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From the July 29, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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E-sports aren’t nearly the weirdest event to have graced the several iterations of Madison Square Garden, which hosted poultry shows during a more agrarian age and week-long walking races that thrilled a pre-automobile audience. The question is whether the action, mostly virtual, at the League of Legends World Championship, which held its semifinals recently at MSG, announces a new and lasting arena-friendly competition or if someday these gatherings will be looked back on as are handsome chickens and panting pedestrians.

After attending the LLWC gathering, Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal was transformed from skeptic to (sort of a) true believer, despite his Frogger Era upbringing. “If you are a serious e-sports fan, I apologize that this column probably reads as if the Journal sent a dog to cover the World Series,” he says, in one of his typically witty articles.

Without necessarily understanding the game, Gay explains the culture and the seemingly mysterious allure of people watching a screen showing other people playing a game on another screen. God knows if such a spectacle will truly sustain, but the NFL in 2016 probably wishes its athletes were comprised of pixels, unblemished by domestic-violence charges and undiminished by brain injuries.

An excerpt:

We arrived Friday night to a cascade of thousands walking into the Garden. E-sports owns a rap for being a predominantly male audience—unlike, say, a Jets game, which is a richly cosmopolitan crowd—but there were a good number of women. I’d say the average age was somewhere in the early to mid-20s. Josh and I stuck out like Regis Philbin and Larry King.

Inside, the arena was packed, loud, happy. This really threw Josh. He is a lifelong Knicks fan whose family had season tickets to the team for years. He’s not used to seeing enthusiasm at Madison Square Garden.

If you’re wondering if e-sports really is people sitting in an arena watching other people play videogames, I’m going to give it to you straight: It really is people sitting in an arena watching other people play videogames.

But the drama was fascinating! Underneath an enormous four-sized jumbo screen, two five-person teams were positioned at the Garden’s center, like Ali vs. Frazier: SK Telecom T1 and the Rox Tigers, both of South Korea. (South Korea is to e-sports what Brazil is to soccer.) They had nicknames like Peanut, Joker, Bang, Wolf and Faker. (Yes: e-sports names are about 900 times cooler than golf nicknames.) The 20-year-old Faker (real name: Lee Sang-hyeok) is considered the Michael Jordan of e-sports, a revolutionary player who has transformed the game.

“Faker right now is the greatest of all time,” said a fan behind me, Elias Vargas, 17, who’d driven to the Garden from Lancaster, Pa with two friends. “He does things, like his rotations and his mechanical skills, that nobody has reached.”

I’m not going to pretend any of this made sense to me.•

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From the September 19, 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Author George Plimpton, front left, and J.W. Gallivan, Jr., a Rober

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  • George Plimpton seemed to have lost the will to live soon after I interviewed him in 2003. Two weeks later he was dead. It was unintentional, I swear.
  • The best part of Plimpton’s journalism, from being an embed Bedouin on the set of Lawrence of Arabia to playing quarterback in a preseason game for the Detroit Lions, was that he realized the business sometimes served an important purpose, but the vast majority of it was a lark to have fun in between visits from the Time Inc. drink cart. I cant say I approve of his mixing fiction into his fact, but the lust for life was admirable. Perhaps being in close proximity to Robert F. Kennedy as he was assassinated–he helped wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand–gave him perspective that life and death is life and death, and everything else is not.
  • Plimpton began writing for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, one of the young literary lights recruited by editor Sid James to write for his publication in that era. Plimpton thrived, with the magazine nurturing his flair for participatory journalism. One who did less well was Kurt Vonnegut, whose first assignment was to write a full-length article about a spooked racehorse that jumped over a fence. Before grabbing his coat and exiting the offices to never return, he typed these words: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”
  • I’m sure there was some great national prank after Plimpton’s Sidd Finch story on April Fools Day in 1985, but that was one of the last hurrahs of the pre-Information Age, a story that would unravel now on Twitter in minutes. We still get fooled a lot, but by nothing nearly so wonderful. 

In a New York Review of Books piece about Plimpton’s sports journalism, Nathaniel Rich acknowledges that sometimes the writer dropped the ball, as he did in underplaying that racial hatred directed at Henry Aaron as the Atlanta slugger closed in on Babe Ruth’s home-run record, but his close proximity to the game often allowed him to digest small details about the games, including points about class, something not every patrician would appreciate. An excerpt:

Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton’s books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era that, as Rick Reilly writes in his foreword to The Bogey Man, “historians classify as ‘Before Insurance Lawyers Ruined Everything.’” (Journalists might classify it as Before Fact-Checkers Ruined Everything.) Plimpton writes about baseball locker rooms “heavy with cigarette and cigar smoke,” star players humbled by their off-season jobs (Pro-Bowler Alex Karras fills jelly doughnuts), and teams that cheat by positioning a spy with binoculars on a roof near the opponent’s practice field. He is able to convince major league All-Stars to take part in his scheme by offering, to the players on the team that gets the most hits off him, a reward of $125, the equivalent today of about $1,000. (By comparison, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera earned $19,000 per inning this season.) It was also an age in which the press was powerful enough to convince professional teams to grant full, unfettered access to a journalist. Today a writer for a major national magazine is lucky to be allowed more than one hour with the subject of a cover article. Plimpton spent a full month living in a dormitory with the Lions.

As enjoyable as it is to read about Plimpton being treated roughly by professional gladiators in front of large crowds, the participatory approach also has its journalistic benefits. He understood that within every professional athlete is an amateur who, through some combination of born talent and luck, is surprised to find himself elevated to divine status. As a writer who, after the success of Paper Lion, was a bigger celebrity than most of his subjects, Plimpton had a special sensitivity to the hidden vulnerabilities of giants.

