Red Wings baseball traditions continue – with a robotic twist

Red Wings baseball traditions continue – with a robotic twist

If Mother Nature cooperates – always a big “if” in these parts this time of year – Rochester will continue a tradition this weekend that began 146 springs ago when the Flower City fielded its first professional baseball team. That forerunner to the club that became known as the Red Wings in 1928 played its games on North Union Street, not far from the Rochester Public Market, roughly two miles east of the Wings current diamond digs at newly named Innovative Field.

I’m one of those Seamheads who regards Opening Day (always capitalized) as a holiday of sorts. Like hardy daffodils pushing through the snow in our gardens, baseball’s return is a sign of rebirth following terminally long, gray winter days; a hopeful harbinger of sunnier times to come. Opening Day affords opportunities to emerge from our hibernation, reacquaint ourselves with old friends, and enjoy a sense of community and togetherness, which is especially soul soothing during this era of isolation and political polarization.

So, take me out to the ball game. I’ll pass on the peanuts and Cracker Jack but might be in the mood for a Zweigle’s red hot smothered in mustard and perhaps a Genny or — if the weather’s too frigid — a hot chocolate to wash it down.

I’m looking forward to Fred Costello — the longest reigning organist in sports — entertaining us with our ballpark soundtrack, as he tickles the ivories for his 47th opener and 3,311th Wings game.

I am looking forward to Milo the Bat Dog retrieving Louisville Sluggers to rousing applause after Red Wing at-bats.

I am looking forward to Dan Mason, Gary Larder, Naomi Silver, Will Rumbold, Nick Sciarratta, and the rest of the hard-working Wings front office staff making the rounds, ensuring everyone is having a grand, old time.

I am looking forward to visiting with long-time season ticket holders, including 92-year-old Ed Blasko and his daughter, Mary, Tony and Chris Wells, Kathy O’Neill, Mary Gross, and Les Kernan, while they hold court in their various ballpark neighborhoods.

I’m looking forward to the Sultan of Suds, roving beer vendor Tom “Conehead” Girot, serving brews and good cheer.

I’m looking forward to children flocking around Wing mascots Spikes and Mittsy.

I’m looking forward to ceremonial first pitches and a kid plucked from the stands so he or she can shout into an on-field microphone the words we’ve waited six months to hear: “Play Ball!”

I’m looking forward to the crack of the bat and aspiring major leaguers chasing fly balls, extra bases, and dreams. (Hopefully, this year’s Wings will feature more prospects than suspects; more wins than losses.)

Rochesterians have been participating in this rite of spring longer than most cities. In fact, the Wings are one of only six franchises in North American pro sports that have been playing continuously in the same city for this long. They are a tradition like few others. Through the decades, their fans have had the privilege of watching the likes of Stan Musial, Cal Ripken Jr., Bob Gibson, and Eddie Murray hone their skills here on their way to the big leagues and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Our baseball burg has been a solid proving ground, a worthy last rung of the ladder to the place they call the Show.

In recent years, Rochester also has been a proving ground, or a laboratory, if you will, for changes to the game adopted by the major leagues. These have included experimentation with a pitch clock, which shaved roughly a half-hour off the length of games and sped up the pace of contests. This year, MLB will implement the clock and a ban on shifts in hopes of creating more action in the field and on the bases.

And experiments will continue this season in the minors as the Wings and their International League brethren use robot umpires to call balls and strikes. The Automatic Balls and Strikes System, or ABS, employs a camera to electronically call the pitch. There still will be a home plate umpire, but he’ll wear an earpiece enabling him to receive the robo ump’s call instantaneously.

To be honest, I’m torn about this. Advanced technology may prove to get more calls right than human eyeballs, and that’s what players, managers and fans supposedly want. But human umpires have been making these decisions since baseball’s inception.

“I guess I’m kind of old school – I like the human element’’ says Matt LeCroy, back for a third season as Wings manager. “I think people enjoyed seeing a manager mix it up with an umpire every now and then. But once they instituted instant replay and the challenge rule in the big leagues that cut down on the arguments. I liked to get into it every so often with a home plate ump, just to show my players I had their backs and maybe get the next call to go our way. Now, what am going to do? Argue with a robot?”

LeCroy acknowledged he still will have opportunities to motivate his players and entertain fans by arguing calls on the bases. “You couldn’t second-guess balls and strikes any way – it was an automatic ejection – but you still could get your message across in subtle and not so-subtle ways if an ump was all over the place with his calls,’’ he said. “I’ll just have to pick and choose my spots on the bases. It does seem like we might be losing a bit of the human touch here. We’ll have to see how it goes.”

Wings fans will notice that the fielders’ shift ban being adopted in the majors also will be mandatory in the minors, as will the pitch clock and larger bases at first, second and third to encourage more stealing and infield hits. These, along with MLB’s ludicrous mandate to play regular-season games in late March, buck tradition. But the reality is that even a tradition-laden game like baseball has always been evolving. It’s just that in recent years, the changes have felt more dramatic.

At its core, the game remains the same. And a tradition like few others — Opening Day — will be held this weekend in Rochester, weather permitting, just as it has pretty much every year since the late 19th century.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.