The Science Behind Baseball Major League Baseball began its season this week with a series between Boston and Oakland played in Japan. Guests discuss the science behind America's favorite pastime — from statistics, to orthopedics, to the psychology of die-hard fans.
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The Science Behind Baseball

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The Science Behind Baseball

The Science Behind Baseball

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of the hour, we're turning to America's pastime because this week, the 2008 baseball season got underway in Tokyo. The Lord knows what reason, but that's a different show. What interests us in this hour is the science of the sport. From why it's so hard to throw the perfect knuckleball or hit a pitched ball coming in nearly 100 miles an hour? Or, why is it so easy for some people to do it and not others? Or, have you tried to track a fly ball heading to deep center field to make that perfect catch? As an old center fielder, I can tell you how hard that is to do.

Well we're going to hear also from the trainer of the Milwaukee Brewers, who claims that if the pitching mound - if the mound was lowered just a bit, the health and careers of pitchers might be better and lengthened. What would lowering the mound to help pitchers is interesting, because a lot of them practice off of a flat surface. We'll talk about that.

We'll also get inside the heads of players and fans to see if there's anything to those pre-game player rituals or those famous baseball curses. You know, baseball players are probably among the most superstitious people in the world. And we know baseball fans, they have their curses. You know, there's the one about a billy goat in Chicago. And there was one that was just broken, that's the one involving the Bambino in Boston. So, that's gone. Perhaps we'll consider the biggest mystery of all. What's going on in the brains of those Cub fans? How can they remain loyal to a team that hasn't brought home a World Series title in 100 years? What is - what's going on in the psyche of a Cubs fan? One of our producers is a Cubs fan, and she'll be listening to this very carefully.

So, if you'd like to talk about baseball, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you want more information about what we're talking about this hour, go over to our Web site, it's, and there's a link on there that you can go to Second Life where there are a group of avatars wearing SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirts.

Also, on our site, we have our first time. We have a picture of our studio. There's a virtual reality picture of us - we sitting on our studio here, and you can click and zoom in and see what we look like here in New York.

Let me introduce my guests. Dan Gordon is the editor of "Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans." That's out from Dana Press. He is managing editor at Dana Press in Washington. But he is still a Cubs fan, and he joins us today from our NPR studios in Washington.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Gordon.

Mr. DAN GORDON (Editor, "Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans"): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Now, have you been a Cubs fan your whole life? Obviously, one is, right?

Mr. GORDON: That seems to be how it goes. Yes.

FLATOW: You know NPR is the home of one of the great Cubs fan.

Mr. GORDON: Is it now? All right. Scott Simon.

FLATOW: Absolutely.

Mr. GORDON: His reputation precedes him.

FLATOW: He does.

Also with us is Howard Zelaznik. He's a native New Yorker. He's a Yankee fan and professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University. That's in West Lafayette, Indiana. And he joins us today from the studios of WBAA on the Purdue campus.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Zelaznik.

Dr. HOWARD ZELAZNIK (Professor, Health and Kinesiology, Purdue University): Thank you, Ira. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: How does the - I understand you're from Brooklyn but you're a Yankee fan? How does that happen?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: I'm young enough where I don't remember the Dodgers.

FLATOW: Okay. That's where we part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We'll have - we'll talk about that, and talk about why Yankee fans are Yankee fans? Why Cubs fans are Cubs fans?

Let me ask you, Dan. As the editor, you've been studying a lot about the science and physiology and the psyche of baseball players. Let's go right to those Cub fans. How - what is the - is there something that goes on in the mind that keeps you a Cubs fan or wants you stay a Cubs fan?

Mr. GORDON: Well, what I've found out through editing this book, we have - our first chapter is on loyalty, and it's contributed by Jordan Grafman, who's at the National Institutes of Health. And he takes a look at different parts of the brain that are responsible for keeping us loyal to our team, not necessarily just the Cubs, although the Cubs are a good example because their history has not been so bright over the past decades, but really fans of any team in any sport.

There are parts of the brain that are active and that contribute to that feeling of loyalty and feelings of being among a group of other fans who are rooting for the same thing we are and things like that. So, it's a very - some very interesting insights into how the brain is involved in that.

FLATOW: So, the fact that you're a part of a bigger group is part of the attraction here? You know…

Mr. GORDON: Right.