The weigh-in ceremony before Cassius Clay’s first championship fight against Sonny Liston is best remembered for Clay’s rumbling taunts, but Plimpton notes that Clay’s pulse was taken at 180; the doctor concluded that he was “scared to death.” We learn that Roger Maris, after the stress of breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, changed his batting style the following year to avoid reliving the experience. Plimpton devotes a chapter in One for the Record to the pitchers who allowed the most famous home runs in baseball history. Ralph Branca tells him that, after yielding “The Shot Heard Round the World,” he left the Polo Grounds to find his sobbing fiancée waiting for him in the parking lot with a priest. Branca’s second career, Plimpton notes, was in life insurance.•

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With the publication of Jeffrey Toobin’s Patty Hearst book, American Heiress, here’s a 1975 Jesus H. Christ! episode of Geraldo Rivera’s long-ago talk show, Good Night America, which focused on the FBI’s aggressive attempts to capture the at-large Symbionese Liberation Army hostage-cum-soldier, the newspaper scion getting at that point more ink than anyone in the country.

What’s most interesting is that hippie-ish basketball player Bill Walton, then with the Portland Trail Blazers, was hassled by the Feds who believed he knew where “Tania” was hiding. The host taped an interview in San Francisco with the NBA star and speaks in studio to sportswriters Jack and Micki Scott and attorney William Kunstler. Watch here.•

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If performance-enhancing drugs weren’t at all dangerous to the athletes using them, should they be banned?

I bet plenty of people would say they should, bowing before some notion of competitive purity which has never existed. It’s also a nod to “god-given ability,” a curious concept in an increasingly agnostic world. Why should those born with the best legs and lungs be the fastest? Why should the ones lucky enough to have the greatest gray matter at birth be our best thinkers? Why should those fortunate to initially get the healthiest organs live the longest? It doesn’t make much sense to hold back the rest of the world out of respect for a few winners of the genetics lottery.

Stephen Hsu, who had a Nautilus piece included on Afflictor’s 2015 “50 Great Articles Online for Free” list, has penned for that publication another excellent essay: “We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance.” It relates how genetic engineering will supercharge athletes and the rest of us, making widely available the gifts of Usain Bolt, who gained his from hard work, sure, but also a twist of fate. In fact, extrapolating much further, Hsu believes “speciation seems a definite possibility.”

An excerpt about CRISPR:

[George] Church has also been involved in one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of recent decades: the development of a highly efficient gene editing tool called CRISPR, which has been approved for clinical trials for medical applications. If CRISPR-related technologies develop as anticipated, designer humans are at most a few decades away. Editing is most easily done soon after conception, when the embryo consists of only a small number of cells, but it is also possible in adults. Clinical trials of CRISPR, when they start this year, will edit existing cells in adults using an injection of a viral vector. It seems likely that CRISPR, or some improved version of it, will be established to be both safe and effective in the near future.

Because complex traits are controlled by so many variants, we know that there is a huge pool of untapped potential that no human—not Shaq, Bolt, or anyone else—has come close to exhausting. No living human has anywhere near all of the possible positive versions of the relevant genetic variants. The whole enterprise of competitive athletics has been, in effect, a search algorithm for genetic outliers, but it’s been running for less than a century, and it hasn’t been particularly efficient. Its approach has been to passively wait for random recombinations to produce those variants, and hope that athletic programs find the best individuals.

Now we are entering an era in which it will not be chance that configures DNA, but rather the human intellect via tools of its own creation. As our understanding of complex traits improves, genetic engineers will be able to modify strength, size, explosiveness, endurance, quickness, speed, and even the determination and drive required for extensive athletic training.•

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From the May 20, 1898 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Was already circumspect of the idea that a level playing field in athletics was possible if we could just eliminate PEDs when I read David Epstein’s great 2014 book, The Sports Gene, which made plain how nature favors some over others, and not only in limb length and other obvious things but also in vision and blood and lungs. These inborn advantages laugh at the idea that 10,000 hours of practice can transform a modest talent into a champion, at least in sports (though I doubt 416 days at a piano in my wonder years was going to turn a tone deaf person like myself into a virtuoso).

In “Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics,” a Scientific American piece published just ahead of the Summer Games, Epstein again meditates on the subject. He poses a vital question: “We are long overdue to ask, openly and as a society, just what it is we want from sports. Is it to see superhumans doing superhuman things? Perhaps it is.”

The opening, which recalls the rare genetic mutation that helped Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta become a virtually peerless cross-country competitor:

I knew Eero Mäntyranta had magic blood, but I hadn’t expected to see it in his face. I had tracked him down above the Arctic Circle in Finland where he was—what else?—a reindeer farmer.

He was all red. Not just the crimson sweater with knitted reindeer crossing his belly, but his actual skin. It was cardinal dappled with violet, his nose a bulbous purple plum. In the pictures I’d seen of him in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s—when he’d won three Olympic gold medals in cross-country skiing—he was still white. But now, as an older man, his special blood had turned him red.

Mäntyranta, who passed away in late 2013, had a rare gene mutation that spurred his bone marrow to wildly overproduce red blood cells. Red cells convey oxygen to the muscles and the more you have, the better your endurance. That’s why some endurance athletes—most prominently Lance Armstrong—inject erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone that cues your bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Mäntyranta had about 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal man. If Armstrong had as many red blood cells as Mäntyranta, cycling rules would have barred him from even starting a race, unless he could prove it was a natural condition.

