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In the Computer Game, He’s the Odd Man Out

Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser complicated my life considerably a few weeks ago when he pitched those 58 shutout innings, thereby erasing Don Drysdale’s 20-year-old record.

It all goes back to a column Scott Ostler wrote in The Times this summer about Hershiser’s pitching habits. According to Ostler, one of the secrets of Hershiser’s success in his mastery of the computer. At the beginning of this--his best--season, Hershiser began programming into his computer everything he knew about opposing batters, his own pitching eccentricities and all sorts of oddments from each game he pitched. Then he’d commune with the computer before each start.

Ostler quotes Hershiser as saying: “My computer replaces the old pitcher’s book. If you’ve just studied the computer adjustments you’ve made in the past, it’s easier to have them at the top of your mind when you’re out there pitching, instead of having to search for ideas.” Then he had the grace to add: “I know it’s really against the grain of baseball tradition.”

It damn sure is, but that’s not why Ostler’s column shocked me. My problem was that it undermined my position as the last of the computer holdouts. If computers had spread their tentacles into baseball, what was left? The only way I could deal with that question was to ignore it. I’ve always found it easy to ignore the Dodgers, so that was no real problem until Hershiser broke Drysdale’s record. I can’t ignore that. It equates computers with success, something the computer zealots have been pushing at me for 10 years.

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With the defection of baseball, I feel almost totally isolated in my position on computers--rather like a card-carrying member of the ACLU or a U.S. citizen who doesn’t believe that repeating the Pledge of Allegiance is a very important issue on which to hang a presidential campaign. It isn’t that I don’t feel competent to operate a computer (or a word processor; I’ve never been sure of the distinction). I’m confident that in a few years I’d be able to grasp it quite well. It’s just that I don’t want to.

The computer zealots--and they match pet lovers and gun fanciers in both number and fervor--don’t seem to understand that. One of them told me at a dinner party recently, when my head drifted away from a conversation on the latest in floppy disks or some such similar topic, that “you probably resisted the typewriter when it replaced the quill pen.”

I don’t recall that I did, but it’s the kind of snit that computer people get into when they find a non-convert in their midst.

Actually, I’ve resisted learning how to operate all sorts of mechanical devices for the same reason I’ve resisted computers: because I didn’t want to. I was 56 when I learned how to run a washing machine--because I had to. I once owned a swimming pool that was a total mystery to me until simple repair bills became such a burden that I finally gave up a whole day to trace every line until I understood how it operated. I learned the basics of recording television programs on our VCR by the same tortuous route, but only after I discovered I could watch one football game and record another at the same time. I may well have been the only military pilot in World War II who never really understood the reasons for landing upwind rather than downwind. As long as I could read a windsock, I didn’t have to know why.

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Well, it’s rather the same way with computers. I do quite nicely with a typewriter--or, occasionally, a quill pen--while sitting in my back yard or at the beach. I have never had a manuscript eaten up by a machine. I need nothing but a pad of paper in order to work. And my mind is totally on what I’m writing rather than wandering off on what button to push or lever to pull.

Beyond that, I like the feel of shuffling manuscript pages in my hands. I like to be able to go back and look and the changes I’ve made. I like the delicious sensation of crumpling a piece of paper and pitching in in the general direction of the wastebasket. All sorts of head cobwebs can be cleared that way. And I have a deep distrust of most machinery, especially when it produces thoughts on a screen instead of a piece of paper.

Now I’m not suggesting that any of this is particularly rational. It’s just that computers and the creative process don’t coalesce with me. I’m not trying to foist this view off on anyone else. But I’m constantly being called to task by the computer zealots for feeling this way--always under the guise of wanting me to get ahead in my work.

The two arguments they put forth that have any validity for me are, first, that my attitude frequently shuts me out of conversation (computerese has passed health, sex, and assuredly politics as a primary topic of conversation) and second, that it may prevent me from getting work. The former happens frequently, but the latter hasn’t happened yet, although my associates at The Times have occasionally frowned over my inability to do even the most basic things on the office computer.

So far, I’ve been able to deal with that. But now Orel Hershiser has cut my ground from under me. About the only solace I find is the conviction that Don Drysdale wouldn’t have been caught dead consulting a computer before he went out to pitch.


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