HANCOCK, Maryland — In the 1950 comedy "Kill the Umpire," Bill "Two Call" Johnson (played by William Bendix) is chased by a vengeance-seeking mob of fans after he made what they believed to be a bad call in a minor league baseball game.
Calling balls, strikes and checked swings could be a thing of the past in amateur ball if the Eagle Eye Electronic Home Plate is all that inventor Jerry Spessard claims. He has enough faith in the product to begin construction of a plant in Hancock this June, with production expected to begin by fall.
"He's done a real service by liking our town," Mayor Daniel Murphy said of the prospect of technology manufacturing jobs coming to his town, hard hit in recent years by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
"I've had this idea in my head for years, but I don't know anything about electronics," Spessard said recently. However, he does know how to surround himself with talented people, including faculty of the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Maryland.
After five years of development, building prototypes and testing, the Eagle Eye is nearly ready to take the field — and the bullpen, Spessard said. It recently was named runner-up as Invention of the Year by the University of Maryland's Office of Technology Commercialization.
Christopher Davis and John Rzasa from the University of Maryland, retired electrical engineer Leroy "Buzz" Chamberlain and Jacob Scharmer, a former Washington County Technical High School student, were integral to development of the Eagle Eye, Spessard said.
The plate uses an electro-optical system to project curtains of light and then measure the light scattered by the ball, according to the University of Maryland.
The plate can determine if a pitch is inside or outside and high or low, Spessard said. Ball speed, location and other information are recorded in the plate's database and can be accessed by smart phone, tablet or other device, he said.
Fans can even get an app to see what the plate is registering during a game, Spessard said.
Measuring whether the ball was inside or outside was the easy part, Spessard said. The hard part was measuring whether the ball is in the vertical range of the strike zone, he said.
"Coca-Cola has its secret formula and we have ours," Spessard said of the plate's new technology.
However, it does require the players to have their individual strike zones from knees to chest measured and placed in the plate's database, Spessard said. That could be refined in the future so something similar to computer chips could be incorporated into the uniform, he said.
Several units are being built now for youth and amateur teams to use this summer, he said.
Amateur umps being relieved of calling balls and strikes — the plate has LEDs that light up for a strike — could make the game more civil, as the subjectivity of calls is eliminated, along with parents' and fans' rationalization for razzing officials, Spessard said.
The home plate umpire would still have to make calls at the plate, and Spessard said the Eagle Eye can take that kind of punishment. University of Maryland baseball players have put it through the paces in testing in conditions of dirt, dust and mud, he said.
The plate sits in a permanently installed vault at home and can be removed after a game, Spessard said. It is also a great training tool for pitchers, who can work on speed and placement at practice and in the bullpen.
This is not Spessard's first foray into sports. He also invented GameFace, a protective mask for baseball and softball players. His other endeavors include publishing the Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack, real estate and insurance.
Formerly of Hagerstown, Spessard now lives in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, north of Hancock. He is leasing land from Hancock to build a 6,000-square-foot office, production and warehouse facility.
It will be built on the town-owned Stanley Fulton Complex property where Evolve Composites last year began production of lightweight concrete utility pads and other products in the former Fleetwood Travel Trailer plant.
On May 8, Hancock Town Council voted to provide a $200,000 loan to Spessard Manufacturing with a personal guarantee from Spessard.
Spessard plans to have seven to 10 people working once the plant opens, and more as production expands. Most of them will be hired from the Hancock area, he said.
"We've always bragged about our workforce and our work ethic," Murphy said.
The town, which has lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs in the past decade, needs a boost to its economy, Spessard said. He hopes more businesses will be attracted by the presence of Spessard Manufacturing and Evolve.
"We hope success breeds success," Murphy said.
Information from: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Maryland, http://www.herald-mail.com