During his career, Mäntyranta was accused of doping after his high red blood cell count was discovered. Two decades after he retired Finnish scientists found his family’s mutation.•

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A great light of the nineteenth-century chess world who burned briefly, Harry Nelson Pillsbury was a brilliant player as well as an accomplished mnemonist capable of quickly absorbing and regurgitating seemingly endless strings of facts. In fact, according to his Wikipedia page, he could “could play checkers and chess simultaneously while playing a hand of whist, and reciting a list of long words.” Pillsbury never had the opportunity to become world champion because his mental health deteriorated, the result of syphilis which he contracted in his twenties. An article in the April 9, 1906 Brooklyn Daily Eagle assigned his decline to more genteel origins.

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I’m not exactly happy that doping and organized crime are mounting problems for eSports, but it is sort of amusing, speaking as it does to the human ability to develop, nurture and ruin almost anything.

Some gambling books accept wagers on professional wrestling, for chrissakes, in which predetermined finishes are known to a certain amount of employees and their friends and families, so why shouldn’t an actual contest like video games attract “legitimate businessmen” looking for someone to take a dive? And if classical musicians down beta blockers to still nerves, of course eSports competitors use PEDs to fight stronger and longer.

From Matt Kamen at Wired:

ESIC was announced at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, and introduced by Ian Smith, the body’s first integrity commissioner. A UK lawyer, Smith’s background has largely been in traditional sports such as football and cricket, and he sat on the Athletes Committee of UK Anti-Doping for five years.

Smith says there are four key areas that ESIC wants to tackle. Three – cheating using software hacks such as aimbots; DDoS attacks to slow down opponents’ ability to react in matches; and doping – he describes as “easy” to deal with in the longer term. The fourth, match fixing, presents a much bigger – and growing – problem.

“We’ve had very prominent arrests in Korea in Starcraft II, and there have been a number of other cases and allegations […] around fixing,” Smith says. “We’ve found that that’s actually pretty low-level fixing, but the main issue is the growth of the esports betting market. Looking at 2015, the legitimate esports betting market was at around the $250m mark. That probably means the illegitimate market […] was running at around two to three billion dollars.”

While acknowledging that those figures are currently “peanuts” in betting terms, Smith adds that projections put the legitimate market at $23bn by 2020 – and the illegitimate market, if current trends continue, at $200-300bn.

“That’s the point at which organised crime knows that there’s a decent return on any corrupt investment they make in the sport,” Smith says.•

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If someone had told you 20 years ago that TV was to soon be dominated by Real Housewives, Biggest Losers and Kardashians, that network sitcoms and police procedurals would become secondary not only to great cable programs but also cheap reality shows, you might have thought they were nuts. Who would trade Jennifer Aniston for Kris Jenner? But the center did not hold, the barbarians stormed the gates, and now the sideshow of Bachelors and Bachelorettes has moved to the front of the aisle. In a decentralized medium, the financials no longer made sense for expensive offerings, so cheap content became king.

In an excellent Wall Street Journal article, Jason Gay wonders if multibillion-dollar professional sports could be destabilized by American Ninja Warrior and the like. You know, junk sports that serve to post-millennials’ minds (and smartphones) thrilling pseudo-athletics in which spectacle is more important than winning and losing. I have no doubt that in the coming decades video games and virtual reality and gadgets will change not only the way we watch competitions but the competitions themselves, but could they be surprisingly deep alterations?

It all depends on technological shifts, something beyond the control of sports. Baseball has been richly rewarded in recent years with outsize regional cable contracts because Fox Sports wanted to challenge ESPN, and MLB could offer a huge slate of live, family friendly content. But MLB and the other major sports leagues are a couple of new tech tools they didn’t anticipate from being back on their heels. Money and history are on the side of MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, but that’s been the case with many supposedly unsinkable entities. I would bet against some American Gladiators knockoff KO-ing big-time team sports, but I also though Star Search a silly afterthought just a short time before American Idol ruled the airwaves.

Gay’s opening:

Last summer, on a family vacation in a house with 10 very loud children, I attempted to watch a baseball game on the only available television set. It did not go well. My nieces and nephews acted like I was forcing them to watch a process hearing in the state legislature. They groaned and booed. They rolled their eyes. They dropped to the floor and pretended to sleep.

Frantic to please, I turned the channel, and happened upon a reality show I’d never seen before: a wacky obstacle-course event called “American Ninja Warrior.” Situated on an outdoor stage bathed in red, white and blue lights, it featured sinewy men and women of all ages, jumping and scurrying from platforms to ropes to monkey bars, plunging into water traps when they missed.

The room erupted. It was as if Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber had just shown up with free pizza and iPhones. It turned out my loud, young in-laws all loved “American Ninja Warrior.” They crammed around the TV, rapt.

The scene made me feel like an out-of-touch geezer—how had I missed this phenomenon?—and also made me think about sports, and their future.•

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The winners of the 1960 Olympic medals for light heavyweight boxing on the winners' podium at Rome: Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) (C), gold; Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland (R), silver; and Giulio Saraudi (Italy) and Anthony Madigan (Australia), joint bronze. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

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Blessed with peerless gifts for gab and jab, Muhammad Ali, a lightly educated son of Louisville, became the most significant athlete in American history and one of the nation’s key figures of the 20th century. He wasn’t always right but in the big picture, he was firmly on the right side of history.

Ali would have been a master showman in any age, a Barnum of boxing, as he’d patterned his speech on professional wrestling promos, hoping to encourage people to pay to see him lose. He didn’t enter the ring at any time, though, but during the age when the Civil Rights Movement was to have its biggest moment and the Vietnam War was to call his number. He quickly became politicized, converted to Muslim, joined the first fight and refused the second, surrendering his championship and financial security for his principles.

