It turns out even robots have a thing or two to learn from sports announcers' oft-repeated observation that "baseball is a game of adjustments."
The Akron RubberDucks on Saturday welcomed families from across the area to STEM Night at Canal Park, inviting student teams from Firestone High School and the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School to send their robotic creations onto the diamond to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
While pitching machines have been around for more than a century, the students' challenge was much more than duplicating the batting practice device. Ideally, their battery-powered robot had to be able to eject a ball that would sail roughly 50 feet through the air and into the glove of the catcher squatting behind home plate. (The distance from the pitching rubber to home plate is 60 feet 6 inches in professional baseball, but ceremonial first pitches typically occur several steps closer to the batting area; this one took place on the grass just in front of the mound.)
Firestone junior Isabelle Bailey said test runs of the robot proved its throws were capable of covering that distance at an estimated speed between 50 and 60 mph. The contraption uses fly wheels similar to those used in pitching machines, she said.
"Fingers crossed that it works today," she said as the group prepared to take the field for the pregame festivities.
NIHF STEM Principal Dina Popa held up the pristine new ball that would be tossed, explaining that another robot built by the students would deliver the ball to the pitching robot.
All went mostly according to plan, with the ball exchanged between robots during the on-field STEM presentation. But after the baseball was fed into the pitching robot and shot out into the air, it dropped in the grass in front of home plate before rolling the rest of the way to the catcher. Not quite the outcome the team had desired, but still respectable by first pitch standards — and met with applause throughout the stadium.
The imperfect result made the team hungry for answers, though. The Akron Public Schools' high school robotics programs have won acclaim in state, national and international competitions, and overcoming obstacles has always been part of their path to success.
The students and their coaches quickly homed in on an unforeseen variable — the condition of the ball itself. Practice runs involved a baseball that had been through a fair amount of use already. But this gleaming new ball, the type that the RubberDucks present to first-throw participants to keep as souvenirs afterward, had not had the chance to be broken in yet.
Clear as mud? Then it's worth remembering that mud plays an important role in professional baseball. Brand new balls used for every game must first be rubbed with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which is harvested from a secret location along the Delaware River in New Jersey. The gunk takes the gloss off the baseball, allowing the pitcher to grip it with more control.
Christopher Morris, an assistant coach with the Firestone team, said a ball without its sheen has a "higher coefficient of friction" than the bright, spotless sphere handled by the robot. Being broken in makes a ball less slippery and more likely to launch in line with the machine's calibration. On future tries, he said, the challenge will be to figure out how to adjust the gear-cranked fly wheels to account for the shiny finish on the souvenir ball.
Just like a human pitcher, it's back to work on the mechanics.