FLATOW: The Red Sox had the Red Sox Nation, and the Cubbies just have themselves but a loyal and big group.

Mr. GORDON: That's right. And the Red Sox still have the Red Sox Nation. It may be a little different now that they've won, but that nation is still out there. I can tell you from friends that I have, they are still rooting very hard for their team. And, yeah, there are parts of the brain that have to do with bonding. There's, for example, a part of the brain called the subgenual cortex that Dr. Grafman talks about that is involved when we are sitting in a ballpark with a bunch of other fans or even sitting in our living room with a couple of friends.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you being a Cubs fan, then every win you savor perhaps more than some other kind of fan who's expecting to win.

Mr. GORDON: Yes, there's something about that, too. Some of our contributors of a chapter on the joy of victory and the agony of defeat talk about how there are parts of the brain that seem to be, maybe light up a little bit more when the reward that we seek is not expected and the kind of - to actually make a connection with gambling, how gambling can be so attractive and to some people addictive because they are looking for that unexpected reward. Well, transferring some of that over to baseball, clearly we Cubs fans cannot be expecting a World Series win at this point. So, they propose that when it happens, it will be all that much sweeter to us.

FLATOW: There you go. We hope - we're hoping for you to get there someday.

Mr. GORDON: Thanks.

Howard Zelaznik, let's talk about hitting which has been described as the single most difficult act in all of sports, correct? The hitting of fast ball coming in 95, 100 miles an hour. A batter - what's going on in the minds or the head of a batter to be able to make contact and actually hit the ball very well?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Well, we have to keep in mind that even the best and greatest of hitters are really not very good at the task, and that's why they get so many swings. Imagine a free throw shooter getting five attempts to shoot two free throws. So, it's really difficult. What the batter needs to do is halfway down the pitch - meaning when the pitch is about halfway toward home plate - the batter has to either pull the trigger and swing, or keep the bat on his shoulder, as one might say.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: And the batter does that based upon some very early information about what he thinks the speed of the ball will be, so he can predict how the ball is going to drop.

FLATOW: Can - does he actually see the ball hitting the bat?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Only by chance. Most batters do not see the ball hit the bat. There are some very classic studies that have actually filmed the eye movements of batters, and the batter doesn't see the ball hit the bat. And one of the reasons is that the eye can't rotate fast enough to keep up with the angular velocity of the ball on the eye. It's like being in the Indianapolis speedway and trying to see a car that's going by in front of you versus on the other side of the track where it moves relatively slowly across your visual field.

FLATOW: Do we know what part of the brain is working most heavily in this situation?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: All of the brain is working very heavily. I mean, there are motor areas in the brain, but there is not a baseball spot in the brain.

FLATOW: Dan, do you agree?

Mr. GORDON: Well, there are certain spots that are a little bit more active when the hitter is deciding whether to swing. And there's also an aspect of the brain that - we have a chapter on the brain aspect of hitting. And what the contributors talk about is that there's a part of the brain called mirror neurons, and these have been proved in nonhuman primates and monkeys - not yet in humans, but they're pretty sure that we have them, too - so that a hitter can kind of take a look at the pitcher's action even before he throws the ball and have some idea of where that pitch is going to go and whether he wants to swing. So, that makes up for the extremely short time that he has while the ball is in the air to actually follow through on that swing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Of course, we've always heard that a good - any good Major League hitter can hit a great fastball. It's hitting the ball, the breaking pitchers, that are hardest, and it's the great pitchers who can change speed and be more wily than the batters. I mean, you know, even not throw it that fast but have you guessing - how much of guessing, Dan, is about baseball?

Mr. GORDON: Well, there's an aspect for the pitchers. Their goal is to kind of fake the hitter out. The hitter is taking his knowledge of the wind-up that the pitcher is going through, but also his memory of past situations maybe with that pitcher, maybe in a similar game situation or in a similar count and is making a decision whether to swing based on those things, the pitcher is looking to do whatever he can to kind of distract the hitter and throw the hitter off.

So if he can throw one - if he can throw a couple of different pitches, pitches of a couple of different speeds from the same spot or with the same arm motion, that can be what really fakes the hitter out. And as Dr. Zelaznik said, hitters, you know, they're - in the Major Leagues, the hitters are quite good relative to the rest of us but they still miss. Even the best hitters miss about seven times out of 10.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me bring in a guest now, William Raasch, who is an associate professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Medical College of Wisconsin. He is a team physician for the Milwaukee Brewers and he's taken some time out from the Brewers spring training camp in Arizona to join us.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Raasch.