His titanic bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, which would cement him as the greatest heavyweight ever, occurred after this period of exile ended, but it was during this time he became “the Greatest.” 

The opening of Robert Lipsyte’s excellent 1964 New York Times report on Ali’s first triumph over Sonny Liston is followed by links to some of the Afflictor Ali posts from over the years.

From Lipsyte:

MIAMI BEACH – Incredibly, the loud-mouthed, bragging, insulting youngster had been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title tonight when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round. Immediately after he had been announced as the new heavyweight champion of the world, Clay yelled to the newsmen covering the fight: “Eat your words.” Only 3 of 46 sports writers covering the fight had picked him to win.

A crowd of 8,297, on its feet through the early rounds at Convention Hall, sat stunned during the one-minute rest period between the sixth and seventh rounds. Only Clay seemed to know what had happened: he threw up his hands and danced a little jig in the center of the ring. The victory was scored as a technical knockout in the seventh round, one round less than Clay had predicted. Liston had seemingly injured the shoulder in the first round while swinging at and missing the elusive 22-year-old.

The fight was Clay’s from the start. The tall, swift youngster, his hands carelessly low, backed away from Liston’s jabs, circled around Liston’s dangerous left hook and opened a nasty gash under Liston’s left eye. From the beginning, it was hard to believe. All those interminable refrains of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” had been more than foolish songs. The kid was floating. He leaned back from Liston’s jabs and hooks, backed into the ropes, then spun out and away. He moved clockwise around Liston, taunting that terrible left hook, his hands still low. Then he stung, late in the first round, sticking his left in Liston’s face and following with a quick barrage to Liston’s head. They continued for long seconds after the bell, unable to hear the inadequate ring above the roar of the crowd.•


A lot of Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder success is due to his tele

In an age of small, endless choices and a few spectacles, the fast-paced violence of the NFL has come to dominate television in the U.S. Key to the adrenaline rush is, of course, gambling in its many forms, ubiquitous in our decentralized age. Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, the ego-driven Vegas oddsmaker, did as much as anyone in the pre-Internet Era to legitimize gambling in America, to prep us for what was to come. The point-spread playa lived for decades on the edge before going over it, crapping out thanks to jaw-dropping bigoted comments. Come to think of it, not only has his yen for wagering reached its fullest expression in our time, but his disqualifying ethnic remarks have sadly entered into our mainstream politics.

In addition to his casino and TV work, “the Greek” did public relations for the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who essentially buried himself alive. From a 1974 People article:

People:

What do you do for a living?

Jimmy the Greek:

Basically, I’m a PR man. I have a firm called Jimmy the Greek’s Public Relations, Inc. We have offices in Las Vegas and Miami, 19 people on the staff, and we gross about $800,000 a year, representing companies like National Biscuit Company—the candy division—and Aurora Toys. For three-and-a-half years, I handled PR for Howard Hughes.

People:

What did you do for Hughes?

Jimmy the Greek:

Different things. Hughes was opposed to atomic testing so close to Las Vegas. Every time there was a megaton-plus test, the windows of the hotel shook, and there were already cracks in some of the buildings. He didn’t want the people he brought to Vegas hurt. Mostly, he was afraid of the radiation. Mr. Maheu, his manager, would call and say, ‘Mr. Hughes is against megaton-plus testing, Jimmy.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, what else?’ And he’d say, ‘That’s it, Jimmy.’ And you were on your own from there on. I was very happy working for him. And $175,000 a year isn’t hay.•


“We are saddened that our 12-year association with him ended this way.”

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One person can make a big difference, which can be a good or bad thing.

St. Louis has become an unlikely world capital of chess thanks to the constant urging and philanthropy of Rex Sinquefield, who was raised in an orphanage after his father’s death and grew fabulously wealthy via index funds. His largesse extends beyond the cerebral game of kings and pawns, however, as the megarich Missouri man has also poured millions into promoting a staunch right-wing economic agenda. To some he’s a hero and to others a mixed blessing.

From David Edmonds at BBC News:

Much of this has to do with one man. Rex Sinquefield, a grey-haired man in his early 70s, is sitting in the audience watching the US Chess Championship. He’s in his shorts, wearing a baseball cap, and fuelling his concentration with glass after glass of Diet Coke. Sinquefield is a rich man, and he likes chess. He likes it so much he’s put tens of millions of dollars into the game. No, he’s not partially responsible for the renaissance in American chess, former US champion Yasser Seirawan corrects me – he’s entirely responsible.

The scale of Sinquefield’s wealth is unknown. He claims, a bit implausibly, that he himself has no idea. Unlike other super-rich, he’s not one to brag about his bank account, though it’s widely assumed he’s a billionaire. The money comes from a career in finance – he created some of the first index funds, funds that are cheap to run because they simply track the performance of a stock-market index.

In Missouri, Rex is a deeply contentious figure, a looming giant of local politics -Tyrannosaurus Rex, he’s been called. He pushes a radical free-market agenda and wants to abolish the state income tax. He’s funded right-wing think tanks and backed selected candidates to the tune of $40m (£28m) – no-one in the state has ever given more. Missouri is the only state in the United States which has no limits to campaign donations, a freedom Sinquefield has exploited to the full. Laura Swinford of Progress Missouri, an advocacy organisation, believes his power in politics is pernicious: “I think we would all throw ticker-tape parades down the centre of the city if he would only focus on chess and his charitable donations,” she says.

