The Crack of the .bat

A quick thumb scan and I was talking with the closest thing to a person in the room. The only expensive thing in the building, the manager’s best friend, and our profiler: Bert.

Erosion patterns on Mars, courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA

“We’re going to have to cut your starts for May.”

Emma looked pained. Something must be going on, because this sort of data-backed decision was, if not her favorite thing, something that usually bothered her not at all. Glancing around, the office looked worse than she did. That was not exactly unusual, but there are orders and degrees and we had passed acceptable a few piles back.

“Is that what you think?”

The creases on her forehead deepened, a strange look for someone that young. Probably younger than me. Not sure when she found time for the CalTech degree. “It’s what the profiler’s data supports. We have to start winning ballgames. You know how it is with the River Cats right now.”

I knew that the River Cats had received yet another helping hand from their parent organization in the majors. I knew that meant big money was involved. And that money means a statistically significant increase in computing power, put to work on reducing our already dwindling chances at defeating our division rivals to a number indistinguishable from zero.

“Well, you and Bert are wrong.”

That tasted like failure. They’re loser words. As if saying “No” to the numbers like that can make them less true. Like those pathetic guys in the old days with “intangibles,” magic hand-wavy crap that no computer could possibly take into account so please let us sad sacks keep our jobs. Somehow it makes all the difference, promise. But this time I’m right. The human element triumphant — the one guy who can buck the system. Pathetic.

“We’re … I’m not wrong, Carson. Your numbers are down, the profiler says so, and priorities are shifting based on the new strategic environment. You understand. This isn’t a coin toss. Like I said, the numbers are pretty clear.” She rubbed the corner of one eyebrows, a nervous tic that made for a lopsided look.

I wasn’t going to be able to keep the starts. I was getting bumped and nothing I said would matter, because how many calculations per second could I do, really? Give up with dignity. Keep your head high.

“Just let me in to talk to Bert. He likes me.”

And just like that, goodbye shreds of dignity.

Here Emma’s expression hardened a little. She was not one for anthropomorphizing. The profiler was “The Profiler” and “it” was the preferred pronoun. I could see a war on her face, anger fighting exhaustion. The exhaustion won out. She waved her hands around a little.

“Sure. Go on in. Take your time with him … it … whatever. What is it with pitchers? Eddie does what he does, and now you.”

Eddie had thought his preseason projections were questionable, and had put his foot through a wall in early April. The necessary fixes had become a point of contention.

“Telling me his guy knows better than me how talk numbers.” Here was the real scowl. Deep, deep anger. “Don’t mention any outsider, degree-less wonder ‘consultants’ to me. Ever.”

“Not a problem, skip.”

She handed me a keycard, and I closed the door to her office behind me.


Now technically I shouldn’t have been alone in there. And you might suppose they would have gone back to stricter enforcement after the whole foot-meets-particle-board incident, but no. The skip had other things on her mind. Like maybe getting a better patch job done in there. The hole looked like a modern art referendum on the nature of holes. A duct tape and mixed media masterpiece. Went nicely with the faint smell of mold.

Anyway, there I was, alone. Well, almost alone. A quick thumb scan and I was talking with the closest thing to a person in the room. The only expensive thing in the building, the manager’s best friend, and our profiler: Bert.

Hi, Bert.

Not sure where Bert came from. Nobody ever called it anything else during my time.

hello carson.

Bert never “sounded” quite right in your head, you know? Like a wound-up five-year old: Most of the punctuation was missing.

Why’d you do it, Bert?

i do not understand

Had to keep things simple with Bert. He wasn’t the best with conversation.

Why were my starts cut?

decision was indicated by available data do you require elaboration

“Available data” could mean a lot of things. “Elaboration” meant a terrifying number of calculations and proofs. Not something easy for a mere human like me to parse.

No, Bert. But haven’t I always been good to you? Always put up good numbers? Could you give me the executive summary?

“Good ability” and “impressive defensive metrics” on the display panel started me out strong, but “failure to perform at expected levels” sunk me in the end. I’ll admit, I was a little mad at this point, but I tried to push on. Bert was just a profiler. It wasn’t personal. I was just on the bubble.