Dr. WILLIAM RAASCH (Team Physician, Milwaukee Brewers; Associate Professor, Orthopedic Surgery, Medical College of Wisconsin): Thank you.

FLATOW: You have talked about pitching and have written and said that if we lower the mound a little bit, we might get some advantage to pitching that way. Tell us a bit why you think that is.

Dr. RAASCH: Well, about five years ago, Major League Baseball decided to try and fund research that might help produce the risk of injury. And when baseball players - when pitchers throw the ball, they're always right at that edge of injuring something.

Through motion analysis, we discovered that the forces are very high to the threshold in which the soft tissue, the muscles, the tendons and ligaments fail. And so basically, what we did is we did a motion analysis study looking at mound height - basically a pitcher throwing his fastball at flat ground, as we would do just on a straight surface, and then we moved it up to mound height, which is 10 inches above flat ground, and we used a couple of intermediate heights as well - six and eight inches. And what we discovered is that, sure enough, there are some differences between throwing a baseball from the flat ground versus 10 inches.

What we saw were some increases in stresses on the shoulder joint particularly, and especially in what we call the cocking phase. You know, when you look at the pitcher from the side and you see that arm twisted almost all the way back like it's going to break off. That's when we saw the differences. We saw an increase in what we call adduction - A-D-duction torque as well as an increase in what we call superior shear. Shear, think of something trying to slide out of place, and a torque, well, you take a wrench and try and remove a nut or a bolt.

FLATOW: And this is all because the mound is higher, not because of any mechanics of the pitcher?

Dr. RAASCH: Well, obviously, when we - we also looked at the side of kinetics, which would be the forces. We looked at the, basically, the kinetics, which would be the position or the velocities that are occurring. And we did not see a lot of difference. Now, we saw a difference in timing. For instance, when the foot first made contact with the ground, the arm would be more externally rotated. So the arm was basically in different positions at different times during the throwing motion.

When we looked at velocity, for instance, we did not see a statistical difference between throwing from flat ground versus the mound. Now granted that's one of the things we try to control. We wanted him to throw at about a 90 percent level, nice and easy, so we could simply take that variable out of play, because if you throw harder, typically, you will increase the stress on the shoulder.

FLATOW: Did you find that then pitcher could be as effective at a lower mound as effective a pitcher, potentially, and not put as much stress on his shoulder?

Dr. RAASCH: Well, you know, that's not - we really can't say that. What we can say is that, with regards to certain parameters, we can decrease the stress on the shoulder if we drop the pitcher down to a flat surface. The problem is that doesn't necessarily mean that the pitcher can get the ball player out - the batter out.

One of the things that we're always trying to do is, again, improve mechanics to reduce stress and reduce injury.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RAASCH: But sometimes, what these pitchers do is they'd have some sort of little quirky delivery that provides that little bit of extra movement on the ball.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. RAASCH: Because of that, it can fool the batter and get him out. So, if I have a pitcher that has perfect mechanics but can't get anyone out, he's healthy, but he's not very productive, and he's not going to last long in the Major League. However, if someone has a little bit of a quirky delivery, puts an increased stress on it, well, then you're probably going to go with that as long as he can with the understanding of the increased risk for an injury down the road.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, you could still have the quirky delivery low on a - with a lower mound. Could he not?

Dr. RAASCH: That is possible. But we didn't, you know, we didn't check for all that. Basically, we did 20 professional baseball pitchers, along with some Division 1 collegiate pitchers. And we saw the significant differences again in certain torques and shear stresses on the shoulder.

We saw some differences in the elbow as well, but they weren't quite statistically significant at this point. Obviously, we - best thing to do would be to incorporate more pitchers into the study, carry it out a little bit further.

At this point, we do see some differences so we can explain why, for instance, when we're rehabbing a pitcher and they're doing well after their shoulder injury, they're throwing fine from flat ground. But as soon as we get them back to the pitching mound, all of a sudden, their shoulder starts to bother them again. So this, clinically, we knew something was going on.

FLATOW: Let me - two more points to make and I'll let you go because I know you're in spring training. One, you mentioned the - in the paper that Nolan Ryan liked to practice on flat ground and he had this good a fastball as anybody.