But Sinquefield says his political donations are small change compared to the sums he has spent on chess and other charities.•

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On what would have been Andre the Giant’s 70th birthday, a reminder, via a 2014 Open Culture post, that playwright Samuel Beckett, a neighbor, sometimes drove the future wrestler-actor to school. The passage:

In 1958, when 12-year-old Andre’s acromegaly prevented him from taking the school bus, the author of Waiting for Godot, whom he knew as his dad’s card buddy and neighbor in rural Molien, France, volunteered for transport duty. It was a standing gig, with no other passengers. Andre recalled that they mostly talked about cricket, but surely they discussed other topics, too, right? Right!?•

1964, New York, New York, USA --- Samuel Beckett on the set of his movie, , looking at a fish through a magnifying glass. --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Babe Ruth Slides Home

Count me among those wholeheartedly ready for robots to replace home-plate baseball umpires. Ball-and-strike calls are wrong about 10% of the time even with the best of umpires, and that leaves an awful lot of wiggle room for not only honest fallibility but even chicanery. To err is human, I know, but perhaps so is coming up with solutions to reduce incompetence? Experiments with robot umps begun in 1950 should be worked on today in the minor leagues. Then the buckets of bolts should be promoted.

Jason Gay, a talented writer for the Wall Street Journal, isn’t so sure. He believes something will be lost as something’s gained in the transfer of duties from carbon to silicon, not only because machines also malfunction (though less often, most likely), but also because of bigger-picture issues. An excerpt that pivots off of David Ortiz’s disputed strikeout at Yankee Stadium this weekend:

Disputed calls like that invariably provoke chatter about a surprisingly doable proposal: robot umps. Precise camera tech to pinpoint balls and strikes has existed for years. Even if the pitch tech at Yankee Stadium showed the calls against Ortiz were not so egregious, the suggestion is clear: Had a “robo-ump” been on ball-and-strikes duty, Big Papi may have marched to first base and tied a game the Red Sox instead wound up losing.

Seems reasonable, right? Whenever possible, shouldn’t tech be used to make the proper call? There are loads of examples of technology improving accuracy in sports—Hawk-Eye line-calling in tennis, for one, is crisp, quick and enjoyably theatrical (fans clap in anticipation!). The NFL, meanwhile, uses an oddball system in which an official crawls under Dracula’s cape to review replays. It mostly works, even if it often takes longer than a bus trip to Maine, and no one on earth seems to know what a catch is in the NFL anymore.

That’s a good reminder that technology isn’t a guaranteed savior. Not every play is reviewable. Machines falter. Software glitches. Some inevitabilities in life are utterly resistant to modernization, like making the bed, or LaGuardia Airport.•

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You would think someone like myself obsessed with technology, baseball and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle would have already heard of a 1950 experiment at Ebbets Field in which MLB tested an “electronic umpire.” I hadn’t, though, until reading Richard Sandomir’s smart New York Times account of such. Dodgers President Branch Rickey, who was progressive in myriad ways, including being a Moneyballer long before Beane was born, didn’t want to sweep umps from behind the plate but hoped to use the tool to make hitters more aware of the strike zone.

The sport should definitely today exploit advances in sensors and computers to automate ball and strike calls at some level of the minors, with an eye toward replacing the human element behind the catcher in the bigs. Even the best umpires are wrong on balls and strikes about 10% of the time, and that wiggle room damages the integrity of the game. 

Sandomir’s opening:

One day in March 1950, a batting cage at the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., became the setting for an event that looked as if it came out of the future: strikes being called not by a man in a mask, peaked cap and chest protector, but by a machine.

“This was really high-tech stuff,” said pitcher Carl Erskine, recalling the sight of the device during a telephone interview from his Indiana home.

The so-called “cross-eyed electronic umpire” introduced that day used mirrors, lenses and photoelectric cells beneath home plate that would, after detecting a strike through three slots around the plate, emit electric impulses that illuminated what The Brooklyn Eagle called a “saucy red eye” in a nearby cabinet.

Popular Science declared, “Here’s an umpire even a Dodger can’t talk back to.”

The noted British journalist Alistair Cooke, then a foreign correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, weighed in wryly with the “alarming news” that the Dodgers would “try out an electronic umpire in the hope that he will call a decision even the Yankees will not be able to challenge.”

It was the atomic age, but sports were not known for being technologically advanced. Still, the coming decades saw much more: instant replay, slow motion, the virtual first-down line, real-time score boxes in the corner of television screens, the glowing puck, tennis-ball trackers, video review and baseball’s Pitch f/x and Statcast systems.

Chris Marinak, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for league economics and strategy, said that sharp advances in camera and computer technology had accelerated innovation.

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It was the strangest thing. In 1984, stories began to escape the San Diego Padres clubhouse about a trio of pitchers, Eric Show, Dave Dravecky and Mark Thurmond, who’d become devout members of the John Birch Society. Racist behavior that postseason directed at Claire Smith, an African-American sportswriter, brought more attention to the extreme politics of the Birchers.

It all began with Show, a sort of baseball Bobby Fischer, a troubled nonconformist and deep thinker who couldn’t fit into wider society let alone the claustrophobic confines of a bullpen or dugout. He was a self-taught jazz musician ravenous for philosophy, physics, economics and history, a seeker of truth who wandered into an Arizona bookstore and headed down the wrong aisle. The pitcher picked up a volume about John Birch and became obsessed (though he always denied any racist leanings). Excerpts follow from two stories follow about his odd life and lonely death.


From “Baseball’s Thinking Man,” by Bill Plaschke, in the 1988 Los Angeles Times:

YUMA, Ariz. — Let’s play a game. What if some real smart people with a sense of humor–people who know nothing about baseball–one day decided to invent a very good baseball pitcher.

