Fixing baseball with high-tech pitch

Staring at high-definition images and pausing live programs with TiVo, it’s easy to take modern TV wizardry for granted. Yet sitting through the baseball playoffs illustrates how no sport has benefited more from such technological breakthroughs, coverage-wise, than America’s pastime.

Hide-bound in tradition, baseball’s current overseers have resisted pressure to plunge further into the digital age. But they’re fighting a losing battle, especially in a sports era where TV — by helping pay the bills — claims the right to a voice in calling the shots.

It’s a cliche to describe anything as "a game of inches," but baseball fits that description more than virtually any other team sport as an inch here or there determines the fate of every pitch. And the ability of the camera to zoom in and around the action — largely pioneered by FOX (which I’m not saying just because they pick up the tab for this column) — has dramatically improved the viewing experience.

Granted, networks can easily become too enamored with such toys, which at times threatens to turn telecasts into giant live-action video games. The most unnecessary wrinkle might be the thing in football where they freeze the field and spin the viewer’s angle on it, which would probably be more exciting if I was still in college smoking a lot of pot.

A few conspicuously blown umpire calls during the playoffs have fueled demands that baseball take more advantage of such technology with talking heads arguing for everything from computerizing balls and strikes to expanded use of instant replay, capitalizing on what’s visible from the booth for more than just disputed home runs. Predictably, this has caused those who fondly remember black-and-white telecasts — a contingent that wields inordinate influence in baseball — to cry foul.

Here, the difference between football — by far the most popular sport in the U.S. as it demonstrated again this weekend when NBC’s "Sunday Night Football" overpowered FOX’s Phillies-Giants coverage head to head — and baseball proves illuminating. Most modern football coverage innovations have been designed to assist casual fans in keeping up with the game: A glowing computer-generated line to highlight the first-down marker or lighting up "the red zone" in blazing color.

Changes in baseball coverage, by contrast, primarily augment the game for fans who actually understand it — showing where a pitch just catches the corner in super-slow-motion or quickly rifling through an entire sequence of pitches, displaying location and speed, to see how a pitcher worked a batter.

In the opening game of the San Francisco-Philadelphia series, analyst Tim McCarver immediately noted that Cody Ross’s two near-identical home runs came on almost the exact same pitch — and then "Fox Trax" was able to illustrate precisely that. Very cool stuff.

So what comes next? There’s been plenty of talk regarding how to "fix" baseball, a lot of it pretty inane (see the five-point plan proposed by the Los Angeles Times‘ insufferable Bill Plaschke). For the most part, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with baseball that Phillies ace Roy Halladay’s playoff no-hitter, the Yankees’ thrilling 6-5 comeback against Texas or competitive seven-game series can’t cure. (That Yankees game set a record for playoff baseball on cable with more than 8 million viewers, per TBS and Nielsen Media.)

Still, if a wholesale makeover is unnecessary, adding a little Botox to the coverage couldn’t hurt, beginning with finding more ways to embrace technology instead of fearing it. Cameras will be squeezed into new places, providing more up-close-and-personal access. Wider use of instant replay, which certainly hasn’t hurt football’s ratings, seems inevitable. And because letting eyes in the sky help officiate slows the action further, baseball needs a mechanism to speed up down time, especially during pitching changes.

At least then, the last two innings wouldn’t take as long to play as the first seven, and kids might stand a fighting chance of staying awake for the climax.

Such tinkering will require shedding some of baseball’s dearly held traditions, but many of them went belly up, frankly, when juiced-up athletes shattered the game’s most hallowed records.

In other words, baseball has already changed, whether those enamored with its folklore (think Ken Burns documentaries) like it or not. Now it’s time for the game — no doubt kicking and screaming — to take a few calculated leaps into the 21st century.