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MLB's 'Lasers in the Outfield' controversy a sign of the times


Lasers in the Outfield. Sounds like a major motion picture coming to a Cineplex near you. Turns out it's just another high-tech baseball innovation that won't be coming to an outfield near you, me or Yasiel Puig.

Of all the unlikely controversies we've seen in baseball in the 21st century, this one might be the hardest to fathom. Not to mention the hardest to follow.

This situation erupted a week and a half ago, when those free-thinking Los Angeles Dodgers showed up in New York and asked the groundskeeper of their good buddies, the New York Mets, if they could paint a few marks in the Citi Field outfield before the game. Just to help position the outfielders, with the help of a device that you and I would call a golf laser range finder -- but which baseball refers to as an "electronic positioning device."

Doesn't sound too threatening to me. But here's how nuts things got from there:

The groundskeeper initially said yes ... until someone alerted the Mets' front office ... which then asked the commissioner's office to investigate ... which resulted, a few days later, in the Dodgers being told their little laser show has been ruled to be officially illegal.

But why exactly? Please. Help us understand what's so dangerous about what the Dodgers were doing out there.

If the Dodgers were zapping the opposing outfielders with laser beams to blind them every time an L.A. batter hit a fly ball, OK, then feel free to ban that. If the Dodgers were using lasers to redirect balls they hit away from the nearest gloves, then holy guacamole, ban that, too.

But the more I've delved into this, the more obvious it becomes that they weren't attempting to do anything surreptitious. In fact, they'd been using their range finder and painting their marks in the outfield for over a month, without incident, without controversy, without jeopardizing national security, until the Mets cried foul. So what were the Dodgers up to? Here's what:

For, like, 100 years, you know how outfielders were positioned? With coaches standing on the top step of the dugout, waving towels. Kinda like bus boys after they accidentally set your napkin on fire.

Then along came this newfangled invention. You probably call it "computers." They've got a whole new level of information stored inside them. So not surprisingly, they also provide a whole new level of exactitude in helping teams decide where fielders might want to think about standing.

It's all based on the novel concept that it works out well if you position guys where hitters actually hit the ball. As opposed to where Connie Mack's fielders once stood in 1911.

So it's now an accepted practice that infielders shift all over the infield on practically every hitter. But moving outfielders around is trickier.

For one thing, there's way more ground to cover out there. For another, those outfielders are standing a lot farther from the dugout. And some of those dugouts are dug beneath the playing surface, so the coaches in charge of positioning get a lousy view of the outfield.

But the Dodgers wanted to position their outfielders with the same precision that all teams now position their infielders. So their idea was to pinpoint four spots in the outfield at the depth where outfielders would commonly play an average hitter. Then they had outfield coach George Lombard walk around before the game, reviewing with the outfielders how they should adjust to opposing hitters based on data that all teams gather.

And those mysterious lasers? They just provide a more exact and more efficient way to establish the depth at which the outfielders ought to stand for the average hitter. Is it really that complicated? Is it really that dangerous?

Even a rival executive doesn't see what the big deal is.

"What's the difference between a coach waving his hands to move a guy right or left, or taking laser pointers to show him where to move?" the exec asked. "What's the difference? ... It's just taking the shift one step further."

Couldn't have said it better. What the heck is the difference -- other than the fact that positioning the defense by waving hands and towels is the 21st-century version of washing your clothes in the sink instead of a washing machine?

Well, here's what I've gleaned from asking that question as often as possible: Baseball's powers that be aren't totally sure what the difference is -- or whether there's a difference at all. They just don't want to have to figure it out in the middle of the season.

So they've told the Dodgers they can't use their range finders during games, because that would be a violation of the rules prohibiting unapproved electronic devices in dugouts. But do they have any evidence the Dodgers used those devices during games? Well, no. They don't.

They've also told the Dodgers -- and all 30 teams, for that matter -- that they can use the devices before games, but can't paint the field, mark the field or place items like golf tees on the field. Not that there's evidence that any of that was causing any problems, either. But it could, obviously, if somebody tripped on a golf tee.

The Dodgers have said they're not the only team using range finders, by the way, and that several teams have asked to make marks in the Dodger Stadium outfield. But MLB hasn't established whether that's two teams, eight teams or all 30 teams. It just doesn't want to get into it now, while there's an actual season going on.

So here is where this is leading: to a long discussion of this topic at the general managers' meetings in November. Followed by a proposal to the Playing Rules Committee. Followed by ... um, who knows what, but likely some change allowing some of this on a limited basis.

But here again is my question: Why is this a problem? Why is this a headline? Why is this so complicated?

Have I mentioned in the last four sentences that it's the 21st century? The use of technology and information in this sport is becoming THE story of these fast-changing times. In the NFL, offensive coordinators speak to their quarterbacks before every play through the miracle of wireless technology. You know how long ago that was first legalized? Not last week. Not last year. Not even this millennium. How about 22 years ago?

"The NFL has totally embraced technology," one GM said recently. "We're so far behind on so many fronts, it's incredible."

Yet in baseball, you still hear people screaming that it's time to ban shifts -- at a time when the number of shifts has more than doubled just in the last two years and has multiplied more than 12 times in the last five years. So now it's the outfielders' turn to adjust.

My exhaustive research into laser range finders -- by which I mean I Googled it -- found that (A) they're pretty cool, (B) they can gauge distance within one-tenth of a yard (otherwise known as "almost 4 inches"), and (C) they've been approved by the U.S. Golf Association for the measurement of distance only. So think of how much more exact a team could position its outfielders by using them.

Hey, maybe we can even use the Dodgers as evidence of how well this technology works, since they've admitted they've been using markers in the outfield since the third week of April.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Dodgers were converting fly balls and outfield line drives in Dodger Stadium into outs at a rate of 69.2 percent through May. Last season, they converted 66.6 percent into outs.

That doesn't sound like much. But over the course of a season, it would mean that 23 balls that weren't being caught last year would be caught this year. Which would save quite a few runs, especially if they were doubles and triples that were being transformed into outs.

We don't know for sure if technology had anything to do with the uptick this year. But here's an excellent rule of thumb to describe the general impact of all technological innovation: It can't hurt!

So let's think this through. There's a simple, low-cost technology available that can help put outfielders in the right place. And if used right, it would save lots of runs.

Now let's pose a question: Do you think this is going away? Really?

Yeah, sure it is. And playing baseball under the lightbulbs can't possibly last.

So put away your conspiracy theories. Nothing sneaky went on here. Nothing alarming went on here. And nothing endangering the sanctity of this beautiful sport went on here.

It's just another episode of that never-ending miniseries: Technology marches on. Get used to it.

Lasers in the Outfield. They may never involve a reunion of Danny Glover and Tony Danza on a big screen, or even a small screen. But lasers are clearly the wave of the future. Baseball clearly wasn't ready for that future to arrive a week and a half ago. But gobble up that laser stock, because here's a prediction: By this time next year, we'll be wondering what all the hubbub was about.


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