But after giving him an elbow and shoulder and all the usual stuff, what if they decided to get tricky?

What if they gave him a love for physics? A love for studying philosophers, historians and theorists? A love for writing classical jazz?

What if on road trips, while his friends are shopping and watching movies, he is in the basement of musty libraries trying to figure out why the Earth is round?

What if at home, while many players are at the ballpark several hours ahead of the required reporting time, he is still in his home, in his second-floor office, under a bright light, studying the effect of a new foreign government or ancient civilization?

What if, before he wins 20 games, he records and produces his own record album, and co-stars in a movie? Finally, just to throw everybody off, what if they made him an open, verbal member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society? What if . . .

Forget the what ifs. Such a pitcher exists. His name is Eric Show.

His six seasons have established him as one of the National League’s best pitchers and most unusual people.

Yet, after six seasons, another question is probably more applicable.

Why?

Why has he no close clubhouse friends? Why does everybody in there look at him so funny? Why do some think he’s selfish and arrogant? Why did some even take to calling him “Erica”? And why do things always seem to happen to him?

In 1984, his John Birch affiliation is uncovered when he is spotted passing out pamphlets at a fair, and black players think he doesn’t like them.

In 1985, he gives up Pete Rose’s record 4,192nd hit, but during the 10-minute celebration he sits on the mound, and now nobody likes him.

Last season, he hits the Chicago Cubs’ Andre Dawson in the head and must flee Wrigley Field fearing for his life. When he returns to that city this season, he has only half-jokingly claimed it will be in disguise.

Show, 31, enters the 1988 season in the final year of a $725,000 contract and at the crossroads of his baseball career.

Can he find enough peace to once again become the pitcher that won 15 games to help lead the Padres to the 1984 World Series?

Or will he continue twisting in the winds of discontent, like last season, when he went 8-16 despite a 3.84 earned-run average?

Either way, the Padres say he’s trying.

“There has been change in Eric just since the middle of last season,” Padre Manager Larry Bowa said. “In the clubhouse, away from the stadium. He’s really working at understanding and being understood.”

Show says he’s trying.

“As strange at it may seem, I have tried to be more a part of my baseball environment,” Show said carefully. “If I’m still off, it’s because I started way off.”

And whatever happens, only one thing is ever certain with Eric Show.

Something will get lost in the translation.•


From “Eric Show’s Solitary Life, and Death,” by Ira Berkow in the 1994 New York Times:

An autopsy released soon after by the coroner’s office said the cause of death was inconclusive, that is, there was no observable trauma or wounds to the body. A toxicology report would be coming in about two weeks. But in statements to the center’s staff, Show said that he was under the influence of cocaine, heroin and alcohol. He said he used four $10 bags of cocaine at about 7 that night, Tuesday night. “Didn’t like how I felt,” he said, adding that he then ingested eight $10 bags of heroin and a six-pack of beer.

The questions about Eric Show’s death are no less difficult to answer than the ones about his life. Why was he so hard on himself, such an apparently driven individual? Why was he so compulsive, or at least passionate, about almost everything he undertook?

Show (the name rhymes with cow) was known as a highly intelligent, articulate man with broad interests that ranged from physics — his major in college — to politics to economics to music. “Eric didn’t fit the mold of the typical ballplayer,” said Tim Flannery, a former Padre teammate of Show’s. “Most ballplayers were like me then; we had tunnel vision. We weren’t interested in those other things.”

Show was a born-again Christian who regularly attended Sunday chapel services as a player and sometimes signed his autograph with an added Acts 4:12, which discusses salvation as coming only from belief in Jesus Christ.

He was an accomplished jazz guitarist. Sometimes after games on the road, he would beat the team back to the hotel and play lead guitar with the band in the lounge.

He was a member of the right-wing John Birch Society, a fact the baseball world was surprised to learn in August 1984 as the Padres moved toward their first and only division title.

And he was a successful businessman with real estate holdings, a marketing company and a music store, all of which kept him in expensive clothes, with a navy-blue Mercedes and a house in an affluent San Diego neighborhood.

But other elements seemed to intrude. And ultimately, the contradictions of the best and worst in American life became a disastrous mixture that defeated him.

Beyond Statistics, Just Who Was He?

For most baseball fans, Eric Show was a decent pitcher who had once been lucky enough to make it to the World Series. But to the people who were close to him, he was, in the end, someone they did not fully know.

“He led several lives, apparently,” said Arn Tellem, his agent at the time of his death.

To Joe Elizondo, his financial consultant, and Mark Augustin, his partner in a music store, and Steve Tyler, a boyhood friend from Riverside, Calif., where both were born and raised, Show was a charming, devoted friend and a caring man. “He would give you the shirt off his back,” Elizondo said. “And he did. I once told him how much I liked a shirt he was wearing, and he said, “Here, it’s yours.” He’d stop a beggar on the street and learn he was hungry and run to a diner and bring back a hot meal for him.”

To others, though, Show could seem selfish or arrogant.

And there were the drugs. Some said Show’s drug problems began when he took injections to relieve pain in his back after surgery, and he sought more and more relief. Others wondered if he had been taking drugs before he reached the major leagues.

He may also have begun taking drugs simply because he liked the challenge of being able to handle the dreaded substance. …

His death evoked memories of two strange scenes in Show’s life, one in 1992 and the other last year.

In the spring of 1992, Show was in training camp in Arizona with the A’s. He had signed a two-year contract with them in late 1990, and managed only a 1-2 record with them in 1991. Following several mornings in which he had reported late for workouts, he showed up with both hands heavily bandaged.

