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6 Special Guest Stars at Spring Training

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The casual fan generally needs a program to keep track of all the players at a spring training baseball game. After all, it's not every day that Billy Crystal bats leadoff for the Yankees. While the practice of allowing distinguished guests to participate against professionals irks some traditionalists, here are the stories of six celebrities who have suited up at spring training games over the years.

1. Billy Crystal

Crystal celebrated his 60th birthday by batting leadoff for his beloved New York Yankees in a 2008 spring training game against the Pirates. Crystal, an avid baseball fan who directed 61*, received a huge ovation as he strolled to the plate for his first and only at-bat. "I asked him if he'd been getting any rookie hazing," Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He didn't say anything. He looked like he was about ready to throw up from the nerves." Crystal didn't throw up, but he did strike out. The actor took the first pitch from Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm up and outside for a ball and then dribbled a foul wide of first base. Maholm put a little extra on his next two pitches, but both of them missed the plate. With a 3-1 count, Crystal swung and missed at the next two pitches. "Both were [cut fastballs]," he said. "I was mad at myself for swinging." Crystal and Maholm exchanged signed baseballs after the game.

2. Tom Selleck

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Selleck, who wore a Detroit Tigers cap in his title role on the classic television series Magnum, P.I., donned his favorite team's entire uniform for one spring training at-bat in 1991. Selleck, a Detroit native, spent a lot of time with the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., that spring while preparing for his starring role in the 1992 film Mr. Baseball. Selleck pinch hit for Rob Deer with two outs in the eighth inning of Detroit's 6-4 loss to the Reds and struck out against Tim Layana, despite reports that Cincinnati catcher Jeff Reed was tipping pitches. "My knees were shaking a little bit," Selleck said after the game. Layana, who won a World Series as a member of the 1990 Reds "Nasty Boys" bullpen, appeared in 78 games over three seasons before injuries led him to retire. He died in a car crash in 1999.

3. Bruce Hornsby

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Hornsby met major league pitcher Mark Langston at a concert in 1987 and the two became friends. Hornsby invited Langston to join a chorus that provided background finger-snapping on his A Night on the Town album, and Langston invited Hornsby to take batting practice with the California Angels before a game in Baltimore in 1991. Hornsby appeared as a pinch runner for the Angels during a spring training game against the Mariners in 1997. "He keeps saying how he's going to get me out on stage," said Langston, who went to see Hornsby perform the day after Hornsby's spring training debut. "No, he's not. I'll disappear real fast."

4. Garth Brooks

spring-training-brooksBrooks was a multi-sport athlete in high school and received a track scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he threw the javelin, before deciding to focus full-time on his music career. A big baseball fan, Brooks was invited to the San Diego Padres' spring training camp in 1998 and appeared as a pinch runner, almost getting picked off twice. The Padres welcomed Brooks back to spring training in 1999. The team benefited from the publicity, while Brooks used the experience to raise awareness about his Touch "˜Em All Foundation for underprivileged kids. "There's no chance of him being on the major-league club, but we're excited to have him because I think he's going to bring a lot of enthusiasm and hard work into camp, because that's how he goes about his business," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said.

Bochy was right—there was no chance of Brooks making the team. He finished the spring 1-for-22 with one RBI. "Nike came to ask me to not wear their stuff," Brooks joked. Brooks has also made spring appearances with the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals, most recently in 2004.

5. Kevin Costner

costner-spring-trainingIn 2002, Costner played for Single-A San Bernardino in a spring training exhibition game against the Seattle Mariners. Costner, whose baseball-heavy filmography includes Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and For the Love of the Game, went 0-for-3 and committed an error at shortstop. In the final inning of the Mariners' 12-4 win, Costner was summoned to pitch. Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who later told reporters that "Costner looked tempting," inserted himself as a pinch hitter. Costner's first pitch was up and in, sending Piniella sprawling to the dirt. "We try to tell our players not to charge the mound, and I've got to set the example," said Piniella, who drew a walk.

6. Tom Verducci

spring-training-6While his celebrity pales in comparison to the others on this list, Sports Illustrated's senior baseball writer spent five days as a player for the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training in 2005. In his only at-bat, Verducci popped out to first base against Chad Gaudin in an intrasquad game.


Verducci's cover story appeared 45 years after legendary sportswriter George Plimpton pitched to a lineup of National League sluggers at the 1960 All-Star Game, an experience Plimpton chronicled in Out of My League.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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