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8 Franchise Relocations That Fell Through

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On Tuesday night, ESPN aired Barry Levinson's The Band that Wouldn't Die, the second installment of its 30 for 30 documentary series. Levinson's film tells the story of the Baltimore Colts' marching band, a group that continued marching in Baltimore even after the team relocated to Indianapolis in 1984. While we were watching the grim tale of sports franchise relocation, we wondered what other moves almost happened, but fell through. Here are a few moves that nearly changed the landscape of sports:

1 & 2. The Seattle White Sox (or Florida White Sox)

soxThe South Siders have almost hit the road on two separate occasions during the last few decades. The first potential move came in the 1970s, after Bud Selig purchased the Seattle Pilots and moved the team to Milwaukee. While Selig's purchase wouldn't seem likely to directly affect the Sox, the sale nearly triggered a massive reshuffling of the American League. A plan emerged in 1975 for the White Sox to slide into the vacant Seattle market while the Athletics left Oakland for a new home in Chicago, a move that sort of made sense because longtime A's owner Charlie Finley was from the Chicago area.

That deal quickly fell through, but the team came even closer to leaving Chicago in 1988. After failing to secure funding for a taxpayer-supported new stadium, the team's ownership group eyed St. Petersburg as a potential new landing spot. Fans in Florida even started printing Florida White Sox shirts as it became increasingly clear the Sox would be moving to the Sunshine State. Indignant Chicago fans inundated St. Petersburg Mayor Robert Ulrich's mailbox with dirty pairs of white socks to let him know those were the only pieces of pale hosiery he'd be getting. Eventually, though, the state legislature relented in an eleventh-hour deal that saved the team $60 million in new construction costs and kept the White Sox in Chicago.

3. The Saskatoon Blues

bluesPet food company Ralston Purina bought the NHL's St. Louis Blues in 1977, but it had a tougher time marketing hockey than it did with kibble. The company lost around $1.8 million a year on the Blues during its ownership, but upper management didn't mind bleeding a little cash to keep a hockey team in St. Louis. However, following an internal power shift in 1983, Ralston Purina decided it no longer wanted any part of this white elephant and quit putting any money into the team. The Blues didn't even make any selections in the 1983 NHL Draft in Montreal; the team didn't even send a representative.

Obviously, Ralston Purina was hot to sell the team, and they found a buyer in Edmonton Oilers founder Bill Hunter. Hunter and his investment group planned to buy the team and move it to hockey-crazed Saskatoon. The NHL wasn't too keen to lose a big market like St. Louis, though, and nixed the deal. Eventually businessman Harry Ornest bought the team and kept it in St. Louis.

4. The St. Louis Patriots

Not everyone was trying to get out of St. Louis, though. In 1992, St. Louis native James Orthwein bought the New England Patriots with the hope of moving the franchise to his hometown. Orthwein, who was the great-grandson of Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch, never got his relocation act together, though, and in 1994 he sold the team to current owner Robert Kraft.

5. The Louisville Rockets

At the beginning of this decade, the Houston Rockets briefly flirted with a move to Louisville, KY. Although the move never got all that close to happening, it was memorable thanks to a rumor about the team's potential Louisville arena, a Kentucky Fried Chicken-sponsored home called "“ what else? "“ "The Bucket."

6 & 7. The Toronto Oilers and Edmonton Maple Leafs

Teams swap players all the time, but swapping cities? It almost happened in the NHL in 1980. At the time the Toronto Maple Leafs were hemorrhaging money with a lousy roster, and the Edmonton Oilers had a stacked squad that would end up winning five Stanley Cups over the course of the next decade.

According to Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Leafs owner Harold Ballard called him up with a novel proposition: the teams would simply swap markets. The Oilers would move to Toronto and pay Ballard $50 million in cash for slipping into the bigger market, while the Leafs would take the Oilers' old spot in Edmonton. Pocklington wrote in his autobiography that he was all for the move, but Ballard got cold feet and backed out at the last minute.

8. The Memphis Hornets

The Memphis Grizzlies are right up there with the Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the dubious title of the NBA's biggest laughingstock, but they won at least one major battle this decade. On March 26, 2001, both the then-Vancouver Grizzlies and the moribund Charlotte Hornets applied to relocate to Memphis. When the NBA granted the Grizzlies the right to move to Elvis' old city, the Hornets had to scramble to find another landing place. After eyeing Norfolk, Louisville and St. Louis, the Hornets settled for New Orleans and moved to the Big Easy for the start of the 2002-2003 season.

And the Time the Colts & Rams Swapped Deeds

Who needs to swap cities when you can just swap deeds? It happened with the Colts and the Rams in 1972. Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom was tiring of owning an NFL team in Baltimore thanks to his squabbles with the local media and the Orioles' ownership. He did like owning a team, however. Rather than move the team, Rosenbloom would just have to get creative.

Enter Robert Irsay, who was considering becoming a minority owner in any deal to buy the Colts. Irsay and Rosenbloom came up with a clever way to make everyone happy: Irsay would buy the L.A. Rams. Irsay then traded the deed to the Rams for the deed to the Colts and $3 million in cash. Just like that, the teams changed hands without moving an inch. Irsay, of course, would become Baltimore's number one public enemy in 1984 when he moved the Colts to Indianapolis.

[Mayflower/Baltimore Colts image credit: Lloyd Pearson, Baltimore Sun]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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