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A firefighter, two software developers and a baseball hackathon

Game Plan

On a brisk Saturday morning last month, Chris Lamothe, a firefighter from Warwick, Rhode Island, arrived at the offices of the design firm Upstatement located near Boston’s North Station to participate in 2019’s Baseball Hack Day. While he was eager to participate, Lamothe had some concerns. “I have come here to learn,” he said. “I am hesitant because of my skill level. But I love baseball.”

The event was founded in Boston 2012 by Daigo Fujiwara, a baseball enthusiast and newsroom developer at WBUR. It has since expanded to nine cities across America. “The goal is to geek out for fun on baseball,” said Fujiwara. “It without fail gets me in the right mood for Opening Day every year,” he added. The event’swebsite describes the day as an “annual on-site, in-person hacking event where area baseball fans come together and create baseball-related projects to compete in a fun, friendly, one-day competition.”

This year, around 40 people were gathered in a room that felt part-start-up, part-sports bar and part-Star Trek convention. Some had arrived in teams, while others, like Lamothe, had arrived knowing no one. He stood in the back awaiting instructions while many of the other attendees stared into their Macbooks, fixated on code and statistics, as if cramming for an exam.

The sponsors provided an overview of the day and showed the participants the prize that would be given to the team that the judges felt produced the best output – four autographed pictures of Red Sox star player Mookie Betts. The photos were removed from a large envelope and held up for everyone to see. The crowd gasped in unrehearsed unison. By 10 a.m. the hackathon had begun and Lemothe bounced around the room, searching for a team.

Meanwhile, Dana Bennett of Brookline and Darren Tucker of Dedham, both software developers, rose from their seats and began to chat with other participants. One was Lamothe. After a brief discussion, the three strangers agreed to form a team and proceeded to commandeer a small conference room that would be their work space for the next six hours. They quickly opened their laptops, emblazoned with stickers from previous hackathons and coding events, and started tossing around ideas.

“This is a crazy combination of two things I like to do,” said Bennett.

For Tucker, mixing baseball and coding was a no-brainer. “I have been a fan of coding and a fan of baseball since I was a kid,” he said. “I just want to have fun today.”

By 11 a.m., Lamothe, Bennett and Tucker had agreed on a project and the real work had started. As they fired up their own Slack channel, #beermap, they shared stories about families, careers and, of course, baseball.

They named their project “Inside the Park,” which would become an app that would allow spectators at Fenway Park to know in real time the wait at the stadium’s many beer stands, restrooms and food venues. Using React, a JavaScript library to build user interfaces, HTML, and details about Fenway Park readily available online, the team aimed to have a working prototype complete by the end of the day. They created a database that included input that would be obtained from RFIDs attached to vendors that roam the park and from video captured from existing cameras inside the stadium. The video would be analyzed using software called Sentinel that determines crowd sizes and the length of lines at places such as restrooms and concessions stands.

Bennett took time to help coach and teach the less experienced Lamothe some new coding techniques. A bond began to form between the three, especially evident when Bennett humbly mentioned that he was actually waiting for a job offer from a Major League Baseball team as a web developer. His teammates looked up, somewhat in awe knowing that they were at a table with someone who was about to “make it to the show.” Bennett stopped for a moment to glance at his email and let out a sigh as he saw the latest message.

“Now they are saying I might not know until Monday,” said Bennett. Lemothe and Tucker paused and provided some sympathetic words of encouragement. Bennett had been a complete stranger only hours ago.

The three raced to complete their project, with Tucker submitting their work to the judges at 3:57 p.m.—minutes before the hackathon’s deadline. They tossed the empty bags of Doritos and Cheetos from the table along with the uneaten brownies and cookies they had nibbled on throughout the day. Lemothe grabbed some of the unopened bottles of water while Tucker and Bennett collected their coats and computers. Then they headed downstairs to face the judges and other competitors.

The first team presented an app called “Hello Baseball” where a user could ask Google or Amazon Echo the results of a baseball game on a specific date in history and hear the results spoken to them by a computer. The second group demo’d a prototype of “Baseball-Mania,” a tool that evaluates fan sentiment using tweets. Other submissions included “Pitch Prediction,” designed to tell viewers what pitch would statistically be thrown next, and “Sign Stealer,” an app that allows users to click on buttons such as ‘touch nose’ and ‘wipe left arm,’ mimicking the behavior of third base coaches and managers providing signals to batters. There was also a project to determine the effect of wind speed on pitching metrics, a line-up manager app, and a web site that allowed participants to view where Major League Baseball players were born by country and even by county within the United States.

“The winner of the 2019 Baseball Hackathon is ‘Inside The Park,’” announced the judges.

Lamothe, Bennett, and Tucker smiled, almost in disbelief, shook hands and congratulated one another. Then, after exchanging emails and talking about staying in touch, they rode the elevator down to the ground level and walked into the busy Boston streets. A Bruins game was just ending and North Station was busy. The teammates carefully placed their signed Mookie Betts pictures in their bags.

Hours later, the three continued to chat on Slack, using the platform to talk as friends do, not simply to share code or collaborate. While they continued to talk about coding and the project, it was sports, and more specifically baseball, that had truly brought them together. Full article here.


Rich Trombetta