But thinking over the season so far, hadn’t there been a lot of guys on the bubble? Bad performances in games that had felt like winners, but turned sour? Some of it had to be probability — a bad bounce here and there was something you had to live with. But decisions, important decisions that created the place where things could go wrong, were coming from Bert. But everybody always blamed the computer when they could, didn’t they? The decisions were good, or as good as they could be made, they just weren’t working out for the players.

Maybe. But right then something felt wrong. Hadn’t Eddie thrown his preseason tantrum because he thought his numbers were off? We had all told him to calm down, that he could pull those right back up to where they’d been last season. And we meant it too: There didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. But there it was again. Little changes throwing people for a loop.

What can you tell me about Eddie?

did you mean eduardo fast eddie vasquez eddie aaldenberg ed patel

The lineup that year was a real piece of work in more ways that one.

Eddie Aaldenberg. The Steenwijk Sensation. You know, Bert, the place kicker that put a whole in your wall.

Again Bert spit out a few things, and Mr. Aaldenberg, while not being in any danger of being cut had a “Performance Improvement Action Plan” advisory attached. Or at least, it had been there. It had been amended, now that his numbers had gone up. And his play time was back to where it had been. Even a bit better.

It seemed likely nobody had even seen that report; any changes in Eddie’s day to day routines would have been implemented automatically. Frankly I’m not sure why we have human trainers at all anymore. Doesn’t take much of a voice chip to say “Walk it off.”

But Eddie had turned out okay. No conspiracy there. What about the rest of the team?

Bert, show me all the coin tosses for the season so far.

This Bert understood right away. He showed me all the times the probability of any given thing was about fifty-fifty. Should we make a pitching change? Should Patel throw his cutter? Is it the right time to move things around in the outfield? It was about even in these situations, the data said.

How many of those did we lose?

A lot. Including six in a row in a stretch of thirty games. What are the chances of that? Have to be less than 10% right? Not impossible, but definitely out of the ordinary.

Baseball the business has tried to drive out the instinct, the gut feeling. There’s just too much money, too much reach, too many executives. And who saw the whole India thing coming, anyway? But it’s a good thing, mostly. Guys that would have been overlooked, they get to play. Merit means something for leadership, too. That’s how Emma got her job. She never played in the majors. Damn good manager, though. For all that broadcast money, she didn’t seem to get a lot of it for us on the field. And not much money means that the luxury of stopping to think carefully was rare. So it was all data all the time and why not?

Why did you decide as you did for each coin flip?

That was a dead end. Just screen of data and proofs that I couldn’t refute, or even talk about. And a summary didn’t do me any good: Because the math said so, that’s why.

The results of all those lost tosses were bad. Guys got hurt, numerically speaking, me included.

Which ten players have had the greatest decrease in overall performance in the season to date, controlling for injury?

A list of ten scrolled by. I wasn’t number one. But the pitching staff was there in force.

Again. Pitching only.

Everybody had a decline. Some worse than others, me worse than most. Everybody except Eddie. That was weird. You’d figure if everybody was hurting, he wouldn’t escape the law of averages. But he hadn’t really, had he? He’d had a decline, then pulled out of it. Pulled out it of it right before everything really went south. Right before the rest of the guys started catching bad breaks. A lot of bad breaks. More bad breaks than was probable.

This felt like an accusation. And what was I accusing Eddie of, exactly? I liked the guy, but he was dumb as a rock. It took him three days to get angry enough to put his foot through the wall. Probably went whining to that consultant of his, too.

And then it hit me. And I swear to you it felt like a 101mph comebacker. And just like getting a pitch to the head, it left me just a little dizzy: Eddie hadn’t gotten better, everybody else had gotten worse. Or, maybe he had a little lift and everyone else got held under water. He manipulated the profiler’s data somehow. Probably with the help of his “numbers guy” cousin. There was a serious betrayal here.

Oh, Bert, how could you?

with a lot of practice.

Oh boy, programmer humour. Deeply funny as always. But it still left me with the question of just how somebody that dumb could break into and then manipulate a (relatively) sophisticated system. Even if he had the help, it was impossible to access Bert. There weren’t any connections to an outside network. And the only access points were here and head office with no exposed cabling in between. The money men had spent a fortune so all our secrets would stay good and buried.

