Out of the ever-rich world of major league baseball comes another excellent example of how technology challenges, stretches and confounds traditional ethics.
Over the last decade or so, it has become possible to track exactly where every ball put into play by every batter goes, and even how fast it gets there. As a result, computers can generate spray charts that will indicate the optimum defensive placements for the opposing team’s players, maximizing the chance that a batter will hit a ball within reach of a fielder. When Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau positioned four infielders on the right side of the field to foil Ted Williams, the “Williams shift” was considered radical and revolutionary. Today, there are shifts designed for a majority of players.
The problem is that with so many shifts, making sure each defensive player is in the right place becomes a challenge. Now some teams are experimenting with using lasers to mark the grass, so a player will know exactly where to position himself.
Wait—can they do that? There’s no rule against it: Alexander Cartwright neglected to include lasers when he prepared the original baseball rules in the 19th Century. Since there is no rule against it—yet—there’s no reason for teams not to use it. It is literally neither ethical nor unethical, neither accepted practice nor cheating. It does not use outside means to interfere with the game. It isn’t a secret, and both teams can use it if they choose. Sure: shine the beams until you are told not to. The technology is there, use it.
But is this cheating? When the Giants used a telescope to steal signs in the Polo Grounds during the 1951 season, that was cheating: a non-player and non-coach hired by the home team was relaying information about the opposing catcher’s signs to the pitcher using a series of relayed signals. It was surreptitious, and the visiting team wasn’t able to do the same thing: it was dishonest and unfair. The laser system can’t be hidden, and both visiting and home teams could employ it. Nor does it assist the players in catching, hitting or pitching. It just helps them stand in the right places.
Should it be legal under the game’s rules to do this? I don’t like it. Shifts are fine, but make them as subject to human error as everything else on the field. Using technology to improve performance during a game is a really bad slippery slope that risks baseball’s integrity. The same applies to allowing pitchers or catchers to have earphones so managers can dictate pitches and tactics from the dugout.
Nevertheless, kudos are due to the innovative managers, coaches or whoever it was who had the idea to use lasers to improve their defensive positioning. Technology often creates unexpected opportunities for improvement in surprising areas. I think baseball should swat this one like a bug, but nonetheless, keep thinking guys. Keep looking for that edge.
Pointer: Kel McClanahan
Source: New York Daily News