Dr. RAASCH: You know what? He was way ahead of the curve. I mean, he was also known for incorporating rotator cuff exercises. Now the rotator cuff is basically that group of muscles that keeps the, basically, the ball of the arm bone centered in that very shallow cup we call the glenoid. And if that's working perfectly, your shoulder's going to stay healthy. So he was just way ahead of the game. He kept his shoulder healthy longer than just about anyone. And again, as you said, he threw at an incredible velocity.

FLATOW: And he could do it on a flat surface?

Dr. RAASCH: Well, that's what he practiced on.


Dr. RAASCH: I mean, he practiced on a flat surface and that, you know, some pitchers will say, well, I have to practice in the exact same way in which I pitch. You know, hard to say if that's true or not.


Dr. RAASCH: Obviously, it wasn't true for Nolan Ryan.

FLATOW: Let me ask you this one question about little leaguers. You know, we talk about little leaguers and the potential for their arm damage that could be done by them trying to throw curveballs.

Dr. RAASCH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Could - if we lower the mound much lower, would that help prevent some of the injuries they might be suffering from?

Dr. RAASCH: Well, their mound is already lower for the little leaguers, in most cases. And the problem is, if you go to any sort of little league ballpark in a typical community that height can be anywhere from six inches, three inches, two inches to a little bit of a rut into the ground. So at this point now, we can't truly say that. All we know is that we see some increased stress. Now, the next question, obviously, that arises is: Does that increased stress actually lead to injury?

Now, here at the Milwaukee Brewer's, we have our own database looking at pitchers. And whenever we someone, for instance, outside of two standard deviations of norm with regards to a certain stress or strain in the shoulder. It's been pretty predictive that that shoulder is at a high risk for injury possibly resulting in surgery. And so when we see that, we try and alter mechanics at least to keep that pitcher safe while still maintaining an effective pitch.


Dr. RAASCH: So you can get the batter out.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, Dr. Raasch.

Dr. RAASCH: Sure. My pleasure.

FLATOW: We're going to be out on the road in Milwaukee in May, bringing the SCIENCE FRIDAY on the road out there. Maybe we'll get this chance to say hello to you.

Dr. RAASCH: That would be great.

FLATOW: Thanks again. William Raasch is the associate professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin and team physician for the Milwaukee Brewers.

We're talking about baseball, the science of the psychology of this hour. And we have two other guests: Dan Gordon, editor of "Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans" and Howard Zelaznik. He's a native New Yorker and he is a professor of Health and Kinesiology at Purdue University in West La Fayette, Indiana.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Howard, ever heard about that…

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Well, I read…

FLATOW: …about lowering the mound helping out?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: I read the abstract yesterday in preparation for the show, and probably it works. But as Dr. Raasch stated there are a lot of complexity in whether a pitcher is successful or not and my hunch is that the pitcher would like the mound to be even higher because that gives him a much…


Dr. ZELAZNIK: …better advantage on the batter and they'll sacrifice their shoulder for a better earned run average.

FLATOW: All right. We'll stay - we'll take a break, come back and talk about pitchers, catchers and other baseball stuff. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

This hour, we're talking baseball with my guests: Howard Zelaznik, professor of Health and Kinesiology - Kinesiology, love that word - at Purdue University in West La Fayette, Indiana; Dan Gordon, managing editor at the Dana Press in Washington and editor of "Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans."

Let's see if we can go to some players and fans who are waiting on the line. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Tallahassee. Let's go to Jill(ph).

Hi Jill. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JILL (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JILL: Hello.

FLATOW: Hello.

JILL: I was…

FLATOW: Hello.

JILL: I'm here.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

JILL: I was calling to say that I'm from Queens, New York, and so I'm a Mets fan. And a couple of years ago, April of 2004 to be exact, my child told me she was choosing a baseball team to root for. And, of course, I thought it would be the Mets. And I said which team, happily. And she said the Boston Red Sox. And I said the Red Sox. You will have a life of misery even worse than a Mets fan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And she stayed with them, and you know 2004, why I'm emphasizing that. And it was amazing to me. And even when they were down 3-0 to the Yankees, she was faithful, you know, she had the optimism, of course, of an 11-year-old. And I said to her it's over. They're not going to win when they're down 3-0. And you guys know the rest of the story.

