April 20, 2004


A Fly in the Curveball: As the 103rd Major League baseball season opens, physicists have now shown that a well-hit curveball trumps a well-hit fastball. Pitchers must be so scared. (Adam Summers, April 2004, Natural History)

There is a morbid fascination in watching a Little League pitcher who develops a good curveball at a tender age; more than one talented young fastball hitter has switched to basketball after facing that aerodynamic phenomenon, which can turn the most powerful swing into physical comedy. Some youngsters find the rhythm of this evasive pitch and learn to hit it with the same authority as they do a fastball. But for most batters (even at the highest levels of competition) the curve is a devil to hit—not quite as bad as trying to swat a flying mosquito with a toothpick, but almost.

Conventional baseball wisdom has long held that even if the bat does meet the curveball, the batter is still at a disadvantage; many observers maintain that even if a batter manages to crush both curveball and fastball with equal force on the sweet spot of the bat, the curveball won’t sail as far as the fastball. But that clubhouse conviction has now fallen victim to a careful analysis of the physics of pitched baseballs. It turns out that good wood on a slow curve will carry the ball deeper into the cheap seats than it will Roger Clemens’s best fastball.

As a boy I never got beyond the “keep your eye on the ball” stage of hitting, which led to a pretty abbreviated career in organized baseball. But now that engineers Gregory S. Sawicki of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mont Hubbard of the University of California, Davis, and William J. Stronge of the University of Cambridge have shown what it takes to accomplish the task, I don’t feel so bad about my early retirement. To get the job done in the batter’s box, they show, “all” the batter has to do is integrate at least fifteen variables and constants that define several physical characteristics of the bat, the ball, the atmosphere, and the world at large.

It seems only fair to note that soccer requires you to process more than one variable also: you have to both see the enormous ball and strike it with your foot.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2004 2:52 PM

While striking the ball in soccer one must also calculate the possibility that falling down and feigning an injury will result in a better outcome.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at April 20, 2004 3:10 PM

Metric football is the one game where "use your head" has nothing to do with thinking.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 20, 2004 3:36 PM

I have discovered yet another reason for OJ to come to his sense about immigration: we need to keep the soccer-lovers out!

Posted by: Paul Cella at April 20, 2004 4:03 PM

Paul Cella

Baseball players from Dominican Republic, Venzuela, Cuba. No I don't think he will buy that.

Posted by: h-man at April 20, 2004 4:26 PM

And here I was beginning to think my beloved soccer would be given a reprieve here. But, alas, hardly a fortnight may pass without another beating.

Posted by: John Resnick at April 20, 2004 6:12 PM

Allahpundit has a photoshopped image that may turn OJ around yet.


The thing that makes soccer especially challenging from my perspective, and especially hard on the knees and ankles, is that one has to propel and control onself with the same appendages that one uses to control and propel the ball.

Posted by: Jorge at April 20, 2004 6:32 PM

Soccer? I would rather go to the laundromat and watch clothes tumbling in a dryer. Frank DeFord put it well on NPR a couple of years ago. He was asked why Americans prefer baseball and American football to soccer, and he replied, "we like games that use the hands. Use of the hands is what separates us from the beasts of the field."

Posted by: John Cunningham at April 21, 2004 12:00 AM

"Use of the hands is what separates us from the beasts of the field."

Said the chimpanzee to the orangutan.

Posted by: Jorge at April 21, 2004 2:15 AM

Aye, but if all I'd seen was the risible Major League Soccer and the occassional ten minutes of a World Cup Final (always great occasions but notoriously nervy and conservative games), I wouldn't like football either.

You have to ask the question: why would a sport become the most popular in every corner of the world by a factor of a million, if there was something intrinsically inferior or flawed about it? Unless, you course, you think the populations of every country in the world are intrinsically inferior to yours?

Oh, hang on. You're Americans...


Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 6:05 AM


Of course Europeans are our inferiors. Soccer typifies the degradation of their culture.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 8:46 AM


Yeah, but they, like Europeans, can't throw overhand.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 9:05 AM


'Degradation of the culture'? You're kidding.

The only reason the Americans don't like football is that there aren't enough breaks to squeeze in the Bud commercials.

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 10:47 AM

Breaks? Who would even notice if you cut away for a few minutes of ads?

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 11:00 AM

The ones on their way back from the stall with hot dog number five?

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 11:04 AM


We don't think the populations of every other country in the world are inferior, just their cultures.

I've always assumed that soccer was popular in the world because it is a poor man's game: all you need is a ball.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 21, 2004 12:10 PM

and an absence of the plural.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 12:16 PM


I'd have said boxing was the poor man's game. All you need is your fists. The Americans are the biggest fans of boxing.

You're right - soccer's simplicity probably explains its appeal as a participation sport. But maybe not its popularity as a spectator sport.

Anyway, we, along with the Asian subcontinent, the West Indies and Australasia can trump your so-called 'sophisticated' sports anyday.

Cricket is so ludicrously complicated and tactical it makes chess look like WWF wrestling.

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 12:16 PM

When they were a great nation the Brits were fans of boxing, horse racing, and cricket (baseball for girls). All real sports. Now they love soccer and they're third rate.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 12:21 PM

Baseball for girls? In cricket you're allowed to bowl a hard ball (and fast bowlers average around 90mph - with some much faster) at the batsman's head, and ribs, every single delivery if you want. And it's considered 'good competitive stuff'.

Now American Football is rugby. For girls. (Please don't touch me til I put my industrial crash helmet and suit of armour on)

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 12:26 PM


American football is indeed a wretched game.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 12:43 PM


"I've played my 12 seconds now, I'd better sit down for three hours along with my 400 team-mates. Where's my cheque for a zillion dollars?"

Anyway, we invented bog-snorkelling. All other sports are for poofs.

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 1:07 PM

I can relate, as I feel myself distancing caribbean cruise myself from this tedium, far more interested cruise in the shifting time signatures in the ski vacation song I'm listening to (three of three followed budget car rental by one of two) than in any idea of "work" last minute travel at this place. Had a long talk with Leah, las vegas hotel last night. We commisserated re. money vacation

Posted by: hotel at April 23, 2004 6:01 PM