The RIBBE Investigates A Robot Umpire Warehouse In North Kingstown

This past Saturday, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. The sun was shining, light breeze, and it felt like Spring had finally Sprung. After my yard sale, I decided to take my bike over to the Quonset Bike Path near my home in North Kingstown. I hadn’t been on a bike ride for a few seasons and was really looking forward to it. I set out just after noon time at the foot of the bike path next to Dave’s Marketplace.

The bike path was, as expected, pretty packed with joggers, parents walking with strollers, other bikes, and walkers of all ages – all enjoying the beautiful sunshine and being outside. I took my time, seeing the new building construction that had gone up since I had last visited and just enjoying some quiet time to myself. I bike passed by the new athletic fields on my right and continued on the path with a big smile on my face. I’m not sure what sports teams will benefit from those fields, but they look amazing and someday North Kingstown teams will host tournaments, practices, and more. Just passed those new athletic fields, passed the residences on my left, I was biking up a small incline and noticed, of all things, a baseball on the side of the bike path. Of course, I stopped to take a look. Perhaps one of the neighborhood kids had hit it out of their yard during a weekend batting practice or home run derby. There were trees lined on the right side, so I couldn’t see what was behind them. I held the ball in my hand, felt the laces, I even gripped my famous Folkball grip. And then I heard it.

“Out, safe, out, safe” followed by “Strike, ball, strike, ball.” A series of familiar calls over and over again. At first, somewhat faint. Then, the voices got louder and louder. I thought it was an umpire school, one I hadn’t heard of or reported on. I was curious and walked my bike down the path a few yards to find a scuffed piece of grass, a sign that someone or something had walked there before. I took my bike down this path, through several layers of trees, and with the sun blaring in my face came upon… a baseball field.

This field may have a been a functioning baseball field at one point for the military and/or their children. It looked pretty run down, the bleachers were all splintered and half broken. The press box roof had long since collapsed. The fence surrounding the field was completed rusted and barely standing in some spots. From the bike path, I entered the field area around left field and began to walk around the fence to see what was happening. And then, I heard it again. “Out, safe, out, safe.” It was coming from behind the first base dugout, a spot I could not see from my vantage point in left field. This has to be an umpire school. Wow, how cool is this!!! A real find. I walked with my bike and made it just passed the third base dugout when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Can I have that please?”

A boy, no older than my sophomore son at North Kingstown High School, extended his hand and asked again, “Can I have that baseball, it is very valuable.” I reached into the pouch of my sweatshirt and gave the boy the baseball. “What is your name and what is this place?” I asked. “Robert. We are making history here.” the boy answered. “I am a baseball writer and would love to write about your history making.” I said. “Cool, come with me, ” Robert motioned to the area behind the first base dugout. I parked my bike up against the third base dugout and followed Robert around the dilapidated press box to view this history making scenario. Much to my dismay, all I saw was 10 umpires that looked somewhat like the umpires who work my Little League® games. About 45 to 60, grayish hair, salt and pepper beard, slightly overweight, nothing history making here. And then, my jaw dropped.

As I looked further passed the umpires, I noticed a modest size warehouse. The ground floor, garage door was opened all the way and I noticed a team of kids Robert’s age set up with desks, laptops, speakers, and monitors. There were baseballs, bats, and gloves strewn across the lawn, as if the kids had just finished playing baseball. ‘Is this some sort of analytics group’, I thought. Then, I took a closer look past the desks to see another 20 umpires, looking similar to the ones on the field, except some of the them were missing arms and legs. “Hey,” Robert yelled to me, “check this out.” Robert had the baseball in his hand and walked to the mound. A girl, Tessa, came from behind the desk with a catcher’s glove and proceeded over to home plate. Robert yelled to the rest of the kids behind the desk “Bring out Sergio.” At which, one of the umpires turned about face, almost military style, and walked over to where the umpire should go behind the plate. “Sit down and watch old man,” Robert yelled towards me and pointed to a chair behind home plate. “I’m 47,” I said “that’s not considered old, dude.” The team laughed at my joke and then it happened.