He explained that he had been chased by a group of youths and had to climb a fence, and had cut himself. But what was not reported was that the police later told club officials that Show had been behaving erratically in front of an adult book store, and fled when officers approached. They finally caught him trying to climb a barbed-wire fence.

Last July, he was caught by the police when running across an intersection in San Diego and screaming that people were out to kill him, and then begged the police to kill him. He was handcuffed, and while in the back seat of the police car, he kicked out the rear window. He was taken to the county mental hospital for three days of testing. Show had admitted “doing quite a bit of crystal methamphetamine.”

It was one more startling development, one more contradiction for an athlete who, in reference to his John Birch membership, once said: “I have a fundamental philosophy of less government, more reason, and with God’s help, a better world. And that’s it.”

Always Looking For Answers

Actually, it wasn’t it. Show, as a John Birch member, also denied that he was a Nazi or a racist. In fact, he had a Hispanic financial adviser, a Jewish lawyer and agent, and black friends in baseball and his music world. People from his first agent, Steve Greenberg, to Tony Gwynn, a black teammate, agreed that he was no bigot. “He joined the Birch Society because he thought it would provide answers to how the world works,” Tellem said. “He was always looking for answers.”

Show once said, “I’ve devoted my life to learning.” Asked what he was learning, he replied, “Learning everything.”•

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Male synchronized swimming has often been viewed as risible partly because it pushed against traditional gender roles and also because a person in a pool not swimming seems an affront. Oh, and the nose plugs don’t help, either.

The sport served as both backdrop and punchline for the best gag of early ’80s iteration of SNL, the video skit seemingly unlocking a string of genius mockumentaries by Christopher Guest. But anyone who stops laughing for a minute will have to admit that few can excel at the combination of mime, dancing, gymnastics and, yes, swimming. 

Bill May excelled. The American was long lauded as the best male synchronized swimmer ever, though his peak years were spent in frustration, sidelined and bone dry, as men were never allowed to compete in the World Championships or Olympics. Growing weary of the fight for inclusion, he plunged into a Cirque du Soleil pool in Vegas and tried to forget what might have been.

Than, unexpectedly, a mixed-gender event was added to the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, and May jumped back into the sport even though he had little time to perfect routines with his female partners, one of whom was seven months into a pregnancy.

In an 11,000-word ESPN The Magazine article, Taffy Brodesser-Akner traces May’s progress from public-pool practices to podium, making me care about a sport I have never once watched, with a big-hearted look at a person who kept paddling forward even when it made him look silly to others.

An excerpt:

They got to choreographing. They used community pools around Las Vegas to practice, renting them out for as many hours as their schedules allowed, subject to all the degradations of community pools: old women doing aqua aerobics on the other side of the rope; children cannonballing into your part of the rented pool before a lifeguard can get to them and tell them the space is yours; a kid taking a dump in the pool, sidelining them from practicing for a full hour while the water rechlorinated. Chris Carver had flown in from Santa Clara that day, and they didn’t like to waste time, and maybe saying the pool had rechlorinated by the time they got back in was generous. The only breaks they took were when they had to use the bathroom or when Kristina’s husband brought her newborn by for nursing. Bill put over $40,000 on his credit card for pool rentals. USA Synchro could pitch in only $12,000 total. The rest would come from the formidable Aquamaids, who operate a long-standing and very successful bingo facility in Santa Clara, run by volunteer Aquamaid parents in charge of getting funds to the swimmers for costumes and competitions.

Bill still swam the two Cirque shows and put an hour’s worth of makeup on each night. He still taught an abdominal workout to the other O cast members three times a week, twisting and lifting and pushing impossibly to get every single angle of their trunks to resist and grow stronger, to get them looking more like Bill. And he still swam his regular workout, an hour back and forth and back and forth in the pool each morning, and at night, when he was showered and his Weimaraners lay at the foot of his bed and he ceased movement for just the few hours he slept, he dreamed of Kazan.•

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When you’re a baseball team with a poorly situated airship hangar of a stadium and the game’s worst attendance, finances are limited, even with revenue sharing. That’s an apt description of the Tampa Bay Rays, a club that thrived during the Andrew Friedman years on victories in the margins–the extra 2%. The organization is still, post-Friedman, looking for incremental gains, with Virtual Reality batting practice part of the future-forward approach. A handful of other clubs are also testing the hardware, which is in an experimental phase now, though it holds promise.

From Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times:

To use the system, Rays players put on high-tech goggles and stand in or at or behind a plate as the specific pitcher they request is shown on a screen throwing his various pitches in true detailed form.

For example, [Steven] Souza — who prefers to stand in the catcher’s position for a straight-on view — said he can get a detailed read on the break on pitches, detect slight changes in release point and get a better sense of the pitcher’s timing.

“It’s as close as you’re going to get to standing in there,” he said.

“It’s pretty neat,” said catcher Curt Casali, another user. “It’s one of the more advanced scouting tools I’ve ever seen.”

Third baseman Evan Longoria has also tried it but is not as sold on the immediate benefits of the system, which is set up in the room with the batting cage near the Rays clubhouse.

“I think over the next year or two we’ll see a lot of fine-tuning to it,” he said. “I think it’s kind of crude right now, but I don’t dispel that there could be some benefits there.”•

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From the August 17, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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The Opening Ceremony at the 1896 Athens Olympics.

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Today is the anniversary of the opening ceremony of the first modern Olympiad, the Athens Summer Games of 1896. While Greece would not host the event again for 108 years, this iteration was paramount for establishing a grandeur, truly globalizing the Games and instituting the Marathon as a major event. Photos above show Panathenaic Stadium, as well as competitors in field events, and unheralded Greek water-carrier Spyridon Louis, who won the Marathon. The particulars of latter event had a surprisingly academic source in French proto-semanticist Michel Bréal, who based its course on the legendary trek run by messenger Phidippides after the Battle of Marathon. Sadly, no women were allowed to participate due to the chauvinism of IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin, but one female still made a mark.

