Anyone watching baseball on the ESPN family of networks this season has likely noticed an addition to the broadcast. The Worldwide Leader now uses an overlaid strike zone during live action, with most every pitch. What their system perceives as a strike shows up within the gray box as a circle with yellow x- and y-axis markers shooting out from it; a ball makes a circle outside the box. The zone expands or contracts with each batter, fitting itself to his size and stance.
If you have noticed this, you have also likely hated it, at least according to the kind of unscientific survey that social media makes possible. Typing "k zone" into Twitter on a Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday night during an ESPN broadcast produces reams of vitriol, threats of boycotts, and great salty mounds of sarcastic praise. The glowing hockey pucks of the mid-90s are invoked. People propose counter-programming or wonder who came up with this bright idea. If the live action K-Zone has a constituency, it is a very quiet one.
K-Zone's spokesman, if not its originator, is ESPN MLB coordinating producer Phil Orlins, who said before the season, "We are absolutely, unequivocally committing to K-Zone live on every game for every pitch of the season," and who has characterized the device as "habit-forming and essential." Live K-Zone has the stated objective of so many new technologies—it exists to do nothing less than change the way you watch baseball. This is not, of itself, a laughable aim. Indeed, the problem with ESPN's new trinket is not that it fails in this purpose; it is that it succeeds.
For all the time we spend grousing about it—it turns out the number of people who can retain their charm while talking about a baseball game for three hours is a small one—the standard baseball broadcast remains a pretty elegant thing. The nature of the game prohibits the single encompassing camera angle that other sports use, so a shorthand of quick, precise cuts has evolved. Bat meets ball, the screen switches within a quarter-second to the tracking left fielder or diving third baseman, and we know the play as well as if we had watched it uninterrupted. Most of the time, we are hardly cognizant that we have not.
The centerfield camera sits at the center of this operation, and only its ubiquity keeps us from recognizing it as the miracle it is. With this shot, pioneered by NBC producer Harry Coyle in the middle of last century, anyone at home—or at the bar, or in line for takeout—can see the flight of a pitch better than all but a handful of people in the actual stadium. It makes what had been in the pre- and early-television days the work of conjecture or imagination—the particular break of a slider, the height of a high fastball—plainly visible. It makes your sofa, when it comes to matters of pitch-to-pitch clarity, the best seat in the house.
Still, the view is imperfect. Ask Orlins. "Centerfield cameras are a little bit of an illusion since they are slightly off to the side," he said during his spring PR derby. "You might think you can tell when the ball is over home plate, but you really can't." ESPN's new box is here to correct that imperfection, to close the gap between sight and knowledge.
But whatever small gains the K-Zone delivers in terms of clarity—not many, to my agitated eyes—are far outnumbered by the jarring, video-gameish aesthetic presence. Philosophically, it's even worse: K-Zone coats live action in crude binary, every pitch and swing decreed good or bad according to which side of the border the circle appears on and its closeness to the gray line. Though the markings themselves are light enough, as Orlins has been sure to stress, their mere presence makes the old appreciations nearly impossible. A swing and miss at a pitch in the zone becomes less forgivable—it was right there!—and a fastball just off the corner, instead of being clever but untaken bait, is just a big white ball. A called strike that does not show in the rectangle, of course, is tragic and unjust.
If it muddies one of the most pleasurable routines in televised sports, though, K-Zone also provides a glimpse into the values of the American viewing public, at least as perceived in Disney boardrooms. The calculus at the root of this experiment seems to be that we prefer perfect information to beauty, precision to custom. One can forgive the higher-ups for arriving at this conclusion. The NFL, the standard-bearer of sports moneymaking, has built an entire secondary industry around the examining of border inches. The NFL's game-play is just a blurry introduction to the ultra-zoomed and many-angled replays, and those replays fodder for between-game airtime; imagine all the expensed dinners paid for by the Dez Bryant quasi-catch. The most common image in the final minutes of a close NBA game is too often that of officials bunched around a monitor, trying to decipher whose finger clipped the ball last on its way out of bounds. It makes a kind of perverse sense, given the climate, that ESPN would see this obsession with exactitude and apply it to the most inexact patch of air in sports.
Maybe, in time, the complaints about K-Zone will stop. Maybe they will keep up, ESPN will relent, and Orlins will have to eat his promises by the All-Star break. Whatever the case, those of us finding something we've long enjoyed sprinkled with new annoyance would do well to remember that our habits, however durable they seem, are safe only so long as they bring the desired return. We'll just have to hope that the unadorned screen proves more profitable. The people that gave us the K-Zone aren't much for gray areas.