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Sports stay the same as technologies change

By David E. Williams
CNN
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(CNN) -- Derek Jeter's bat isn't all that different than the ones used by Yankees legends Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. There have been cosmetic changes over the years, but when you get right down to it, it's still a piece of wood.

But that doesn't mean the game is standing still. Scientists and engineers are working with athletes in all sports to improve performance and safety and make it more entertaining for fans.

Louisville Slugger, which makes bats for Jeter and about 60 percent of all Major League Baseball players, doesn't use wind tunnels or high-tech design equipment to build bats with the right combination of weight and strength.

Instead they work with players to find a bat that "feels right," said company spokesman Rick Redman.

"These players can tell the slightest variation in the feel of these bats," even if they're the exact same model, Redman said. "We work with the players to get their specifications and the testing is really done in the batting cage and on the field."

He said they've experimented with different types of woods, including hickory and European beech, and that the company's forestry division has researched which trees produce the strongest wood.

Redman said northern white ash was the wood of choice for decades, but now maple makes up about half of its orders.

"We experimented with maple back in the '80s and nobody seemed all that interested in it, but then a guy named Barry Bonds started using maple in the 1990s and had great success with it," he said. "That spurred lots of other players to take a look at maple."

Protection is key

The company also has worked with an orthopedic surgeon to develop gloves to protect against the sting of a hard throw to first base or a 100-mph fastball slamming into a catcher's mitt.

"If you look at your hand, the bone that is right underneath the index finger in your palm, that is where catchers get the most impact from the ball pounding into the mitt, and if you talk to catchers that bone stays sore and bruised all of the time" he said.

"We placed wide and thick padding above it and below it on the hand so that the force is absorbed instead of hitting the bone."

Redman said that many safety advances in baseball, such as throat guards for catchers, ear flaps on batting helmets and breakaway bases, which reduce the risk of an injury from sliding, trickled up to the big leagues from Little League baseball.

Protection is key in football, where players suffer bone-jarring hits on just about every play.

Equipment maker Riddell worked with the National Football League to develop the Revolution helmet, designed to minimize the risk of concussions.

Researchers studied hits that were blamed for concussions and simulated them in the laboratory, according to Thad Ide, Riddell's vice president of research and development.

"They found that in a high percentage of the impacts that they recreated in the laboratory, the initial point of impact was to the side of the head or face, so we paid particular attention to that area when we were designing the Revolution," Ide said.

The Revolution's hard outer shell extends farther toward the player's chin than traditional helmets, and it has more energy-absorbent pads along the side of the head.

A study published in the February issue of the journal Neurosurgery found that high school players who used the Revolution helmet had a 31 percent decreased risk of concussion than players wearing a standard helmet.

Riddell has also developed an in-helmet monitoring system that measures the acceleration of a player's head and beams the information to the sideline. Ide said the system warns the medical staff if the readings are above a certain level.

Researchers at the Baylor Motion and Sports Performance Center are using high-speed cameras and powerful computers to help elite athletes improve their performance by fixing tiny flaws in their mechanics.

They're focusing on long-distance runners, golfers and baseball pitchers, said Fabian Pollo, the director of orthopedic research at Baylor University Medical Center.

Athletes are fitted with tiny reflective disks and photographed by 12 cameras that can record 150 frames per second. The images are converted into three-dimensional models that athletes and their trainers can view from different angles to detect flaws they can't see with the naked eye.

"We can virtually calculate thousands of parameters and see how they're affected either by fatigue or injury," Pollo said. "There are things that you can't see visibly that they're doing differently to compensate for an injury that we can see in our system."

Researchers work with coaches to make tiny improvements in a runner's stride.

"The goal is to shave 1/100th of a second off of each step," Pollo said. "In endurance running that can be huge with the number of steps they take. ... When you get to the 5 kilometer, 10 kilometer and the marathon, you're talking about minutes -- just by shaving a 100th of a second off of every step."

The system also can be used to take a snapshot of an athlete's performance when they're at their peak, so they can look back at it when there are problems.

"Whenever they get injured or are in a slump, we can bring them in and say 'this is what you were doing six months ago when you were at the top of [your] game, and this is where you are now, and this is what is different,'" he said.

What game's on? All of them

CSTV, a division of CBS, is working on a new service to help football coaches give players almost immediate feedback by loading game film onto video iPods.

Brian Bedol, president and CEO of CSTV, said four college teams and one professional team are testing the service called "the edge."

The service works through a customized iTunes interface that lets a team's video coordinator mark the plays and sort them by situation -- such as running plays, passing plays or first downs -- and load them on an iPod.

"Then for the coaches or players immediately at the end of the game when they're getting on the bus or the plane, they have their game film to watch," Bedol said.

He said the program would cost schools between $35,000 and $75,000, depending on the team's needs.

CSTV is also part of the move to put sports video on the Internet, which along with cable and satellite has pretty much put an end to the days of checking TV listings to see what games the networks are showing.

Now fans ask, "Which game do I want to watch?"

Cable and satellite companies offer subscription services that feature dozens of pro and college football and basketball games along with Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and professional soccer from the U.S. and overseas.

Online, CSTV streams thousands of sporting events for colleges around the country -- ranging from major college football to women's gymnastics to wrestling.

It launched a new broadband platform in September, CSTV XXL, that brings all those feeds to one place.

"What we tried to build is a custom platform that worked uniquely for college sports, it allows colleges and universities, who are our partners to deliver both live and archived events and have it function like an on-demand channel," Bedol said.

"You can watch classic games, you can watch coaches' shows, you can watch press conferences, and you can watch and listen to live games."

He said universities can use their own production departments or students to produce live feeds of sports that would otherwise get little if any coverage.

"While there are millions of people who follow football and basketball, in the aggregate there are millions more who follow sports like hockey and lacrosse and baseball and have never had an opportunity to stay connected," Bedol said.

The schools decide which sports they'll highlight and whether to charge for the feeds.

"There are some schools that are purely advertising supported and free, such as Notre Dame, and other schools that are a combination of free and subscription, and some that are entirely subscription," Bedol said.


story.jeter.gi.jpg

Bats used by Derek Jeter and many other major league sluggers are still engineered the old-fashioned way -- by "feel."

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