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The Stories Behind 12 Seemingly Obvious Baseball Rules

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Sure, these rules seem obvious—but in days past, they were challenged enough that officials added them to the rulebooks anyway.

1. Runners cannot run the bases backwards [Rule 7.01, 7.02, 7.08(i)]

Considering the purpose of a baserunner is to advance safely to home plate, running the bases in reverse seems nonsensical. However, the silly antics of Germany Schaefer, a journeyman infielder in the early 1900s, forced officials to put this rule in the book.

On August 4, 1911, Schaefer stole second, intending to draw a throw from the catcher to allow his teammate—Clyde Milan, who was on third—to steal home. However, the opposing catcher held the ball, keeping Milan struck at third. Hoping to recreate the play, Schaefer looked to steal again. This time, the only option was to steal first.

On the next pitch, he took off for first, but a double steal still didn't materialize; the catcher was too surprised to make the throw. The opposing player-manager ran onto the field to argue and amid the chaos Milan finally took off for home plate, where he was thrown out.

This wasn't the first time Schaefer attempted a double steal by regression, but the 1911 stunt received more publicity. It took until 1920, but the sport's officials finally passed a rule prohibiting such actions, which remains to this day. Now, if a player runs the bases in reverse order, he is automatically out.

2. No substitutions may be made while the ball is in play [Rule 3.03]

Rule 3.03 clearly states that substitutions can only take place when the ball is dead, prompting the question of why anyone would think to change players in the chaos of live action. The rule was instituted after an alert play by Michael Joseph “King” Kelly, a popular catcher-outfielder in the 1880s.

While he was sitting on the bench one day in 1891, an opposing batter hit a high foul ball that Kelly immediately recognized would be out of the reach of all of his teammates. Kelly, a player-manager, quickly jumped up and went after it, calling “Kelly now catching!” He made the catch, but the umpire refused to call the out. Kelly argued that the play was not against the rules, which at the time stated that substitutions could be made at any time.

That winter, the rules were changed to officially prevent such a play.

3. Umpires are prohibited from conferring with players or spectators [Rule 9.04(c)]

While the home team probably embraced such conferences with wide-eyed innocence (“What, our fans could make a biased call? Never!”), baseball officially banned umpires from conferring with players or people in the crowd in 1882. The rule overturned one from 1876 that allowed an umpire to confer with whomever he pleased if he or she had been unable to see a play. The practice of employing only a single umpire had necessitated such a rule. By 1882, however, the idea of a staff of umpires was becoming more popular, negating the need for assistance from players or fans. Presumably, the type of assistance spectators offered also probably did little to help matters.

4. Runners must touch each base [Rule 7.02, 7.04(d)]

It is not unusual to see ballplayers called out for failing to touch a base before advancing, and few fans would question why they are required to do so in the first place. Before the Civil War, that was only an unofficial requirement, and base runners did their best to take advantage of it. What started as just cutting corners soon devolved into making little effort to get near the bag at all when legging out an extra base hit. In 1864, the requirement became an official rule.

5. Base coaches are prohibited from running the bases while the ball is in play [Rule: 4.05(b)]

In the early days of the game, teams often tried to make fielders mistake a base coach for a runner. For example, in an 1886 game against Detroit, Chicago base coach Mike Kelly ran out to the shortstop position to provide a distraction for his runner. The introduction of coaches’ boxes the following year helped curb the tactic, but they failed to entirely eliminate it.

In 1890, George Smith, coaching for Brooklyn, ran down the third baseline in front of his runner, causing the catcher to mistakenly tag him while the baserunner slid in safely. After a long argument, the umpire ruled the baserunner out. A 1904 rule change finally prohibited the practice altogether.

6. An umpire is permitted to put a new baseball in play whenever he deems it necessary [Rule 3.01(e)]

In an era where major league teams go through nearly 1 million baseballs in a season, spelling this out seems completely unnecessary. In 1886, however, the idea was revolutionary. Prior to that year, the umpire had to give the teams five minutes to find a lost ball before he could supply a new one. Some especially frugal owners were unwilling to pay for the expense of a new ball and insisted that the search continue until the original ball was found.

While the wording has shifted some in the modern era, the rules still stipulate that the umpire has access to a supply of alternate balls that will last for the whole game, implying the umpire’s power to introduce them into play.

7. A fielder is not permitted to catch a ball with his cap [Rule 7.04(e), 7.05]

Although it's in place to keep fielders from using caps and other articles of clothing to make catches, this rule had to undergo various changes so it wouldn't be an advantage to the defensive team. The 1857 rules stated that if a player caught a ball with his cap, no opposing player could be put out until the pitcher had touched the ball.

The Boston Red Stockings turned this rule to their advantage on September 14, 1872, when the opposing team loaded the bases with no one out. The batter hit an easy popup to Boston shortstop George Wright, who deftly caught the ball with his cap, then tossed it to his pitcher. The pitcher threw it to the catcher, who tagged home plate and threw to third. Boston then applied tags to third base and second base before their opponents realized what was happening.

Although the Red Stockings argued for a triple play, the umpire refused to count the play at all. A clearer rule was established in 1873 and modified in 1874. Now, the runner is awarded the base if a fielder catches the ball with his cap.

8. Fielders are prohibited from doing jumping jacks while an opponent is batting [Rule 4.06(b)]

After Boston Braves batter Bob Elliott asked the second base umpire to move out of his line of vision on August 9, 1950, Giants second baseman Eddie Stanky saw the opportunity for a new distracting ploy. He moved to where the umpire had been standing and began to pace around, waving his arms and jumping up and down. He continued practicing his antics in subsequent games until umpires appealed to National League President Ford Frick, requesting a ruling on the legality of such actions.