The Olympics sparked interest among American athletes in what had been largely unfamiliar activities, and later that year a collection of U.S. competitors convened in New York City to prepare for future Games. The chariot race was probably not necessary. From a report published in the September 6, 1896 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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From the December 28, 1921 New York Times:

Pittsburgh, Pa.–The nimble Pirates, minus the tendency to crack in the heat of a National League pennant chase, and a Pitt football team that will display more agility than any trick movie star, are promised for 1922 by A. Lincoln Bowden, a Pittsburgh oil man, who has volunteered to supply both aggregations with dried monkey meat during the coming year. Glands will be included in the menu, according to the Pittsburgher, who has offered his services in the spirit of a devoted gridiron and diamond fan and says he wants Pittsburgh athletes to beat the world.

Mr. Bowden is about to depart for South America to lay in a supply of monkeys of a superior class, which he has frequently observed in Ecuador. The invigorating element of monkey meat and glands, he asserted, will give indomitable power and unlimited aggressiveness to the baseball and football men.

In proof of his assertions, he points to the case of of a Pittsburgher who was in Ecuador with him two months ago. In this case, Mr. Bowden said, although the patient was quite bald, a diet of monkey meat caused new hair to grow on his head, while all pains and aches left him and neither the heat of the jungle nor the cold of high mountain plateaus affected him in the slightest degree.•

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Speaking of Joseph Engelberger, here’s the opening of a 1982 NYT article by Barnaby J. Feder and a video about the recently deceased roboticist’s development of the machine caretaker, ISAAC, which was meant to help astronauts and disabled people alike in completing tasks. It could roll, lift, cook and talk a little. It was a first-phase project done in conjunction with NASA and at the time promised that “when a more svelte Mark II goes into production, it will serve everyday around the clock at a cost of approximately $1.00 per hour.” That was supposed to occur in the 1990s, though the target date was too aggressive.

From Feder:

DANBURY, Conn. — FOUR decades ago, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s robot stories caught the imagination of a Columbia University physics student named Joseph F. Engelberger. Sometime in 1985, a robot named in Mr. Asimov’s honor is likely to be serving coffee to Mr. Engelberger and other directors of the nation’s first and largest industrial robot manufacturer.

Now a prototype in the company’s research laboratory, Isaac the Robot is being designed to do more than traverse the board room serving coffee. Mr. Engelberger also wants Isaac to provide snacks prepared in the adjoining kitchen’s microwave oven and wash dishes.

Mr. Engelberger’s company, Unimation Inc., has no plans to market Isaac, or similar robots, but Isaac is more than just a whimsical tribute to Mr. Asimov. Mr. Engelberger envisions Isaac – a mobile, improved version of the programmable manipulator, or PUMA robot, the company already sells – as the forerunner of a new generation of domestic and commercial service robots that Unimation and other robotics companies will begin selling during the 1990’s.

The right to be an out-of-the-closet visionary is one of the relished and hard-won benefits that the 56-year-old Mr. Engelberger has earned for his pivotal role in bringing the robot industry to life, both in the United States and abroad.

Actually, it was George C. Devol, not Mr. Engelberger, who developed and patented the basic technology on which the industry is founded. But since meeting Mr. Devol in 1956, Mr. Engelberger has preached the gospel that ”smart” machines were the key to getting people out of dangerous or tedious production jobs and a key to improving productivity. And his company, a subsidiary of the Condec Corporation of Old Greenwich, Conn., turned out the first robots that industry was willing to buy.

As a result, no robotics gathering today would be considered complete without the presence of the crew-cut, bow-tied Mr. Engelberger and his blunt observations about competitors, customers and robots themselves. ”He is as important to the industry as he is to the company, in some respects more so,” said Laura Conigliaro, the Bache Halsey Stuart Shields analyst who is Wall Street’s best known robotics expert. ”He is a spokesman and a showman, and he is good at it.”

”He was the one that listened,” said Mr. Devol, who now runs a robot leasing and consulting business from his home in Fort Ladderdale, Fla. Mr. Devol recalls numerous efforts to interest established companies in his work, including some, such as I.B.M., that have recently entered the now rapidly growing robotics field.

”George Devol was unable to restrain himself from spilling the whole dream out, which scared most businessmen off,” said Mr. Engelberger during an interview last week at Unimation’s headquarters. ”I kept myself from talking about some of the things that have happened, which he envisioned.”

The ”whole dream” is emerging now that robots have achieved acceptance in an increasing variety of industrial tasks – from materials handling to painting and welding – and are rapidly being improved to the point that more difficult jobs, such as assembly, will be economically feasible. More important, as computer-machine tool hybrids capable of being reprogrammed to adapt to changing conditions, they have been recognized as a key building block in the flexible, highly automated factory of the future.

It took American industry a long time to catch on.•

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“ISSAC, Will You Please Help Me Up?”

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Dr Tanner, as he appeared in the Second Week of his attempted Fast of Forty Days

Hunger artists of more than a century ago, immortalized by Franz Kafka, were athletes and businessmen, not saints. They starved themselves before the public for a sum. Fasting girls almost always had religious underpinnings, but their male counterparts made no bones about making money. Giovanni Succi was likely Kafka’s direct inspiration, but Dr. Henry S. Tanner’s purported forty-day fast in NYC in 1880 may have been singular in the attention it received. A report on the end of the event was published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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