Unwinding the Mystery of the Gyroball (Part II)
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Himeno got his start in modeling baseball movements with the forkball, a pitch that takes a sudden dive after it crosses the plate.
The forkball is thrown with very little backspin. As a result, the slight upward push given to the fastball is not there. The forkball will approach the plate looking like a heater but its little rotation causes gravity to send it sinking.
In 1996, while working for Nissan Motor Co., Himeno studied the wake pattern formed as air flows over the seams of a rotating forkball as a hobby. This wake creates drag and impacts the direction of the ball.
Studying such phenomena is crucial in the aviation and automotive industries. For example, air moving over the surface of an airplane wing produces the lift that allows a plane to fly.
Himeno, whose usual line of study involves analyzing fluid flows and assembling supercomputers, subsequently switched his hobby to the gyroball a few years later, following his departure from Nissan.
It was during this time that he was invited by Dr. Koichi Omura at Takarazuka Zokei Geijutsu University to participate in roundtable research discussions, where twice a month students, teachers, researchers, and athletes discussed various scientific topics. It was at one of these meetings that baseball instructor Kazushi Tezuka proposed studying a baseball that rotates like a spiral.
In Himeno's own book Makyu wo Tsukuru (The Making of the Supernatural Pitch), Himeno wrote: "When Tezuka explained the gyroball grip and spin, it was the most exciting thing I had seen in my life."
After returning to Tokyo, Himeno simulated air flowing around both a two-seam and four-seam gyroball. (The seam distinction indicates the number of seams rotating parallel to the ground as the ball moves through the air.)
The results showed that the wake behind the two-seam version had a wide path, very similar to the forkball. But the air flowing over the four-seam gyroball followed the curve of the ball much more, making its wake narrow.
Himeno's conclusion: the two-seam gyroball drops like a forkball; the four-seam gyroball drops, too, but less; both variations generate much less drag than a forkball, causing them to arrive to the plate faster.
Some of his findings were sent to Tezuka, who published them in his 1998 book Picchingu no Shotai (The Truth about Pitching), an instruction guide filled with descriptive cartoons that covers everything from achieving a proper release to how bones and muscles work together during a pitcher's delivery.
Dr. Robert K. Adair, a physics professor at Yale University, who authored the book The Physics of Baseball, the Bible on the study of a baseball's behavior after it has been hit or pitched, is skeptical about the efficacy of throwing what amounts to being a fast forkball.
"A forkball is basically a change-up," says Adair. "You don't want to throw it fast. It is far from clear to me why you would want to throw a gyroball."
As if to explain, Himeno has set up one of his computers in a five-row theater on his building's first floor.
On the screen emerges a computer graphic of a large baseball. As it rotates as a two-seam pitch, dozens of colored streams of dots (simulating the air flow) dangle behind it.
After sporting a pair of 3-D glasses, theatergoers can see the gyroball spin as its trailing flow lines seemingly dangle out over the floor like a mutant octopus has attacked a Lite-Brite board.
"Now people can see the high-speed rotation on the screen," Himeno says of his projections. "We need to present it like this so people can understand the difference between the various pitches."
Himeno has studied three variations of the gyroball. In addition to the basic version, another option involves rotating the pitching hand horizontally in a clockwise manner. This shift, Himeno says, creates a little backspin. Dubbed the "gyroball with lift force" by Himeno, this pitch nearly follows the path of a fastball, dropping much less than a pure gyroball.
The final variation is the only version that breaks laterally. The gyroball "with side force" occurs when the pitcher upturns his hand slightly to apply sidespin.
"This version," Himeno admits, "is not much different from a conventional slider."
In the basement of a small building off a major expressway in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward is the dojo, or training hall, of Beta Endorphin, a company that provides sports instruction to youngsters.
Green artificial turf fills the space between two pitching mounds and two home plates. As a coach stands at the edge of the left mound, pitch after pitch from a young left-hander snaps into the netting behind the plate.
In a brimless gray hat and workout jacket Kazushi Tezuka, the president of Beta Endorphin, watches through the gaps in the green netting.
"This," says Tezuka, as he grabs his thigh, "is the most important part of throwing the gyroball. It has nothing to do with the hands."
As described in The Truth about the Supernatural Pitch, of which plenty of copies are available at the clinic's register, the circular rotation of the hips off the pitcher's back leg provides the initial torque that comprises the first spin in the "double spin" technique.
The spinning of the ball off the fingers, as described by Himeno, is the other spin. Getting the two spins to work in tandem is the basis of mastering the gyroball, says Tezuka.
Man-to-man instruction to hone this technique requires 12,600 yen per hour. Including all of his classes, Tezuka logs approximately 200 hours of training in both Tokyo and Osaka.
Beta also offers special day-long group classes on occasion for 8,400 yen. Ads for these classes in magazines feature a bald and naked, butoh dancer-like caricature going through the motions of delivering a gyroball.
Through the Beta Web page, gyroball training kits are available for 4,200 yen. The package contains a pair of half-painted balls, one each for the two-seam (red) and four-seam (black) throws. Markings show the placement of the fingers. A cross (+) designation positioned at the "front" of the ball allows the receiver of the pitch to judge whether a tight spiral has been achieved by the pitcher - in other words, the appearance of something similar to a spinning drill.
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