The Theory of Umpire General Relativity

Only slightly toungue-in-cheek . . .

I worked a game recently in which there was a close play at first base. I was working the plate so I had trailed the runner up the first base line and saw the play clearly. The umpire at first called the runner out (correctly). It was close, but not that close, and there is no question the call was correct.

Behind me, though, from the stands near the batter’s dugout, we heard more than just the typical groans. There are always groans from the fans on a close play, from one side or the other, but this was different. These were loud complaints: “How could he miss a call like that!”  That sort of stuff. Clearly, the umpire at first base (and me, too) saw one thing, but the spectators for the team on offense saw something completely different.

This happens all the time, of course, especially at first base, because that’s where the greatest number of close (bang-bang) plays occur. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more it got me thinking there might be more going on than simple bias for your home team.

So just how do you explain this common phenomenon, where one person sees one thing, and someone else in the same place and at the same time sees something entirely different? How do you explain this?

Well, there are several pieces to an explanation, but let’s start with the easy stuff:

  • First off, those spectators who are complaining are much farther away from the play than is the umpire who made the call. That, on the face of it, helps explain their different views of the play.
  • Then there’s the matter of angle. We all understand that angle is even more important than distance when you’re getting position for a call, and clearly the spectators’ angle was very poor when compared to that of the umpire. His vantage point was perfect.

Okay, so those are the easy and obvious points. And they work okay, up to a point. But I think there’s more to it. There’s a human factor, too. When the stakes are high, we tend to see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear, regardless of what actually happens. That’s human nature.

This is not particularly subtle. All of us know this happens. It’s one of the reasons witness testimony at trials is so unreliable, and why you often have several eye-witnesses give conflicting versions of the same event. We frequently see (and hear) what we want to see (and hear). It happens with memories, too. The more distant the memory, the more closely it morphs into what we really want to remember, whether we know it or not. Time, it seems, is less of a long and winding road than it is a murky pond. But I digress.

But wait; let’s stay with memory for a moment.

Do you remember how, as a kid, you’d calculate dog years. You’d convert a dog’s age to its equivalent human age by multiplying the dog’s age by some number – seven, I think. Supposedly, this helps dog owners appreciate the maturity of their six-year-old mongrel. As though, somehow, 42 human years is a more difficult concept to grasp than six dog years. Go figure.

Well, just as with memory and time and dog years, umpires on the field experience space and time differently than spectators do. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. To see the difference, you have to apply a conversions factor, just like when calculating dog years. But this calculation deals with space, not years. It calculates the difference between spectator views and umpire views of the same event.

The conversion factor is something like six-to-one. In other words, two inches to a spectator is equivalent to about 12 inches for the umpire on the field. So on a bang-bang play at first base, if the separation between the runner’s footfall on the bag and the time of the catch is minuscule, the umpire sees a gap. And sees it pretty clearly.

And that’s why, when there’s a really close play, and the aggrieved team’s fans and coaches and players groan and complain, the umpire is mystified. He’s thinking something like, Why in the world are they complaining? Hell, the ball beat him to the bag by a mile. And he actually means a mile.

There is something mysterious at work, because it appears that for umpires on the field, space can expand, or dilate, and time can contract. It’s been shown that such things actually do happen in nature.

This brings us to Albert Einstein  (yes, that Albert Einstein). In 1915, over a century ago, Einstein introduced the concept of four-dimensional space-time.
He formulated the concept to capture his theory of general relativity. What the concept means is that three-dimensional space, as we know it, is linked with passing time; and then, wrapped together, space and time form a single, four-dimensional space-time. Space-time, according to Einstein, is the fabric of the physical universe on the cosmological scale. Whew!

Well, according  to Einstein, one important effect of this is that events that appear simultaneous to one observer are, in fact, very different for someone else who is observing from a different frame of reference. (That’s relativity in a nutshell.) In other words, the disconnect between the view on the field and the view from the bleachers creates a space-time hiccup (if you will), such that two observers can literally see two different events.

It appears to be true, then (with only a small stretch), that in fact there does exist a special, four-dimensional umpire space-time, a dimension in which space expands and time contracts, such that ordinary events on the field take place one way for some observers, and entirely differently for others. They don’t appear different; they actually are different.

I believe that baseball relativity and umpire space-time are real. The evidence supports it. So groan if you have to, fans. Shout at the umpire if you must. But do not doubt the call of the umpire who is fixed in space and time on the very axis of the events on the field; and then go home, grumbling if you must, and satisfied that, although your view was pure, it was almost certainly wrong.

And all of this we capture in The Theory of Umpire General Relativity.


2 thoughts on “The Theory of Umpire General Relativity

  1. NickG,

    I loved your article “Theory of Umpire General Relativity.”

    Quite a while ago, I read Brian GREENE’S “The Fabric of the Cosmos” where he explained the cosmos using String Theory. I freely admit that my comprehension of Brian’s String Theory was minimal.

    I am hoping you can work String Theory into your “Theory of Umpire General Relativity.”


  2. It’s interesting that the first base is where the closest plays occur. My son is playing baseball now and I want to start umpiring. I’ll be sure to remember these tips so I can make the right calls for every baseball game that I umpire for.

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