Arguments for both sides became heated, until those against the practice expressed concern for the safety of hitters who become distracted during a pitch. Frick instructed umpires to eject fielders who employed jumping jacks or other annoying antics to distract the batsman, and his decision is preserved in the official rulebook to this day.

9. A batter was prohibited from deliberately striking out [Rule: 2.00]

The Sporting News called a deliberate strikeout on a wild pitch “one of the smartest schemes” in baseball at the turn of the 20th century. According to rules that are still in place, a batter becomes a runner that must be tagged or thrown out in the event of a swinging strikeout on a wild pitch. In an 1894 Southern League game, Abner Powell made it safely to second base after taking a mighty swing at a pitch he saw was going to go behind his back. The vast amount of foul territory behind home plate allowed the runner to take multiple bases before the catcher could collect the errant pitch. Eleven years later, in a Major League game between Detroit and Cleveland, Cleveland hitter Bill Bradley did the same thing. Before Detroit catcher Lew Drill could recover a pitch that sailed ten feet wide of the plate, Bradley had made it safely to second base.

A set of rules for baseball in 1868 and 1872 prohibited “willfully strik[ing] at balls for the purpose of striking out.” While no longer specifically banned, the official rules still address such a situation in Rule 2.00. However, getting to second base on a swinging strike three would be difficult in modern ballparks, since the amount of foul territory behind home plate has been vastly reduced in an effort to get fans closer to the game.

10. Baserunners are not permitted to continue running after they have been called out [Rule 7.09]

On June 17, 1926, the Cubs loaded the bases against Brooklyn in the sixth inning with one out. With right fielder Jimmy Cooney on first, Joe Kelly hit a grounder to Brooklyn first baseman Babe Herman, who threw it to his shortstop, Rabbit Maranville, to begin the double play. Maranville’s return throw was wild, however, and the Chicago runners continued to advance. The Brooklyn pitcher retrieved the ball and tried to gun down the runner he saw heading toward home plate. The runner peeled off for his dugout before he reached the plate, forcing the catcher, Mickey O’Neil, to follow him to apply the tag for the third out.

That runner, however, was none other than Jimmy Cooney, who had been the second out of the inning. The home plate umpire could think of nothing in the rules that prohibited such a play, and he ruled that the inning must continue. Cooney’s ploy had allowed Kelly to advance to third, and Chicago tacked on two more runs that inning.

No sportswriter of the era could recall a similar play, and it would fall under questionable legality today. Rule 7.09 stipulates that no member of the offensive team can take actions to confuse, hinder, or impede the fielders, but also stresses that a runner continuing to advance after being called out cannot by that act alone be called for interference. The result of such a play today, then, would depend entirely on the umpires’ judgment.

11. Fielders are prohibited from throwing potatoes or other objects while the ball is in play [Rule 9.01(c)]

From the early days of the sport, players have tried to deceive base runners through a plethora of tricks. One common example was when basemen would wildly throw small white objects to trick runners into thinking they had thrown the ball away. They would then calmly tag the runner with the real ball if he was deceived and left the base.

Potatoes, especially those peeled, frozen, and whitewashed, were a favorite. Umpires never tolerated the trick, even when players went to great lengths to excuse it. A catcher in the Evangeline League in 1934 tagged two runners out who tried to score after he launched a potato into the outfield, but the umpire called them safe and refused to accept his explanation that he had simply found the potato and was trying to get it off the field of play. An 1889 member of the Staten Island Athletic Club learned the hard way that the hidden-potato trick was not allowed in college ball, either, when he was asked to resign from the club after he employed the ruse and the umpire ruled the runner safe in a game against Yale.

Minor league catcher Dave Bresnahan tried to revive the old trick on August 31, 1987, but the umpire ruled the runner safe. The next day, the Indians fined and then released Bresnahan. While nothing in the rulebook actually prohibits throwing potatoes, each time it has occurred, the umpires have ruled it to be illegal under rule 9.01(c), which allows umpires to make a ruling for anything not covered in the rulebook.

12. Fielders are not permitted to blow a ball foul [Rule 9.01(c)]

In a 2012 Spring Training game, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Jerry Hairston fell to his knees and attempted to blow a slow dribbler foul. His attempt was unsuccessful, but sportswriters immediately harkened back to a similar play Seattle third baseman Lenny Randle had made on May 28, 1981.

Randle successfully blew the ball into foul territory and Larry McCoy, the home plate umpire, called the ball foul, but reversed his decision after Kansas City manager Jim Frey argued. Evoking his powers from rule 9.01(c), he declared that Randle had illegally altered the course of the ball. His ruling set a precedent, making the play unofficially illegal ever since.

Randle had not been the first to try such a stunt, though. Bert Haas, a member of the Montreal Royals of the International League, had tried the same thing on a suicide squeeze in a 1940 game. When Haas realized he would not be able to throw out either runner, he began his efforts to blow the ball. Just before the ball reached third base, it rolled foul. The umpire ruled the runner had to return to third and the batter back to the plate. Strangely, the opposing team did not protest the decision. After the game, however, International League President Frank Shaughnessy issued a statement that no player would be permitted to blow a ball foul after that.

While knowledge of Shaughnessy’s ruling may have spared Randle the inclusion in many sports blooper reels, McCoy’s 1981 ruling set a precedent at the Major League level that such a play would not be tolerated today, even though it is not in the rule book.

Additional sources: The Giant Book of Strange but True Sports Stories; A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball: The Game Behind the Scenes (Vol. 2); Baseball Almanac.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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