Monday, August 13, 2007

Foul calls

Just when you thought that sports in America couldn’t get any more fraught with controversy – NBA refs making calls based on personal bets; the continuing debate over whether Barry Bonds pharmacologically cheated to become baseball’s new home-run king; Michael Vick’s preoccupation with canine blood sports – it gets worse. A new study suggests that America’s great national pastime may have something – maybe too much – in common with America’s great national poison: racism.

The new issue of Time magazine reports that the study directed by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, strongly suggests that home plate umpires in Major League Baseball games call balls and strikes more favorably when the pitcher is the same race they are. You can’t make this up.

From the Time story: “In the new study, Hamermesh's team analyzed the calls on 2.1 million pitches thrown in the Major League between the 2004 and 2006 seasons. Controlling for all other outside factors, such as the pitcher's tendency to throw strikes, the umpires' tendency to call strikes and the batter's ability to attract balls, researchers found evidence of same-race bias — and the data revealed that the bias benefits mostly white pitchers. Not surprising, since 71% of MLB pitchers and 87% of umpires are white.”

The study determined that the disparity occurred in 1 percent of pitches.

There is one bright aspect to this: Apparently, and unlike in society as a whole, the bias can be readily corrected. “When a game's attendance is particularly high, when the call is made on a full count or when ballparks use QuesTec, an electronic system that evaluates the accuracy of umpires' calls after the game, the biased behavior disappeared, according to the study,” Time reported. The QuesTec system has been used in MLB games since the 2003 season, and even then generated complaints from umps. Sandy Alderson, MLB's executive vice president for operations, said back then that the system "has done wonders" and “it’s not going away.”

But chalk any biases up to plain old human nature. "We all have these subconscious preferences for our own group," Hamermesh told the magazine. "When you're going to be watched and have to pay more attention, you don't subconsciously favor people like yourself. When discrimination has a price, you don't observe it as much."

The underlying message there is obvious: If there’s a chance of getting caught, cheaters generally don’t cheat. In that, there’s no difference between umpires embroidering the truth, pitchers scuffing the ball or hitters using whatever, uh, advantage they can find to put the ball in play.

Makes you wonder about all the attention paid to Barry Bonds’ home-run total. You don’t suppose there’s a chance he was robbed by the umpires of five or eight balls this season that could have led to home runs, do you?

Say it ain’t so.

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