What I Think About When the Game is Slow and the Gulls are Gathering

By Editorial Staff

I am one of those fans who never leave the ball park early. I believe in watching until the last out, and sometimes a little longer. I’ve often been disdainful of those “fans” who sneak out early, hoping to beat traffic or get home at a decent hour. Wimps. How could anyone not want to spend every possible second at Safeco Field?

And, yet, I must admit, even in that sacred place, my mind wanders. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing happening on the field. Sometimes, the game is so far gone that it begins to get depressing. And so, I begin to look around.

In addition to being a baseball fan, I’m a bird watcher. And one of my favorite birds to watch, in flight, is the seagull. Safeco Field, being so close to the waterfront, is a great place to watch gulls in flight. Especially late in the game. Somehow, the gulls always seem to know when it’s time for the game to be over. Sometime in the late seventh or eighth innings they seem to start gathering. Don’t ask me how they know, but I’m sure the stands are a feast for them when the people leave.

If you’re interested, most of the gulls you see around downtown Seattle are Glaucous Gulls or Glaucous Wing Gulls — very similar species that even experts have trouble distinguishing, so I don’t try. A lot of people don’t like gulls and call them all kinds of insulting names, like “flying rats” or “nuisance birds”. They’re neither. They are beautiful creatures, especially in flight. With their long white wings unfurled, they can glide on high thermals and swoop around in the laziest, more graceful arcs imaginable. I can watch them all day, and the way we were playing this past season, I sometimes did.

That miraculous flight is made possible by the bird’s wing. The wing is a perfect airfoil, crafted over millions of years of evolution to the bird’s lifestyle and needs. In the case of the seagull, it is specialized for flying high over the waters and then diving down to race over the surface when food is spotted. Like all airfoils, the wing basically works by controlling the flow of air over and under the wing to regulate lift and drag. The seagull’s amazing control in the air is a testimony to their control.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones in the ball park with such precise control. The art of pitching is, in some ways, the art of controlling the effects of air pressure on a moving ball. Most pitchers probably can’t tell you exactly why the ball behaves as it does — any more than the gull can tell you why his wing works. They just know how to do it.

But a physicist could tell you about something called “The Magnus Effect” — which basically describes the behavior of a spinning object flying in a fluid. (Air counts as a fluid in this case, because of the way it flows around objects). Very basically (which is about all I can handle myself) the spinning object creates a whirlpool of fluid around itself and experiences force perpendicular to the line of motion. The way the object is spinning, and any irregularities on its surface (like, for instance, the laces on a baseball) distort the flow of the fluid and change the trajectory of the object.

A fastball, for instance, is usually thrown with backspin, which creates a high pressure area in front of and under the ball. This has the effect of counteracting gravity to some degree and giving the ball lift. Fastballs tend to drop less than expected between the Mound and the Plate. Sometimes, they even rise, which can give a pitcher problems if he starts placing balls too high in the strike zone. You often see a pitcher’s fastballs getting higher as he gets tired and his control becomes a little less precise.

A curve ball, on the other hand, is thrown with topspin — it rotates as if it were rolling in the same direction it’s moving — which creates a high pressure zone on top of the ball and accentuates downward motion — it adds extra force to the effect of gravity, which is why we often say “the bottom dropped out of that pitch”. As anyone who ever played baseball can tell you, that makes hitting it much harder.

These effects are similar to the way an airfoil manipulates aerodynamic force to create and control flight. The gulls overhead, waiting impatiently for their feast, and the pitcher on the mound struggling to close out the game are depending on the same forces.
The behavior of a curve ball has not always been well understood. For a long time there was a running debate about whether the ball actually curved, or whether the movement was an optical illusion. It wasn’t until 1949 that an aeronautical engineer named Ralph B. Lightfoot proved, using a wind tunnel, that the curve ball does in fact curve. Most pitchers were convinced that the curve ball was real, however. Dizzy Dean was once quoted as saying, “Stand behind a tree 60 feet away, and I’ll whomp you with an optical illusion!”

So you see, even when it appears that I’m not paying attention, my mind doesn’t get very far from baseball.