For years, the world believed that Mike Mussina’s baseball story ended in 2008. At age 39, the veteran ace retired after his first 20-win season. He never won a World Series, never pitched a no-hitter, and never claimed a Cy Young, but with 270 wins and 3.68 ERA in one of the highest offensive eras in baseball, he was considered a solid Hall of Fame candidate among fans who knew what the hell they were talking about. After Mussina left baseball, he spent his days doing crosswords and fixing up old tractors. He never thought he’d get a chance to pitch again, except maybe in an old-timer’s game if he suddenly decided he could stand to be around the other old-timers.
The first robot baseball stars could be distinguished by their design. Top robotics firms used space-aged alloys, precision-crafted joints, and advanced processors to build machines that would stand out among their counterparts. But before long, every android player was built from one of a handful of perfected designs. The only advances made in the machinery were slight and incremental. Teams had to find new ways to elevate their robots–to make them better than the competition.
First efforts in advanced robot AI were led by MLB’s chief programmer, Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur was an ex-ballplayer himself, who had retired and went back to school to devote himself to other causes after a life-changing incident in the independent leagues: he’d let his bat slip out of his hands on a strikeout and killed a fan sitting behind the dugout. A repentant Francoeur had devoted himself to the cause of safer baseball. To him, this meant helping transition to robot baseball players whose pressurized mechanical hands could never lose the grip on the handle of a bat.