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Suspended Disbelief. . .And Curveballs

May 11, 2022

Google define a curveball as,

A pitch thrown with a strong downward spin, causing the ball to drop suddenly and veer rot the side as it approaches home plate.

It’s a good enough definition, I guess. It’s not true. Or, at least it’s not completely true.

I’ve heard that when the movie Titanic came out, some people left the theater crying.

“I didn’t know the boat was going to sink!”

I think those stories may have just been over excited journalists looking for a hook. We all knew the ship was going to sink. In fact, it’s the whole reason there’s a movie to be told. Still, we each made the decision to suspend our disbelief and watch the story. Knowing the ending. . .the ultimate ending, didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the storytelling.

Sometimes we don’t, or won’t suspend our disbelief. Today’s Mariners game started at 2:00 PM. I couldn’t watch it. But, I decided I should save it for tonight when I would be writing in my office. The problem was that I couldn’t get to the game without first seeing the score.

Believe me, I tried. Nope. Phillies beat the Mariners 4-2 in Seattle. Guess what I didn’t do this evening? Right, I didn’t watch a game that I already knew the outcome of.

Even thought the game was decided hours before I attempted to watch it, so long as I could suspend my disbelief, I was willing to watch. In fact, I was looking forward to watching.

The curveball is a lie. What’s make a curveball such a devastating pitch is that it refuses to follow the laws of physics. The ball is on a predictable trajectory and then it suddenly veers into a completely different direction. Almost as if someone pushed it.

Candy Cummings invented the curveball in the 1870s. The pitch was not natural. And in fact was banned for a time. Today, it’s one of the most devastating pitches in baseball. It’s the reason that Michael Jordan gave up on his dream to play Major League Baseball. He couldn’t hit it.

Star Trek even had an episode that featured a curveball. Data, the android, was on the holodeck playing a game of baseball. He strikes out on a curveball. Riker says, “It’s an optical illusion.”

That’s also not true.

Curveballs only work because a baseball has raised stitches, 216 of them to be exact. When a pitcher throws a curveball he flicks his wrist on the release to give the ball a very fast spin. That spin is so fast that air gets trapped around the ball. The ball, for a short amount of time acts like it’s a perfect sphere rather than a sphere with raised stitches. Eventually the ball slows enough that the stitches catch the air. It’s at that moment that the ball “breaks.” And it can break by as much as 6″ off it’s expected trajectory. Enough to make big league ball players look foolish swinging at empty air.

Lyman Briggs, a scientist and baseball fan figured out the physics of the curveball in 1959, about 80 years after it was first used. Prior to that (and for many people after) the curveball was thought to be an optical illusion.

Pitchers, even modern pitchers, probably don’t care about the science of the curveball. They simply know that if they grip it a certain way and throw it a particular way, the ball will dive across the plate.

Suspending our disbelief is not required to appreciate a curveball. But, it is a deliberate choice on our part when we go see a movie, or when we watch a sporting event on “tape delay.”

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. Order Miscellany II, an anthology including his latest short story, “The Mercy System” here

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