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Magic, at its core, is a mindset of finding interesting solutions to impossible problems. The first place this is really seen is when you start exploring methods. After a while, you will learn how presentations can actually be clever solutions to some of the problems you will run into.
And if you are a nerd, much like the author of this article (that’s me), you will spend some time in the history books. In those books, you will find out just how the magical way of thinking has changed the world.
There are a lot of stories about how magicians changed the course of history. Robert-Houdin helped stop a revolution in the French colony of Algeria with a light and heavy chest. George Méliès was another French magician that revolutionalised the way films were shot and edited over the last 100 years. Harry Houdini might be the person responsible for clickbait titles that we see today with how he dealt with his publicity!
While the impact of magic can be felt in entertainment, whoever thought it would be felt in sports? That’s right - two magicians helped change one of the oldest professional sports forever.
Part 1. Enter The Magicians
When you are consulting for a mind-reading show, inevitably you will have to have a conversation about ways to secretly communicate information to the performer while they are on stage. In the year 2023, It is impossible to have that conversation without the help of the ProMystic catalog.
ProMystic has been the premier electronic product brand in magic since the early 2010’s. With quotes from Colin’s Cloud, Andy Nyman, and Chris Kenner on their website, you know the material must be top-notch. Hell, there is a good chance you either own one of their products or have one on your magic trick wishlist.
The company was started by Craig Filicetti, just over ten years ago. While Craig is a professional performer- he also holds a master's degree in electrical engineering. It doesn't take a master's in psychology to tell that those two interests will intersect and some great tricks will be invented. And oh boy, Craig has come up with some brilliant tricks. Methods like the one in his product named “Inception” allow you to have people hear voices in their heads. He has peek wallets that function completely differently than the one in your pocket. Oh, there is also this trick with color markers and a drawing - I’m sure you know the one!
To say that Craig has helped push electronic methods to the forefront of the mentalism world might be an understatement. Because of that, it is probably fair to say that you might have heard his name before.
But one name you might need to become more familiar with is his friend and business partner, John Hankins.
Like Craig, John holds a degree in electrical engineering - but is also a retired patent lawyer turned professional magician. This is probably a good time to mention that John is a lifelong fan of baseball, and together, these magicians changed the sport forever. But before we can talk about how something called “PitchCom” was first conceived - we need to know some backstory.
Part 2. The Baseball Scandal
In 2017, The Astros won the World Series of Baseball.
Two years, they were accused of cheating in the entire season that led to their win.
They were accused of doing something called “sign stealing” and then secretly coding the information to the person swinging the bat (the hitter for those in the know).
Okay, so what does all of that mean, and why should magicians care?
Baseball is all about marginal advantages. You saw Money Ball, right? That’s the baseball film with Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt. You haven’t? Go watch it after you finish this article. Long story short, some people figured out a way to to solve baseball with math. Yes, to solve baseball. To win any given season, you just need players to get on base. If enough players get on base throughout the season, you are guaranteed to win more often than you lose. It doesn’t matter about how athletic they are, you just need them to get on base. Simple concept. The problem is that baseball is a competitive sport and the other team's objective is to stop that from happening.
The main way they will stop a player from getting on base is through how they throw to ball to the hitter. The pitcher will try to make the hitter swing and miss. Once again, simple. You are probably familiar with a fastball. But there are also sliders, curveballs, and knuckleballs. In total, there are about 13 different pitches that can be thrown at any given time. Each throw looks and acts slightly differently as it approached the hitter. The goal is to change up between throws to get the hitter to swing at pitches they can’t possibly hit. The catcher just has to catch it.
But how does the catcher know what the pitcher will be throwing? Simple, they code it to them. Yep, they do a code act in the middle of a sports event. Historically these signals have been made as the pitcher gets in position and with a complicated sequence of finger movements that are easy enough for the pitcher to see. But like any good secret - people will try to figure it out.
And this is called “Sign Stealing” – breaking the code and figuring out another team’s signs.
While sign stealing isn't inherently illegal in baseball, the Astros were accused of having a camera placed directly in sight of where the catchers crouch would be to see what fingers they will be flashing down there. From then, they would work off the field to crack the code to the signals. Once they had cracked the code (which apparently happened rather quickly), they would then signal their hitter exactly what was coming down the line.
How? Was it something fantastical and clever?
Not exactly; they banged on a trashcan.
They didn’t need to code every different type of throw. They just needed to let their teammate know when there was going to be a change-up.
The world of baseball took a keen interest in this story.
Do you know who else took an interest in the cheating scandal?
Magician John Hankins.
Part 3. The Magic Touch
According to the Atlantic, John first came up with the idea in 2019 when the scandal broke. The idea was simple, have a transmitter that you press in your desired information, and then the other person hears it in their head. Yeah, that’s right – it sound like “Inception” (the trick not the movie). There's no secret finger tut the catcher has to learn, nor a toe switch. They press the button and the pitcher hears it in their head.
The smart aspect of a transmitter like this, is that with no hand signals, it would make it impossible for the other team to Sign Steal. They had a name for the device too: PitchCom.
Before John and Craig had a chance to show off their prototype, the world shut down due to covid. But in October 2020, they showed off their invention to MLB representatives. It wasn’t long after, the device started making its rounds to the minor leagues. And just like any good player, it wasn’t long until it was fully adopted in the majors in the 2022 season.
But here is where baseball this changed forever in an even more drastic way. The MLB is allowing pitchers to use the device to call their own pitches. If you aren’t a baseball fan, you might not understand why that is a huge deal - but I promise it is.
For the past two hundred years, the responsibility of calling the throw rested on the catcher, who could signal without the hitter seeing. But now, the pitcher can decide what is coming out of their glove and simply telling the catcher to be ready. This is absolutely massive!
Part 4. Widespread Adoption
Doublecross is an amazing trick. Everyone does it, from Blaine to that local restaurant magician. When a trick is good, there is widespread adoption of it. PitchCom is no different. We have started seeing it be used in college games and soon to see it in the high schools that have enough to pay for it. USA Today, reported that the device was between 3k-4k USD. so the barrier to entry isn’t too impossibly high.
There has been talk about the whole team wearing similar devices, helping the defensive players to know what they should be looking out for. And while many are excited about these changes, as the New York Times reported some people are against the change in their entirety.
As the MLB leans on new technology and new rule sets to speed up the game, many people believe that you are taking away from essential aspects of the sport. And maybe they have a point. But, technology is pervasive in the way that it is much easier to continue using it than not using it at all. PitchCom solves a problem that many teams have been dealing with. It is hard seeing them turn their back on it now. Kinda like magicians with Doublecross. We know everyone is doing it - but we also know how good it is. Why would we stop?
Part 5. History told by magicians.
I remember reading about a magician that helped the WWII war effort. Apparently, many of his stories weren’t completely based in reality and maybe his plans didn’t work as well as he would have liked or even how he told them years later. But this magician had a keen interest in helping.
I think this has been true for magicians throughout history. The theatrical magic we do is from a lineage that reaches back to witch doctors and shamans. Harry Houdini was most likely a spy for the US Government. Hell, David Blaine has been studied by medical doctors to understand the proper way to reintroduce food to patients that haven't eaten. Magicians try really hard to help by doing what we know.
I’m going to make a bold prediction: baseball has changed forever. This new technology will become an essential part of the sport and will be a mainstay for the rest of its existence (until better technology becomes available). Baseball will just join the long list of things that magically changed.