FLATOW: Yes, one of the…

JILL: And I…

FLATOW: …one of the greatest collapses in the history of…

JILL: …actually wrote a letter in October to Terry Francona, and I said I think you had some kind of good luck charm in her that she chose you in April of this year and you won after 86 years.

FLATOW: Did he send you a ticket?

JILL: No, he didn't. And I think he should've sent us a family four-pack of tickets actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I'm with you, Jill, if you have a secret weapon like that. But there is that superstition in there. Let me ask Dan to comment on this.

Mr. GORDON: Well, there are a couple of things. The first is, as you mentioned, the superstition, the good luck charm aspect of it. Of course, there is - as far as the brain is concerned, there's nothing that explains and there's no scientific evidence for a superstition such as that one or such as the one that many Cubs fans will repeat about the Billy Goat curse.

But what our brains do is they allow us to come up with reasons for things that we otherwise can't explain. And one of the reasons that sports, in general, and baseball in particular, is ripe for superstitions, both among fans and players, is that there's so much uncertainty in the game.

So our brains - in the left hemisphere of our brains, we have what neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has called the interpreter. And it comes up with reasons for things when we can't otherwise explain them. And so - then, you know, a few years ago, I would have said to me that that reason sounds as good as any of the idea that she was still rooting for them. Hey, you never know, right?

FLATOW: Well, you never know why someone living in Florida is going to become a Boston Red Sox fan whose mother…

JILL: Oh. That was my question.

FLATOW: …is a New York Mets fan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: No way to explain it, but good luck. The Mets have a good team this year so…

JILL: Yes.

FLATOW: …good luck to you.

JILL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Take care. 1-800-989-8255.

As an old veteran of the NPR softball team - I used to play center field out there. I love being an outfielder. I want to ask you, Howard Zelaznik, I know that you've studied how an outfielder tracks a fly ball, and it's not really computing the flight of the ball, is it? I mean, it's…

Dr. ZELAZNIK: It's not. First, let me just correct you on one thing. I've been teaching this work, but I - other people have done the work, and I haven't done the work myself.

But, you know, most people think of the brain as a computer. And so the ball leaves the bat and the outfielder - yourself, with your wealth of experience and recognized the type of flight it is and you compute where the ball will be going and then you tell your arms and legs to start running to get there. That's a pretty hard thing to do. It turns out that there are various models, but they all have the same principle.

If the fielder runs in such a way that the image of the ball on the eye and their angle that they're looking at it maintains a very nice geometrical - geometric property, you will - you have to intercept the ball.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: And what you do with practice is you learn how to detect that. But you don't have to compute anything, which would be way too hard because the ball's not flying in a vacuum anyway. And you have no knowledge of those…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: …kinds of characteristics.

FLATOW: Yeah, I also felt that if I could keep the point of views the same in my - this little screen in my head and I'm watching that little dot of a ball. If it stayed in the same spot on the screen, I would catch it. And…

Dr. ZELAZNIK: That's kind of right. Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Yeah? But if it's - if it's hit over my head, I mean, if I could tell that…

Dr. ZELAZNIK: All bets are off.

FLATOW: …immediately, right, that this ball is going over my head, then I have to sort of think of where is the ball going to land just from my experience. And we're trying to run to that spot. You know.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Exactly. It's right.

FLATOW: And turn around and pick it up again.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: That's what Willie Mays did in his famous 1954 catch that you can view on YouTube, if people would like, but that's what he did. He turned and ran and then, guessed when he thought the ball would be close by and then he looked up.

FLATOW: Yeah, he looked up and just think, he made a better catch than I ever did but who else was like Willie Mays. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go bring some more Cubs fans in, from James(ph) in Fort Wayne, a Cubby fan in Fort Wayne.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, sir.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

JAMES: Well, I have been a Cubby fan since 1960. I believe it was the first game I went to and my comment was - is not that - will not be that much of a revelation to most Cub fans. One of the major reasons why I am a Cub fan is because of Wrigley Field itself. It's just such a beautiful place and it's almost like a religious experience going there.

FLATOW: Friendly Confines.

JAMES: You bet.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right, thanks for calling. It's a great - that's a great contribution, you go there, you like the environs and they're not tearing a town to build one of these giant super sky box places.

