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Fields of Dreams

One jack-of-all-trades is a master of many,

finds Steve Mirsky

Dave Baldwin might qualify as a Renaissance man, if only they had played baseball during the Renaissance. Scientific American learned of the diamond exploits of the multifaceted Baldwin when he wrote to us after our exposé of curveball aerodynamics. His letter, published in January 1998, describes how as a relief pitcher for the '69 Washington Senators, he unintentionally showed up his new manager. Pity poor Dave, as that manager was the legendary Ted Williams: Red Sox slugger, Marine captain and general misanthrope. According to Baldwin, Williams held fast to the conviction that pitchers (even his own) were “dumber than spaghetti" .and challenged his staff to explain how a curve-ball did its twisty thing. The withering silence that greeted Baldwin’s lucid curve commentary convinced Dave that pasta might indeed be his intellectual superior.

Other events, however, strongly indicate that Baldwin's brain works fine. He is surely the only person to publish in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington and to pitch for that town's team. For you younger fans, or you people who pay baseball no attention because you find it slightly less compelling than watching paint dry, Dave's Washington Senators are now the Texas Rangers, as opposed to an earlier team called the Washington Senators, now the Minnesota Twins.

Such genealogical complexity doesn't faze the former right-handed sidewinder, who went from base paths to base pairs and earned a doctorate in genetics. He also likes watching paint dry - Baldwin made it to Cooperstown when the Baseball Hall of Fame acquired one of his original works of art.

baseballcard.jpg (17666 bytes)I bumped into Baldwin at the recent annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where he spoke during a session devoted to the science of baseball. Fellow speaker Stephen Jay Gould characterized this enterprise as "basically a guy thing rationalized as scientific and intellectual." The meeting happened to be in D.C., already lousy with ex-Senators.

The overlap between the set "major-league baseball players" and the set “holders of science-related doctorates" is as measly as a team payroll back in Baldwin's day (his maximum major-league salary was $14,000). A lone major leaguer other than Baldwin may have gone from the dugout bench to the laboratory bench: rumor has it that Lou Skizas, nicknamed "The Nervous Greek" during a few years of bouncing around the American League in the late 1950s, became a Ph.D. biologist. My attempts to contact Skizas for confirmation were unsuccessful and may have only added to his anxiety.

bacon.jpg (17547 bytes)For every thing there is a season, but Baldwin's seasons overlapped, prolonging his Ph.D. pursuit. When he needed to be out shagging flies -Drosophila pseudoobscura, to be exact, for studies of genetic factors determining sex ratios -- he was busy playing ball. He wrapped up his doctorate post-pitching, in 1979, to go with two previous undergraduate degrees and went on to pick up a master's in systems engineering. That last field of academe is closer to the research he presented at the AAAS: "The Decision Modeling Processes of Baseball Managers." Responses from 44 current and former big-league skippers to a questionnaire he designed led Baldwin to the conclusion that "by the book" baseball strategy has disappeared. A manager may still make an apparently traditional move, for example, bunting a runner into scoring position, but his decision is now based on mountains of data, rather than an adherence to established baseball tactics.

"I think what they're doing, although they wouldn't admit this," he says, "is blame-management." That is, if a ploy fails, the manager can point to computer printouts rather than himself. The Ted Williams incident may come to mind again when he adds, "You have to understand that when you're talking to managers, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding."

His 1983 master's gave Baldwin almost as many degrees, all from the University of Arizona, as he had wins (6). He went on to perform research at his alma mater's college of agriculture, worked as an engineer and then did some molecular genetics for a small pharmaceutical company. When that temporary position ended, Baldwin devoted six years to painting, thanks to his wife's blessing and decent income. Now 62, Baldwin earns his living consulting on data-mining techniques. "I figure if I try enough things, sooner or later I'll find something I can do well," he japes. Would that all our roads curved so scenically.

Copyright © 2000 Scientific American

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