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July 22, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Baseball's Paper Airplane Problem

by Sam Miller

Game story template: Clever juxtaposition, personal detail, pun, or fun fact; summary of what happened in the game (winner, key performance); nut graf putting larger significance of win/loss into context; quote from manager; transition into chronological description, over course of a few paragraphs, of game’s action, perhaps interspersed with quotes from relevant players; quote from pitcher/offensive hero/Torii Hunter; description of the paper airplanes in the stadium; conclusion.

“As the game ground to a crawl in the late innings,” the LAist wrote last week, “each pitch taking on more importance on both sides, the scene throughout the stadium began to resemble the opening scene of M.I.A.'s ‘Paper Planes’ video. As the crowd of 50,796 got more and more restless, they decided to make their own entertainment, to give themselves something to cheer for as plane after plane get [sic] tantalyzingly close to touch [sic] the field.”

Paper planes are having a moment. Two weeks earlier, while Skip Schumaker was on the mound, a well-crafted plane landed with a flourish between the mound and home plate:

And a couple months before that, at the same stadium,

Clearly, Dodger Stadium has a paper airplane problem (or not problem). You might expect it at Dodger Stadium, where fans have a tepid relationship with the action on the field. But paper airplanes are everywhere, and while this might not seem like a big deal to you, I'm going to write this as though it should be a big deal to you. Come along to be persuaded?

So here's some history. At the very, very, very beginning there were the Chinese, who (according to Internet) were throwing paper airplanes 2,000 years ago. Those might have been more like kites than planes. This Quora goes back into the 19th century and finds examples of “paper darts” for recreational use well before the invention of the word “airplane.” But the first time we see them showing up at sporting events, at least in game stories, is in the 1930s. From a description of a Harvard football game in 1934:

They began to toss paper airplanes out on the gridiron. A veritable paper fleet took to the air as the Crimson led 33 to 3.

It should be immediately clear how valuable a strong paper plane would be in a public event. When built well, they can travel almost infinitely with a small finger flick; their trajectory immediately erases its memory, so that there is no hope of tracing it back to its source. Besides a small risk of eye-poking, they don’t carry the force necessary to make them lethal. Messages can be written on them for political purposes. And they are constructed from one of the most banal, omnipresent materials you could ever hope to smuggle. Consider the effort and risk of throwing a tomato at a performer; now consider the ease of a paper airplane. It’s the perfect weapon, the event-disrupting equivalent of murder-by-icicle.

And so, in the 1960s at a Nixon rally, "some young men ... tried to get an anti-Vietnam leaflet into his hands... Some transformed their leaflets into paper airplanes and sailed them in the President's direction."

And, in the 1970s at NFL stadiums, it became something of a fan. In 1975: “"As the game wore on and the Saints' performance became more inept, paper airplanes filled the cavernous recesses of the Louisiana Superdome. 'It's sad to me when that sort of thing happens,' Manning said. 'But they've evidently had enough.'" It was a fan worried about “eye injury and perhaps an ear injury as a result of such airplanes” who inspired The Greatest Letter Ever Printed On NFL Team Letterhead.

It doesn’t seem to have been quite so much of a fad in baseball at the time, but it was there. Two airplanes landed on the warning track during the 1976 World Series. And, after Reggie Jackson spurned Baltimore as a free agent, Orioles fans reportedly weaponized the planes:

When the Yankees visited Baltimore for the first time, fans hurled nuts, bolts, and paper airplanes equipped with darts at Reggie Jackson.

And then... silence. Surely there were paper airplanes sailing about over the past three decades, but not enough to stoke the ire of columnists or the amusement of game-story writers. Perhaps there was a general societal crackdown on mischief; as we noted in a piece on World Series celebrations, the 1970s were also the golden age of crowds storming baseball fields, but in the late 1970s crackdowns ended that practice. As institutional authority asserted itself in the 1980s, as increasingly complex legal codes put us all at risk of selective prosecution, as sentences got stiffer for small-crimes offenders, as general prosperity gave us all more to lose, as Broken Windows theories transformed policing, as stranger-on-stranger violence turned every conflict into a potentially lethal escalation, maybe we all learned to just keep our heads down and our hands to ourselves. The paper airplane was something we might do in our own homes, where we felt safe. But in public, we behaved.

The sledgehammer to the established order came in September 2009. We’re back in Dodger Stadium, and this time somebody has smuggled in a remote-controlled airplane. For minutes, the pilot thrills the crowd; first the umpires stop play, and then teams play on while the plane soars above. The implications of this act terrify Vin Scully.

It is a nasty thought. If it's a distraction to a hitter … a 90 mph fastball, he needs complete concentration. ... It's a good idea to destroy it. That would become a very bad habit in the ballpark, let's face it. Something like that could really be destructive.

The plane finally alights and Augie Ojeda tears it to pieces. “F*** Augie Ojeda,” a YouTube commenter says. “He doesn't understand that the Parkzone Sukhoi SU-26M costs $120!! Stupid F***, I will hate him for the rest of my_ life, not to mention he lays like S***... F***** a******.”

Which brings us back to the present. Last summer, just as David Hernandez was about to pitch, a plane disrupted play. He waited, and then his next pitch was hit out for a tie-breaking home run.

They’re in Anaheim. They’re (giant) in Milwaukee. They’re especially in Toronto, where the only thing fans love more than a paper plane soaring onto the field is a vertically oriented cell phone video:

In Toronto planes have been used as part of the indictment of Blue Jays fans generally, “especially in the 500 level, [who] ‘are developing a reputation,’ Zaun told the Star on Monday.” “What will stand out from that trip to Toronto,” Will Middlebrooks wrote in a diary earlier this year, is “paper airplanes being thrown by fans and a couple of streakers.” And a commenter on Canada’s The Score wrote, “What the f*** is up with the paper airplanes? I understand that maybe one drunken jackass thinks it would be funny, but there were dozens of people who seemed to think it would be great fun to throw shit on the field. I kept waiting for the announcement that people would get tossed if they did that, but it never came.”

And that’s part of what’s interesting about the airplanes. As noted, it’s hard to find the original thrower unless you see him or her throwing. But fans don’t seem to feel any risk of getting caught, and they don’t seem to actually be at any risk of being caught. They are tweeting their actions, locations, and selfies in real time. And these kids, over the course of what must be at least 15 minutes, make, transport, and very openly throw three giant airplanes at the field, and while filming and running around in a pack—suspicious behavior on its own, at that age.

Where are the ushers? We can only conclude that they were laid off for budget cuts. Which means that, like everything else these days, what we’re talking about isn’t a paper airplane, or a collapsing bridge, or a failing school, or a single mother who can’t afford health care. What we’re talking about is the economy.

Look back at the history of paper airplanes we reviewed at the beginning: 1934: Depression. Mid-1970s: Recession. And, 2009: Recession. Paper airplanes, whenever they appear, are a sad reminder that we’re poorer than we used to be. But, with each air pocket pushing them unpredictably upward, they’re also a happy reminder that no trajectory is forever. Better days are ahead.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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