Mr. GORDON: Right, and there are parts in the brain that are responsible for having that feeling when we're sitting there of being in a beautiful ball park and sensing that this is an experience to savor and to come back to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And this part about superstitions with baseball players, it's always intrigued me. You know, they won't - you see some of them not hopping, they have to hop over the foul line, they'll never, you know, do this, they'll never do that, the way they'll - the whole team will shave their heads or they won't and they do things together. Some of these baseball movies have shown some of these, you know, modified and increased these superstitions. But I guess if you're in a sport like you say, where success - being a successful person is missing 70 percent of the time, then, you want to be superstitious. You know…

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Can I add something?

FLATOW: …they must increase that - yeah, go ahead. Sure.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: If imagine that in your softball career, you went five-for-five on one day. Now, that - let's assume that's a rare event, but maybe you go five-for-five every day - if you do five-for-five every day, you are not superstitious. But when a batter has a wonderful day, it's such a rare event that everything that happened that day, they remember very well and they go, oh, I better do this again, because that's what caused my going five-for-five.

FLATOW: I'm wearing the same pair of socks again, as I wore those socks this whole week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Because I went five for five, that's interesting. Are there parts of baseball - how well is baseball studied? I mean, is - as a scientist, is it studied more than other sports? I think more than, you know, the physics of football and or - baseball loves statistics. It loves to keep track of records, so I imagine, it's pretty well studied at this point.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Yes, it is. There are the American Journal of Physics, and will publish papers on issues of knuckle ball, ball flights, you know, Professor Adair who sort of wrote the bible on the physics of baseball, actually, for Bart Giamatti when he became a commissioner, has done voluminous work. There are very many labs over the country that study baseball and I think one of the reasons is because all of us are failed major leaguers and we can apply our, sort of, scientific curiosities to figure out how things really get done to be semi-successful.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Sarah(ph) in Salt Lake.

Hi, Sarah.

SARAH (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

SARAH: Actually, he answered my question. I have a son who is a physics major and I've been trying to get him to be - do the go into the field of physics of baseball. And my question is, when the pitcher throws the ball, how much like the wind, of the threads of the baseball, how is that I mean, is that…

FLATOW: Does that affect the flight?

SARAH: Yes. It does it get - exactly.

FLATOW: You see them trying to lift - sometimes, you'll see a new ball would come out and the pitchers will take their nails and try to lift up the seams a little higher…

SARAH: Correct.

FLATOW: …on the ball, how much that does affect the flight? Dan, Any idea?

Mr. GORDON: That's not so much my area with the book but maybe Dr. Zelaznik can speak to that.

FLATOW: Dr. Zelaznik?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: In fact, the seams are crucial because if the ball were purely smooth, the pitcher would have a bear of a time controlling it. So the seams help to prevent turbulent flow at the speed that the ball normally travels. So the seams actually aid the pitcher and they also are very important for things like knuckle balls in particular which take advantage of the seams producing turbulent flow when the pitcher throws the ball a little slower and trying not to spin the ball.

FLATOW: Well, if you a have ball spinning backwards and the seams helps the air flow around the ball and pushes the air down and the ball's going to go up. It's going to try to be, you know, action and reaction, so it's -a fastball will appear to rise and will not go down as much because there's a force trying to hold it up a little higher. But the knuckle ball is very interesting topic because if you actually watch - I've seen movies of painting the ball, you know, they'll paint half a ball and throw the - I know you probably seen the same ball, and it's just doesn't rotate at all. The best knuckle balls don't rotate at all so they're like a bullet that's not spinning. They're not, you know, they're not predictable where they're going. So that's one of the great pitches in the game.

There are other mythology that people have been talking about for years and this is something that is sort of dying away is the question of the hot and the humidity at night. People would say - they used to say, oh, it's hot and muggy night, the ball is not going anywhere. When exactly the opposite is true, isn't it?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: The water vapor is lighter than air, so in fact, having more humidity in the air will help the ball go farther. But what happens at night is that the temperature drops.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: And so, it's actually the dropping of the temperature which makes the ball travel shorter distances and people infer that it's the humidity because it wasn't a temperature drop so it becomes more humid but it's really a temperature affect.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking baseball this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Howard Zelaznik, professor of Health and Kinesiology at Purdue, and Dan Gordon, author - editor of "Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans." Let's see if we can get inside the heads of some of our players and fans, and let's see who - let's go to Brian(ph) in Louie(ph), Delaware, is that right?

BRIAN (Caller): That's Louis, Delaware.

FLATOW: Louis.