Well, if the only access point Eddie could get at was inside the room, then it logically followed that any interference must come from inside the room. And Eddie could get alone time in here, even if he wasn’t technically supposed to. But what could he do? I mean, wave hello to the camera Eddie. Not even the guys in charge were so cheap that they would leave out surveillance.

Not only that, but those recordings had even been looked at, if you can believe it. It was part of the disciplinary hearing, because Eddie had tried to claim the hole had already been there when he came in. Not so unbelievable really, given the state of the building, but still. Sometimes I worried if he knew what planet he was on. Anyway, the point was that anything underhanded should have been caught. Nothing. Though a story did get out that he had managed to get his shoe lost in the wall, and spent about five minutes feeling around for it, arm in there up to his shoulder.

Isn’t there some saying about eliminating the impossible to arrive at a conclusion? It’s impossible to alter the data from the outside. It’s impossible that the terminal itself could be altered without it being picked up on the camera footage. So what did that leave?

And that’s how I spent more than a few minutes risking a throwing arm on a hunch. If that wall had been repaired completely a little faster, I never would have been able to do it. But as it was, everything was still mostly open. I was about to feel really smart, or have a lot of explaining to do. What had Emma said? Don’t do what Eddie did. Right. Good. I will get on that right after I finish this.

So I felt around in there, and at first I found just about what you would expect. A lot of dust. Some loose screws and toggle bolts. I could feel the cabling, too, with a cable staple every once and a while to keep everything in once place. Except the part I could reach had too many staples, too close together. Not to mention one of the staples felt entirely different from the others. Warm. Not a common quality in staples.

Now here’s where I did another dumb thing: I got my fingers around the weird as-yet-unidentified too-warm thing, and yanked.

The worst headache of my life filled my skull with lightning and hornets. I just about lost all of my stomach contents, too, but lucky me I was already lying down. Just before I passed out, I remembered why some people still prefer a voice interface over a neural connection: Unexpected timeouts are a hell of a thing.


I woke up in a hospital bed. The sun was down, and the last thing I remembered it had been early afternoon. Emma was sitting in a chair in the corner. As exhausted as she had looked before, it was now on another level. No family around, but I didn’t really expect them anyway.

“Welcome back to the world, dolt. Just an excellent job risking brain death.” The relief in her face wasn’t entirely hidden, but she was making a good show of it.

“How long have I been out?”

“Two days. You died once on the way here, and once more after we arrived. The doctor said you were going to be a drooling imbecile.”

“Yeah, but who could tell the difference?” I laughed a little, and it hurt something awful.

“Some specialist was here for a conference or something. She saved your life, and what little sanity you have, though we probably killed more than one of the bosses’ actuaries.”

“You can’t spend it after you’re dead.”

“Yes, but they can spend it after you’re dead.”

I tried grinning, but but that hurt too. “Did he do it?”

Here Emma sighed. “Sure Eddie did it. With the help of that guy of his.” Never in my life had I heard the word guy said with such venom. “The thing you found, which you so wisely investigated with bare hands and a live connection, was a bug. It even looked like a bug, all needle legs and bright green. It interfered with the cable itself, and was altering just about everything in and out.”

“The kick-a-hole-in-the-wall plan really worked?”

“After a fashion. The bug was nothing but a little drone and some fancy wiring. Eddie was supposed to make a hole in the wall, then it would climb out of his shoe and go to work. The police tell me his little accomplice figured that one out. Old building, thin walls, cheap owners — no point in digging to the foundation in a building owned by our guys to bury a cable most people won’t even see, right? The only place the thing is above ground. I don’t think actually losing his footwear inside of the wall was part of the plan, but it worked out. A real clown show for the cameras, everybody laughing themselves sick instead of really looking at the footage. It was supposed to make him seem better and everyone else seem worse. And it worked for a while. But he was greedy and stupid, so he got caught.”

I coughed softly but pointedly. Emma stood up, faced me, and held one arm rigidly at her side with the other raised to her forehead in mock salute.

“Of course the organization thanks you specifically for running brain first into an electric fence, ipso facto lorum ipsum please accept our thanks and no monetary reward of any kind.”

Then she started to walk out, but turned at the door.

“See you at practice.”

 

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