CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) -- Batters complain. Pitchers stare angrily. Managers throw up their hands and wonder: Can't umpires call balls and strikes consistently?
The answer might be far from the baseball diamond -- in Kim Blair's small laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a powerhouse of science, not sports.
Blair has merged the two in the Center for Sports Innovation, where students can take new sports equipment from concept to store shelf.
''If somebody wants to sell something in aerospace, they come to MIT. I want that same kind of reputation in sports,'' Blair says.
Some students worked on a speed-measuring system for inline skating, others on a training device for wall climbing and weight-training equipment.
Blair, with a sly smile, mentions a juicier project -- the automatic strike-zone detection system. It might use video, lasers or sensors embedded in home plate or on players' uniforms.
''The technology's out there,'' says Rory Pheiffer, one of the student investigators.
That's one call umpires are sure to beef about.
''I was at Fenway Park a few weeks ago and heard fans chatting,'' Blair said. ''One of them said, 'You know, umpires ought to just be invisible.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'We can do that.'''
Expect long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox to see their teams in a World Series before that brainstorm reaches the majors.
The strike zone system is in the early development stages at the center, which opened in August as part of the university's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. It's the only one of its kind at a U.S. university, said Blair, a triathlete with a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering.
The center's main goal is giving students hands-on experience in researching, designing, making and marketing products. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the sports angle adds spice.
''I'm a rocket scientist, literally,'' said Professor Ed Crawley, chairman of the department. ''My students would work on a piece of the space station and in one year they would see one-twentieth of the development of a product. Or they can work on a sports shoe and see the whole development of a new product in one year.''
Sam Joffe, president of FitSense of Wellesley, says the time is right for the center.
''Having a central place where the (sports equipment) industry can go is very powerful,'' Joffe said during a recent lecture at MIT. ''As you transition beyond the Cold War, with the whole research agenda being applied more toward civilian uses, there are a lot of very talented aeronautical engineers who can apply their expertise to sports and recreation.''
His company is marketing a wristwatch device for walkers and joggers that measures and stores information. It gauges distance, speed, heart rate and calories that can be uploaded to the Internet, where the athlete can work with a personal trainer.
Some MIT students are working on sensors for that system. Larger sporting goods companies have shown interest in using the center for product development, Blair said.
The center is a place for thinking and tinkering. There's a 5-foot tall red tool chest, like those used by auto mechanics. Across the lab is a wind tunnel recently used by cyclist Tyler Hamilton to gauge the aerodynamic efficiency of a bike.
Blair lifts a strange contraption and places it on a table. It's about 2-feet high with a padded seat and thick rubber bands attaching the seat to a platform at the bottom. It is a wobbly exercise seat designed to develop abdominal muscles while lifting weights.
Somewhere, Blair hopes, there will be a market for it.
''You can build a better mousetrap, but if nobody needs it, who cares?'' he says. ''I or my students can put a product out there, but the people who decide are going to be the people spending the money. I'm not out to change the world of sports. I'm out to educate students.''
Last semester, four students working on the strike-zone detector researched the baseball marketplace from Little League to the pros. They're sending out questionnaires this summer to baseball team officials, media members and others.
Such a system could be used to train umpires, by youth leagues short on umps or for pitchers to practice control.
But don't expect the familiar call of ''steeeeee-rike one!'' that reverberates off the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field or the Green Monster in Fenway Park to be replaced soon by a beeping thingamajig in a sport with such a rich tradition.
''You can certainly imagine the umpire's union not jumping up and down about that,'' Blair said.
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