Montreal Baseball Hack Day 2016 Wrap Up

I am not a hacker. In fact, I don’t consider myself tech-savvy at all.

My older brother who works for a growing technology company based in San Francisco would probably call that an understatement.

I wish I could tell you what he does, but every time he attempts to explain it to me, I get that deer-in-the-headlights look and wonder why I bothered to ask in the first place. It’s all way over my head.

For a self-professed baseball junkie whose passion for the game was born on the field and cultivated in the dugout, the experience of the Baseball Hack Day was an eye-opener.

So, when I found myself in a sparsely furnished room in a loft space in downtown Montréal on March 19 watching 11 other people furiously type away on their laptops to put the finishing touches on a day’s worth of writing code, you might think I felt like a fish out of water.

The truth is, I felt right at home, because what brought me to that room was my passion for baseball.

I was there to observe the second annual Montreal Baseball Hack Day, a one-day baseball-themed hackathon hosted by Plank, a local digital design
company whose offices are one space over.

For those as technologically inept as me, a hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and other software or hardware developers get together to collaborate on a software project.

It can last anywhere from a day to a week, and sometimes takes the form of a contest.

The objective of the Montreal Baseball Hack Day was to see what participants could put together in a single day. They could create a website, a data visualization, a tool or an online or mobile app.

Like some others at the event, I discovered the Baseball Hack Day by chance, having read about it on the Plank website.

I communicated with Warren Wilansky, the founder of Plank and a huge baseball fan, and he graciously agreed to let me take part as an observer.

I had no idea what to expect going in, having never experienced a hackathon.

When the participants presented their work at the end of the event, I was amazed by the results they were able to achieve in just a single day.

There was an Android trivia app, a complex data visualization tool inspired by the otherworldly statistics of Barry Bonds, a fun tool that adjusted home run distances under different conditions (even on other planets), a two-player pitch-and-bat game that utilized webcam technology and another online tool that helped fans determine the best game to watch on a given day based on selected variables.

All of the projects worked and were successfully demonstrated by the end of the day.

Even though the technical prowess on display was certainly impressive, I was most struck by the enthusiasm for baseball in the room.

Winner & Judges: Montréal Baseball Hack Day 2016

While the hackers were putting the finishing touches on their work, I chatted about baseball with Wilansky and the three judges, local sports journalists Jeremy Filosa, Matthew Ross and Elias Makos.

Like any conversation about baseball in Montreal, the focus quickly shifted to the viability of a potential return of Major League Baseball to the city, as the void left by the Expos’ move to Washington back in 2004 was still painfully apparent.

There was the usual cautious optimism about an Expos rebirth, no doubt buoyed by the positive press surrounding the upcoming sold-out exhibition series featuring the Toronto Blue Jays at the vacant Olympic Stadium on April 1 and 2.

While many pundits believe that filling the cavernous east end monument of crumbling concrete for the third straight year with over 100,000 screaming fans decked out in full Expos regalia sends a strong message to MLB about this city’s passion for baseball, Wilansky believes that his much smaller event can have an equally profound impact.

“I really do believe that for baseball to come back to this city, there has to be a culture of baseball built into the city itself,” said Wilansky.

“And, the only way to do that is to actually hold events like this where people who might not be your standard baseball fans actually get involved in something that’s different and original.”

The Baseball Hack Day project started in Boston four years ago, and Wilansky was so intrigued by the idea that he contacted the event organizer in the hopes of attending.

When he was told not to bother to travel all the way from Montreal since the event was still too small to warrant such a trip, he kept in touch via e-mail and decided to organize a Montreal chapter of the Baseball Hack Day last year.

Outside of Montreal, there are chapters in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago, four prominent baseball cities with MLB teams.

Elias Makos, who used to work in public relations for the Expos, believes an event like the Baseball Hack Day is a step in the right direction to bringing a team back to Montreal as it shows interest in the game within the local business community.

“We have a high-tech community and to have them onboard with baseball is a very good thing,” said Makos.

“The longer we can do this event, the more successful it can become, getting baseball intertwined with hacking, I think, only helps the cause of bringing the Expos back to the city.”

While the initiative showed by Wilansky and his company Plank is a great example of a Montreal business getting involved in baseball, the project only works if there is similar passion from developers who would potentially participate.

As a player and coach over the last 25 years, I have been in contact with all sorts of baseball junkies at ballparks in Montreal and across Canada, but I didn’t know what level of baseball enthusiasm I would find in a room full of hackers.

Having spoken to the winners of the top two prizes, I discovered a love for baseball that extends far beyond the diamonds the game is played on in this city.

Motoki Nakamura took second prize for his Barry Bonds-inspired statistical visualization. While he was born in Japan and grew up in New York, he has spent the last four years in Montreal as a McGill student in Physics and Computer Science.

Nakamura’s love of the game is not strictly limited to his obvious obsession with advanced statistics.

“I’ve always liked the idea of overcoming all odds. Before sabermetrics, before the usual ‘the best succeed 30 per cent of the time — no other profession can be considered elite with a 70 per cent failure rate’, before all of that…It’s simply one guy with a round stick tasked with hitting a round ball squarely against nine people,” said Nakamura as he began to wax poetic.

“He was never supposed to win. Yet people do. Over and over again.”

Like Nakamura, Alex Marcotte found out about the event online and jumped at the first opportunity to participate, having just missed it last year.

Marcotte won first prize for his online tool that helps fans pick which game to watch on any given day.

A native of Trois-Rivières, Marcotte moved to Montreal ten years ago and currently studies Mathematics at Université de Montréal while working as a web developer.

He also believes events like the Baseball Hack Day can help grow the culture of baseball in this city.

“As someone who was brought back to the game by the geeky side of it, I know that baseball is a sport that can captivate people who might not usually be that interested in sports, and the Hack Day is the perfect place to start,” said Marcotte.

“I hate when I hear people say Montreal isn’t a baseball town because it’s just completely untrue. There is a big fan base for it here but it’s sleeping and I think events like the Baseball Hack Day are helping to wake it up while also getting new people interested in the sport.”

With the word spreading about the Baseball Hack Day, there were more participants this year than last and while Wilansky hopes for even more next year, he also has bigger dreams.

“What I think would be a real success is to see the whole movement continue to grow.” Wilansky said.

“I think what would be really interesting is for us to maybe still be a similar size group here in Montreal, but suddenly be a part of a movement of 10 cities, of 15 cities, of 30 cities…I mean, who knows?”

For baseball fans in Montreal, it is refreshing and encouraging to witness a local business leader like Wilansky help grow interest in the game in such a positive and original way.

With all the fanfare associated with the upcoming exhibition series at the Olympic Stadium, it would be easy for an event like the Montreal Baseball Hack Day to go unnoticed.

For a self-professed baseball junkie whose passion for the game was born on the field and cultivated in the dugout, the experience of the Baseball Hack Day was an eye-opener.

And, while I will make the pilgrimage to the east end along with thousands of other baseball fanatics to worship at the altar of Tim Raines and Pedro Martinez on April 1, let it be known that my faith in Montreal’s baseball culture was restored in a room
full of hackers on March 19.

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