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Top 10 Baseball Player Rituals

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I tend to be a little superstitious. For instance, when I make changes to my files, I'll use normal, ascending nomenclature for each consecutive draft (e.g. _02.doc, _03.doc, etc.) However, before sending my agent the final draft of a novel, I'll always change the nomenclature to one of my lucky numbers, like _27 or _72, even if I'm still only on draft _14. Yeah, writers are a strange bunch.

Turns out, Baseball players are an even stranger bunch. Surely you've seen Nomar Garciaparra ticking through his batting glove rituals, or how Mark "The Bird" Fidrych used to talk to his baseballs. But these are the obvious, well-documented ones. Patrick Saunders, over at The Denver Post, recently wrote about (mostly Rockies) players and their crazy rituals. Stan Grossfeld, at the Globe, threw some light on some other players' quirks. And our own Ethan Trex wrote about athlete superstitions. Between the three, I've mashed up my Top-10 list. 

10. Moises Alou

Most baseball players wear batting gloves to absorb some of the shock of making contact with the ball and to improve their grip on the bat. A handful eschew gloves in favor of a barehanded approach, though, most famously outfielder Alou. Alou does have a system for avoiding calluses and hardening his skin: he urinates on his hands throughout the season. New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada also employs this superstition to aid in his gloveless approach at the plate. The trick may be more gross than helpful, though: a 2004 article in Slate questioned the value of this superstition since urine contains urea, a key ingredient in moisturizers that actually soften the skin. (Trex)

9. Wade Boggs

A former third baseman, primarily with the Boston Red Sox, Wade ate chicken before every game. He took exactly 150 groundballs during infield practice. He also had a fixation on time. At Boston Red Sox night home games, he ran wind sprints at precisely 7:17 p.m. Before each at-bat, Boggs would draw a chai — the Hebrew symbol for life — into the dirt of the batter's box. (Saunders)

8. Turk Wendell

Among Wendell's more notable quirks was his requirement that he chew four pieces of black licorice while pitching. At the end of each inning, he'd spit them out, return to the dugout, and brush his teeth, but only after taking a flying leap over the baseline. An avid hunter, Wendell also took the mound wearing a necklace adorned with trophies from animals he had harvested, including mountain lion claws and the teeth of wild pigs and buffalo. When compared to these superstitions, Wendell's other little oddities (drawing three crosses in the dirt on the mound, always throwing the rosin bag down as hard as he could, and insisting figures in his contract end in 99 as a tribute to his jersey number) don't seem so strange. (Trex)

7. Larry Walker

The former Rockies star was obsessed with the number "3." He set his alarm for 33 minutes past the hour, took practice swings in multiples of three, wore No. 33, was married Nov. 3 at 3:33 p.m., and bought tickets for 33 disadvantaged kids when he played in Montreal, to be seated in Section 333 at Olympic Stadium. (Saunders)

6. Clint Barmes

Once, Barmes sprained his ankle and had it taped up. He began hitting so well that once the ankle healed he kept on getting it taped. In the minors, Barmes ate a Subway sandwich for lunch and hit well that game. He ordered the same sandwich at the same Subway for more than a week until he cooled off. (Saunders)

5. Kevin Rhomberg

rhombergRhomberg played just 41 games in parts of three seasons with the Tribe from 1982-84. But in that short span, the outfielder managed to assert himself as possibly the big leagues' most superstitious player ever. Rhomberg's most peculiar superstition was that if someone touched him, he had to touch that person back. Although this compulsion was not as much of a liability as it might have been in basketball or football, it still led to some odd situations: if Rhomberg were tagged out while running the bases, he'd wait until the defense was clearing the field at inning's end to chase down the player who'd touched him. Rhomberg also refused to make right turns while on the field, because baserunners are always turning left. So if a situation forced him to make a right turn, he'd go to his left and make a full circle to get moving in the correct direction. (Trex)

4. Jason Marquis

In the minors, if he spit on the field, he had to make sure it wasn't on the mound. If he did happen to spit on the dirt, he wiped away the spit with his shoe. If his team was ahead and he was in the dugout, Marquis always unbuttoned his jacket when there were two outs in the ninth inning. (Saunders)

3. Coco Crisp

aagv138-2006studiopluscoco-crisp-postersCenter fielder Coco Crisp does the same ritual during every at-bat. "I pick up dirt, spit on my hands," he says. Then, coiled in the batter's box, he wiggles his fingers as if they've fallen asleep. "I don't wear batting gloves. I move my left hand. It relaxes me and helps my timing. I stomp my front foot down. It's a habit. I'm not that superstitious, although sometimes I skip over the line." (Grossfeld)

2. Yorvit Torrealba

Before leaving the dugout for an at-bat, Torrealba takes a drink of water from a paper cup and tosses the cup. If the cup stays right side up, he figures he's going to get a hit. "I know for a fact that I'm going to get a hit, probably a double. At least it's worked a few times," he said.

In the on-deck circle, Torrealba spits out his bubble gum and tries to hit it with his bat. If he connects, he's confident he'll get a hit. (Saunders)

1. Jason Grilli

In his Little League days, Grilli put a two-sided baseball card in his shoe. On one side was Ken Griffey Jr.; on the other side was Nolan Ryan. On the days Grilli pitched, Ryan was face up in the shoe. On other days, Griffey faced up.

"I guess I thought it would somehow absorb their abilities, gain some of their super powers," Grilli said.

Back when Grilli was a starting pitcher, he ate linguini with clam sauce before every start. Grilli did, after all, pitch for Italy in the World Baseball Classic this spring. (Saunders)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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