In Baseball, Failure Should Always Be an Option


Last week, a computer called the balls and strikes in a minor league baseball game. A friend and fellow fan shared the news on his feed and cheered, “Bring on the robot umps!”

I was horrified.

Pitch tracking — it’s not just for apps and ESPN.

I see where my friend is coming from. It’s frustrating to see a good play ruined by a bad call, especially if it hurts your favorite time in the standings. But that frustration is not just part of baseball — it’s the point.

As George Vecsey wrote a few years ago, baseball is a “a sport that acknowledges daily failure.” Pitch a ball a fraction too slow or too close, and the next thing you know you’re watching it sail out of the park. Hit three balls out of ten on a regular basis and you’re a superstar.

The most storied and lovable franchises in baseball have a long history of futility. Fans respect the Yankees, but they loved the Mets and Dem Bums. Everybody bleeds for the Cubs. The Red Sox got boring as soon as they won. (Fortunately, they’re now well on their way to a Curse Comeback.)

Non-fans find this discouraging or dull. But baseball’s constant failure is a feature, not a bug.

The Lesson Of Baseball

Every game has something to teach us. Go shows us how conflict can be viewed as battle or negotiation, and that both viewpoints are equally valid. Poker asks us to solve problems with a combination of people skills and math.

Baseball’s lesson is that failure happens to everyone, and that success comes from picking yourself up and moving on to the next at-bat.

The lesson is obvious when you apply it on a personal level. We know that we suffer from our own mistakes. Under the wrong circumstances, a simple fielding error can become legendary. (Sorry, Bill Buckner.)

What’s less obvious is that baseball is also about living with the mistakes of others. Your teammates will let you down. Your manager will pick the wrong strategy. Sometimes the people charged with enforcing the rules are going to screw up.

It hurts to see an umpire blow a call. But it is also a necessary reminder that our arbiters are fallible. That we can’t put all our trust in the oversight of others. That the watchmen must themselves be watched.

Yes, there are real-world consequences to bad call. Careers can hang on umpires’ mistakes. But that’s true of many walks of life, from business to war to parenting. There are a lot of tough calls out there, and if we can learn a little humility from baseball, then we might be a little more careful when someone else’s job or life is on the line.

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