As I sat down, I took out my cell phone to capture the moment. “Hey, no cameras, not yet at least.” It was another umpire. “Don’t worry, I’m the real thing. They need an actual umpire to teach them the game, all of our clever comments, the old school and the new school rules.” I stood up to talk to this “real” umpire and asked, “what the heck is going on here.” The umpire sighed and stated “I’m not at full liberty to discuss, but these will be my replacement, potentially, in about 2 years.” I heard Robert again. “Hey old man, check out this curve ball.” Robert did a full wind up, then threw a 30 mile an hour curve ball over the plate, caught by Tessa in the strike zone. Sergio, the robot umpire called out for calling balls and strikes, rang out a true and utter call “Strike!” It looked like a real person, sounded like a real person. Absolutely breathtaking to watch. “Want to see how we do it?” asked Robert.

“You see, that baseball you found has software in it that works with the software inside Sergio’s brain as well as our other umpires.” Robert began to tell the story of how the North Kingstown High School Robotics team was applying for a special project commissioned by a professional sports organization that they preferred not to disclose. The application was to build the robot umpire of the future, one that could be used in youth baseball up to the professional levels. 5 teams had been selected throughout the country to submit data, proposals, and an actual robot umpire by January of 2020. North Kingstown had been picked because of its incredible Robotics program at the high school. Plus, the members of this robotics team had all played youth baseball and some even played in middle school, so they were very well versed in the game of baseball. “Every possible scenario has been programmed into that baseball and we have over 10 million pitch combinations programmed into the umpires. Curveballs, knuckleballs, fastballs, sliders, change-ups, wind speed, humidity, cold air, hot air, rain, snow, we have left nothing out.” The “real” umpire standing just behind Robert out of his field of vision dropped his head in disbelief.

“The data from the baseball is captured in a millisecond by the umpire’s recognition software. The umpire creates a strike zone field of vision based on the size of the batter and can calls balls and strikes with 99.1& accuracy. Our goal is 100% by the end of this summer,” said Tessa as she showed me the pitch Robert had thrown from the computer station. “You see the ball’s trajectory, the umpire’s software is reading that along with the 5 mph wind from the Southeast and follows it into the strike zone. The strike zone we are working on today is for a youth baseball player about 4 feet 6 inches tall. We started at 3 feet 6 inches last summer and have made it 12 inches so far. Pretty cool.” I watched the whole pitch unfold as if I were at MIT or URI or some billion dollar technology company in Providence. “I woulda called that a strike, too.” Said the reluctant “real” umpire.

“When we have the unveiling ceremony, you should come write about it. You can bring your camera and take pictures at that point. Well, we have work to do Old Man, so if you don’t mind showing yourself out, that would be great. Nice to meet you,” and with that Robert extended his fist for a “Fist Pump” handshake. Tessa was more proper and said “Nice to meet you, Mister Baseball Writer” and shook my hand. The umpire walked me out to left field. “Is this for real, how did you get involved with this,” I asked as I grabbed my bike and headed out to the trees. “They got a RI grant from some big tech company and the space has been donated by the Town or School Department big wig through some loop hole, I don’t know. I am getting too old to do 5 games in a day, so I agreed to be a consultant and help the kids out.” I extended my hand to the “real” umpire and said “by the way, you are much better looking than Sergio.” The umpire, whose real name he would not divulge to me, laughed and turned to head back to the warehouse.

I walked my bike on the grassy path I came in on and was almost to the bike path when I spotted another baseball. I paused for a moment, looked around to see if anyone was looking, and snatched it out of the pile of leaves it lay in. I put it in the pouch of my sweatshirt, put my helmet on, hopped on my bike, and spiritedly biked back to Dave’s and my awaiting car. I placed the baseball in the left cup holder and headed home. As I pulled into the driveway of my home, I noticed my youngest son hitting baseballs of a Tee and waved to him. Then, I took the baseball to my home office.

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The RIBBE is The Rhode Island Baseball Experience. It is promoting the game of baseball here in the great state of Rhode Island for the entire baseball world to see. The RIBBE is positive stories, photos, videos, and responsible social media posts. The RIBBE is an information resource for families looking for an AAU team or a summer camp or a great place to buy a first baseman’s mitt. The RIBBE is a network of coaches, tournament directors, parents, leagues, and baseball junkies whose passion of the game of baseball is unquestioned. I believe that providing expert analysis, information and directions to ballfields, and coaching advice from some of the top RI baseball minds will help promote the game of baseball here in RI to a whole new level.

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