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Patriotism and sports are inseparable. But have we lost something important as a result?

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Howard Bryant of ESPN takes a pretty gutsy tack for a Fourth of July column. He takes on patriotism at the ballpark. He starts by making an observation that, I hope anyway, everyone acknowledges to be valid:

The old conventions of sports leagues and fans coming to the ballpark to escape the problems of the world disappeared when the towers fell. Sports, which were once by demand of the paying customers and the league themselves a neutral oasis from a dangerous world, have since become the epicenter of community and national exhalation. The ballpark, in the time of two murky wars and a constant threat of international and domestic terrorism, has been for the last dozen years a place for patriotism. The industry that once avoided the complex world now embraces it, serving as the chief staging ground for expressions of patriotism, and has codified it into game-day identity.

A dynamic that was supposed to be temporary has become permanent.

But then Bryant questions why we engage in these ubiquitous acts of patriotism and what it all means. And whether doing so in such an obligatory manner has caused us to lose sight of the fact that (a) when we make our patriotism mindless, we lose an essential part of it, which is thoughtfulness; and (b) when we make our acts of patriotism obligatory we take away another essential thing: the freedom of dissent.

And, oh, by the way, sports had long been apolitical and now it’s clearly a place where a certain type of nationalist fervor, however benign in intent, is acceptable. Why, then, is political expression of other sorts so loudly shouted down? Why don’t we want to hear what athletes say about politics and freedom too?

Like I said: gutsy column. But the fact that we recognize such expressions as Bryant’s as “gutsy” sort of makes his point for him.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: