A pinball shark tale: champion gets accused of cheating

I don’t write about pinball much on this blog. That’s actually a good thing, as most of the stuff here is about things that go wrong in the world from my point of view. Sometimes the wrongs aren’t all that egregious but give me a chance to write something semi-humorous, others things go really wrong, and a select few are the real head-scratchers that have me saying “what the actual duck quack?” (Usually with much more bleepable language, of course.) I’m not sure where this one lies on that scale, so I’ll state the facts and my take and leave the judging up to you, the readers.

On March 4, Eric Stone played the new Jaws (LE) pinball live on an internet stream. Stern was, at the time, also running a contest called March Madness. (This is not to be confused with the more widely known NCAA basketball tournament.) The idea behind the contest was that the state with the best players (i.e. highest scores) would win.

Eric, for those of you who do not follow competitive pinball, is a very skilled pinball player. His most notable accomplishment is the 2022 IFPA World Pinball Championship. These are followed closely by a 2022 YEGPIN Match Play championship, a 2024 IFPA Florida State Pinball Championship, as well as two top 20 finishes at the IFPA Open. One does not land those kind of victories without a high level of pinball skill. More importantly, one doesn’t land those kind of victories without being an honest player (i.e. not cheating). Perhaps the latter of these two is even more relevant to the circumstances.

On the night in question Eric put up a mind-blowing score of 4 trillion on this Jaws pinball (see video). For reference, most players consider one billion to be very good score, with my personal best being a paltry 144 million and change. To be fair I have not played this particular title nearly as much as Eric has. The controversy comes from how Eric got to this score.

If you go to 32:35 in the video, Eric has caught all four sharks. He then starts spamming (repeatedly shooting) the spinner. This, in the game’s current state, scores millions of points per spinner tick. The high scoring is likely due to a bug in Stern’s code. Note that it’s incredibly difficult to get to this point. It’s certainly not something even most wizard-level players can do easily.

When he gets to the point where he can make the high-scoring spinner shots, Eric’s score isn’t too far over 1 billion. Obviously, Eric will score big and skyrocket his score geometrically by the end of the game. The 4 trillion score would (temporarily) put Florida in the lead in the March Madness contest.

Temporarily. That is, until Stern decided to disqualify it. That’s bad enough but the social media posts from Stern imply that Eric cheated, using words like “fishy”, “unfair”, and “foul play”:

My take on all this: you really can’t fault Eric for playing the game as Stern shipped it. Everyone has the same (presumably defective) code on their respective Jaws pinball machines. The game was on video. We, the pinball players and fans all over the world, can all see what happened. Most importantly, we can see that Eric did not cheat. Stern’s bad code is Stern’s fault, not Eric’s. The right thing for Stern to do was fix the code going forward, starting with the next round of the contest, letting the current scores stand.

To his credit, Eric handled this rather gracefully, acknowledging that he “didn’t get [the score] the way [Stern] wanted it” among other things, but also emphasizing the score was “earned”. That, honestly, is remarkable composure in the face of a very thinly veiled accusation of cheating. A lot of people would take such an accusation personally, myself included.

Cheating in baseball: the shift from steroids to…

As a lifelong baseball fan, it troubles me at the amount of cheating in the sport that is coming to light. The Mitchell Report almost got me to quit following baseball for good; as it was, my return to baseball fandom was slow but complete long before the historic World Series of 2017 when the Houston Astros finally took it all in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers (unfortunately, that season was the subject of a cheating scandal itself).

A recent Sports Illustrated article highlighted a surprising form of cheating in baseball. As the title suggests, it relates to ball doctoring. Now, ball doctoring has been banned in MLB for an entire century. At least that’s what the rules say. As to whether or not they are being enforced, that’s another story. The epidemic of “sticky stuff” has pushed batting averages down. Should the trend continue, we may see another “dead ball” era (if we are not there already).

A few select quotes from the article, to highlight just how big the problem is:

“This should be the biggest scandal in sports,” says another major league team executive.

(Given baseball’s past scandals, this says a lot by iteslf.)

An AL reliever, who says he uses a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, recalls a spring-training meeting in 2019 in which the team’s pitching coach told the group, “A lot of people around the league are using sticky stuff to make their fastballs have more lift. And if you’re not using it, you should consider it, because you’re kind of behind.”

(Players have used similar logic to justify steroid use, in the pre-Mitchell Report era.)

“It’s so blatant,” says the AL manager. “It’s a big f— you. Like, what are you gonna do about it?”

(i.e. it shows disrespect for the game and, really, a lack of sportsmanship/ethics.)

“If you want to talk about getting balls in play and kind of readjusting the balance of pitching and offense, I think it’s a huge place to start,” says an NL reliever who says he does not apply anything to the baseball because he believes that is cheating. “Because it seems to have created these basically impossible-to-hit pitches.”

(Whoever this pitcher is, thanks for actually having a sense of ethics and not cheating.)

For hitters, all this suddenly acquired extra movement is catastrophic. What was an elite spin rate in 2018 is now average. The added spin means that the average four-seam fastball drops nearly two inches fewer this year than it did in ’18, according to Statcast, making it appear to hitters as if it’s rising.

“It is frustrating because there’s rules in this game,” says [Florida Marlins outfielder Adam] Duvall. “I feel like I’ve always been a guy that’s played by them, and I expect that of others, too.”

I think Adam’s quote, the last one above, is perhaps the most telling and the best summary of what’s going on with regard to “sticky stuff”. What is the point of having rules if you aren’t going to enforce them? If ball doctoring is against the rules, then MLB needs to take decisive action. If, on the other hand, “sticky stuff” is now the new normal and MLB is not going to consider it cheating, then it’s time to take the rule out of the rulebook (not what I’d really prefer as a baseball fan, but at least the rulebook would match reality).

Though it does look like maybe MLB is going to do something about it, per this quote from the article:

In March, the league sent a memo to teams to warn them that it would begin studying the problem, collecting those baseballs for analysis and using spin rate data to identify potential users of foreign substances.

Unfortunately “studying the problem” starting in March means we probably won’t see any action taken until close to the end of this season, if not 2022. But it’s a start. Maybe it means we’ll still have the prohibition on ball doctoring (spitballs, “sticky stuff”, or whatever) for decades to come. And once again, it will actually mean something rather than being a line in the rulebook that pitchers ignore.

Baseball is most fun to watch when there’s a comfortable balance between offense and defense. As a fan, I will admit I’m a bit biased towards good offense over good defense, but the reality is watching a game of “gone home run” gets as boring as a scoreless game that goes into extra innings. I’m okay with the trend shifting away from crazy offense if it happens naturally. If it’s a result of blatant cheating by pitchers, that’s a problem. It gets people to question the integrity of the game, and that’s potentially disastrous.

Silly statistical shenanigans in the drive-thru

As a close friend and former roommate of a QSR (quick service restaurant or “fast food”) crew member and manager, this one strikes a special chord with me.

Consumerist.com reports on a really stupid pet trick being pulled by some QSR drive-thru workers. They are asking customers to back up and pull forward to restart the speed of service timer. A very low-tech and suspicious method of gaming the system.

The article does mention the prospect of in turn gaming the drive-thru jockeys out of free fries or similar such things. I find it difficult to take a real stance on the ethics of such a manuever. Hopefully, it will not matter soon; I am aware that at least Taco Bell, and possibly all other Yum! Brands QSRs (KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, A&W) have an amount display set up below the drive-thru window, which assumably cycles through to the next customer when “cheated” in such a fashion. I’m wondering why Burger King et al don’t adopt similar technology to squash this type of statistical shenanigans.

If the numbers are to matter, if the management of a QSR actually gives a damn about real speed of service and not just making the numbers look good to the next higher manager, this type of cheating needs to be dealt with by termination, first time, no exceptions.

And to the workers resorting to this in a vain attempt to save their jobs: If you can’t stay up to speed, stay out of the kitchen.

[Edit 2024-03-23: Dead link replaced with archive.org copy]

Is new technology in sports cheating?

While browsing recently I happened to find a very insightful article about sports and technology. Several major sports are referenced including golf, swimming, and tennis.

Of particular note is a quote from Martina Navartilova:

To me, using “illegal” equipment is the same as cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

Or, put another way, cheating is cheating, whether with drugs or equipment. Navartilova’s reference to what would happen if we allowed major league baseball players to use graphite bats really brings it home. The technology is there, but allowing it would completely change the sport. Heck, we may as well not call it baseball anymore; it would make more sense to just rename the sport “Gone Home Run” because that’s what it would become.

Make no mistake about it: I am a fan of technological advances. I have posted on Twitter at least once how little I will miss CRT-based monitors, film, and magnetic tape-based media. (That could probably be extended to magnetic floppy disks as well.) There is, however, a very thin line between new world records set by performance of the athlete(s), and a new world record set simply because the technology which allowed it has only now become viable.

I don’t follow every sport; however, I do understand what Gary Hall Jr. is saying when he refers to times in swimming being measured in hundredths of a second, because races and world records used to be decided by those kind of time margins. When new world records in swimming are set by a difference of whole seconds in the past four years, you can’t tell me that it’s just the athletes that made it happen.

Is there really a difference between beating a world record by four seconds with steroids, or beating a world record by four seconds with a new swimsuit that simply didn’t exist five years ago?