers. Over time, one can probably learn to identify with those of any color. Shiny metallic, even.
At present, Prof. Ishikawa’s robots, though impressive, are only relatively so, just as it’s impressive when a dog can sit on command but less so when a person does it. Moreover, baseball isn’t a chore that requires labor saving devices, so designing baseball playing robots may seem pointless. But sport is entertainment, and we are most entertained when we watch the best ballplayers. Baseball’s art is most beautiful when performed by its most talented artists. And if one day the best ballplayers are built in factories, not brought by the stork, we, at the very least, would have to confront our ambivalent relation to perfection, to confront why we might not want to see the best baseball we could see. Or why we might prefer, at the beginning of every ballgame, the national anthem to this.
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