BRIAN: Yup. I'm a Philly fan, Phillies fan all my life, I grew up in Allentown in Pennsylvania and we have a sort of a tradition of loving to hate our team. And I guess…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRIAN: …the psychological stand point it comes from - it's almost like we get more excited when they, you know, if they are mediocre or they're failing or they're not living up to our expectations, we get exited about it and then, if they start to win, it's just like, ah, yeah, well, they're going to fail. And it's a sort of a Philly tradition, I mean, this is - this goes to our member at The Vet - Veterans Stadium. I mean, Mike Schmidt, you know, there's 300 hitter, this Gold Glove third baseman, we throw batteries at him. I mean, not me personally but I mean, that was a sort of the tradition of the Phillies, you know, hating their team, loving to hate their team. I'm wondering if you can talk about that?

FLATOW: Good question, any reaction, Dan? You know, is some part of your brain gets some satisfaction out of this losing - they're loving to lose Or…

Mr. GORDON: Well, what the brain - what it can speak to is just that there are - that might be a particular fan identity for Phillies fans and if there are parts of the brain that have to do with social knowledge and with, as I mentioned before with bonding, and so if that's the way that you bond with your fellow fans, then, more power to you and we hope that the Phillies keep losing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, it used to be the Red Sox, you know, the Phillies were in the background all those years until the Red Sox broke that curse. So…

Mr. GORDON: Right.

FLATOW: …now, we're into the Cubs, and the Phillies are, you know, Phillies are doing a little better than they are.

Mr. GORDON: Right, not that I'm one to talk being a Cubs fan, that's true.

FLATOW: Being a - well, think of it, analyze it yourself, I mean, is there something as a Cubs fan - now, the Cubs look like they're going to start out pretty well this season. I mean, they'll - they came very close a few years ago except for that famous foul ball.

Mr. GORDON: Right.

FLATOW: So what do you saw to yourself? How do you rationalize?

Mr. GORDON: What you say is, that of course, there's always next year. That's something that's inherent in baseball. And every team but one has to say that at the end of the season really. So, what we say is that, you know, we've got this beautiful ballpark, we've got a team that has, you know, that we suffer the lows with but also, we've come close a few times and so when it does happen, it's going to be that much sweeter, and why not keep rooting for them, you can't just abandon them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Howard Zelaznik, we got about a minute left, but I could - I really can't avoid talking about steroids in baseball. Do we have any evidence that steroids really help baseball players hit longer baseballs or make their reaction time just a fraction of a second faster as they get that advantage?

Dr. ZELAZNIK: As far as I know, no. The increase in muscle strength might make the bat swing faster which will be an advantage. But if you look at long-term trends, the trends that increase the number of home runs, actually falls on a nice looking curve, even before the steroids were introduced. So, I'm not sure if it really has much of a benefit. The big problem still is getting the bat at the right place at the right time and steroids are really no help for that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And that's…

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Exactly.

FLATOW: And your genes may be a better help for that.


FLATOW: Your ability to actually make that contact and be that special person who can do it better than anyone else.

Mr. GORDON: That could be. And from a brain perspective, the real question is, is the playing field level and also where do you draw the line because caffeine is a stimulant. Do you ban caffeine? So where is that line drawn for baseball players and for sports?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, because baseball players have been taking those uppers for years before there were steroids.

Mr. GORDON: Right, that's really something that hasn't been talked about much but there is - there are brain enhancements, too, that - rumors are that players take.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you both for taking time to be with us and wishing you a great baseball season.

Mr. GORDON: Thanks much.

Dr. ZELAZNIK: Go, Yankees. Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: There you go. Dan Gordon, editor of "Your Brain on Cubs: inside the heads of players and fans" and Howard Zelaznik, professor of Health and Kinesiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Surf over to our Web site; it's You can send us e-mail there or mail the classic way: SCIENCE FRIDAY 4 West, 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York or as we say in New York, New York, 10036 or surf over to our Web site; it's where we're podcasting. As somebody said it earlier I missed the show, my husband can't get it, you can just podcast the show and download it on your podcaster or on your desktop. Also we have some great new videos up there, if you want to see what the show - what the studio looks like, we have a great video. It's a little of QuickTime virtual reality on our home page. You can zip around the studio and look at the engineers look at all of us and our positions. It's should be a lot of fun. Have a great weekend, we'll see you next week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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