6.03.2005

The Physics of Baseball 1: "The Curious Case of Damon's Mane."


Johnny Damon recently suffered a minor injury, which was close to being a major one, by running into Fenway Park's infamous center-field "Triangle" in pursuit of a fly ball off the bat of Jay Gibbons. (Of course, this trapezoidal area is nowhere near being an actual triangle, but no matter, we move on.) The sports shows enjoyed showing the replay of this incident, and I, along with all baseball fans, enjoyed watching it; in fact, I laughed 59.334% of my derriere off.

Outfielders suffer this sort of injury all the time. But Damon, the hirsuite lead-off hitter so beloved by fans, seems to be more prone than others. How many of us remember his collision with Damian Jackson in the 2003 playoffs? So the braintrust at E$PN has asked me to look into whether or not physics can account for Damon's propensity for collisions.

The answer, after some pretty careful study, is: Yes. Yes, it can. Physics, of course, can account for everything. The strict Calvinism of scientific mathematics is omniscient and omnipotent. I consider myself privileged to be able to use a calculator. Also, at least here in Bristol, alone.

Let's first take a look at the simple art of fly ball retrieval. As I demonstrated in my book The Physics of Baseball (Perennial/Harper Collins), a fly ball hit directly at an outfielder is the most difficult to judge, as it appears to "hang" in the air without giving an indication of speed, trajectory, spin, or wind-displacement. My calculations have shown that the best outfielders take approximately 1.3 seconds to move after the ball is hit; Damon is generally considered a good fielder, so we will assume that he picked it up as soon as he could.

The "Triangle" measures 420 to its deepest point, but replays show that it only traveled approximately 400 feet, so we will use this round number. A 400-foot line drive stays in the air for 4.8 seconds, faster at first and then slowing slightly due to atmospheric conditions and the pull, or "rainbow," of gravity. Since Gibbons' ball was what my grandfather would call "a cracking shot to dead centre-field," it had traveled at least 162.78 feet in its first 1.3 seconds of flight. This means that the ball traveled 237.22 feet in the next 3.5 seconds, or an average of 67.777 feet per second.

Damon did well to get back on that ball, but there is no way that anyone can run 67.777 feet per second. There is, however, a way that center fielders can avoid running into a wall. Here is where we start to factor in Johnny Damon's personal physics. The uniforms used by the Red Sox are made of a cheaper cotton-polyester blend than other teams use; this added an extra .06 seconds/journey to Damon's backwards-and-to-the-right sprint. Not much, but it adds up, as you will see.

We must also weigh, as it were, the effects of Damon's trademark mane. My estimates, which take into account his slight beard as well as his approximately eight inches of flowing locks, show that as many as .12 seconds/journey's worth of drag co-efficient can be added to the equation. Add this to the uniform-based handicap, and we're beginning to see a picture coming clear.

I have also made some careful studies of Damon's brow and headshape, and have determined that his head contains at least three pounds of extra bone mass, which further impedes his running (.42 seconds/journey). This massive melon, so often compared to that of a Cro-Magnon, or "caveman," must also impede Damon's ability to see the ball, as it is approximately twice as hard to swivel as, say, the streamlined spheroid that is the head of Florida's speedy Juan Pierre.

Further, Damon is an idiot. He admits as much in the title of his recent book. He also recently stated that he thinks George W. Bush is doing "a pretty good job" as president. So q.e.d. like a motherf*****.

After running calculations on the extra effect of Johnny Damon's hair, uniform, cranium, and idiocy, it seems clear that he is at least 1.60 times more likely to collide with things (walls, other players, the morality of old lefty college professors like me) than the average player. I look forward to solving more problems of physics in this "weblog."

Robert K. Adair is the author of The Physics of Baseball and the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics at Yale University. He is also a longtime Brooklyn Dodgers fanatic.

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