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Brave New Sports World
Steve Hymon
September 07, 1992
Computers are wising up and preparing to take a byte out of today's coaches and managers
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September 07, 1992

Brave New Sports World

Computers are wising up and preparing to take a byte out of today's coaches and managers

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New York City, 2010—the New York Yankees announced today they were dismissing the Statman 3x computer as the team's manager and would seek a replacement in the next generation of high-tech artificial-intelligence hardware.

The Yankees' Statman 3x, manufactured by IBM and better known to fans as Wires, spoke at a press conference shortly before being unplugged: "Humans do not have the capacity to second-guess my decisions," said the computer in an unemotional drone. "Obviously, adherence to baseball's statistical standards does not guarantee success in this job."

Sources close to the Yankees said the team had grown increasingly frustrated with Wires's response time. On several occasions umpires had forced a game to continue before Wires could select a pitch. Twice this resulted in disastrous decisions by human personnel.

Returning to reality for a minute, let's hear from Houston Astro relief pitcher Rob Murphy. "I keep track of every pitch I've thrown since 1989," he says. "I download from my personal computer into my Sharp Wizard [a laptop] so I can actually take the computer out to the bullpen with me.

"In 1990, when I was with the Red Sox, I was looking over my Alvin Davis file on the laptop and realized I had never faced him in a key situation. And he had never swung at the first pitch off me. I said to myself, You better watch it, because if you come in, he might be all over that first pitch. So later, I come in with the winning run on third, one out and Davis up. I made sure I threw a Rood fastball on the first pitch, which he popped up weakly to left for an out."

Murphy's computer may not be a Wires, but it's a start. And whether we like it or not, technology is not about to stop at sport's doorstep. Artificial intelligence (AI)—computers programmed to behave like humans—is taking a more prominent role in society with each passing day. As Steve Snow, the exhibits engineer at the Computer Museum in Boston, puts it, "There's stuff out there that will curl your hair."

Meanwhile scores of players, coaches and front-office types are already turning to computers. Managers such as Tony La Russa of the Oakland A's use computers to assess the competition. Former New York Met manager Davey Johnson frequently kept a computer nearby to help him analyze various situations.

And baseball is just the tip of the iceberg. Take bobsledding. Before heading for France last winter, the U.S. Olympic bobsled team familiarized itself with the run near Albertville by using a computer simulator at UC Davis, assisted by the professor there who developed it. The U.S. table-tennis team prepared for Asian opponents at the Summer Olympics by returning shots from a robot programmed to spin the ball just as the best Asian players do. And then there is Bill Anzelc of South Bend, who makes his living by producing software programs for NFL teams. His programs analyze everything from a player's diet to which scouts are best at picking talent at different positions.

"The problem is, with the huge bucks at stake in sports today, there is no way any edge can be ignored," says Joseph Weintraub, a software designer from New York City. "The tools are here. All it takes is the cleverness to use them."

In Damascus, Md., a clever man by the name of David Hillman sits in the spare bedroom of his suburban home, trying to piece together the future. The room is decorated sparingly—a Star Trek poster over here, a set of Star Trek coffee mugs over there, a bookshelf filled with computer books and military manuals. A Murphy's Law poster of what could go wrong with technology hangs on one wall, and on another there are framed pictures of missiles leaving their silos.

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