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How Do Athletes’ Brains Control Their Movements?

There was no indication that anything unusual was taking place on an early Saturday morning in August at the Hilton Garden Inn, of Avondale, Ariz., other than the piece of loose-leaf paper taped to the wall by the elevator bank. On it was scribbled in black Sharpie: DECERVO TESTING ROOM 307. The room number was underlined. The tone was “no trespassing.” Still, the housekeeper knocked on the door of Room 307 at 8:15 with an armful of fresh towels.

No one answered, so she used her key to enter. When she did, she did a double take. The furniture in the dumbbell-shaped suite had been rearranged completely. The beds were still made and the blinds were drawn. Two scrawny, acne-pocked Latino teenagers in T-shirts and sandals were seated at matching desks on opposite sides of the room staring unblinking at laptop screens. Both wore a sort of thin metallic hairnet, with wires snaking down the back of their necks. A pile of plastic syringes and two padded briefcases lay scattered on the floor. The only sound came from soft, intermittent taps on the laptop keyboards. Neither of the teenagers looked up to see the housekeeper quickly drop the towels off and go.

In the everlasting war for even the slightest competitive advantage in Major League Baseball, the battlefields have come to look a lot different from the playing fields. “Moneyball” changed things. Once the data-driven revolution started, it became difficult to contain, until every team started using advanced analytics to discover new players or rediscover old ones. Then the battle had to be moved someplace else. Those teams that were late to that data revolution had a chance to get ahead in this one. This data revolution required a new type of radar gun, one that could measure in milliseconds.

At 8:25, there was another knock at the door of Room 307. A third baby-faced teenager appeared: Manny, a shortstop, wearing a gray T-shirt and sandals, his eyes puffy and reddened. The boys, they were really just boys, had played in a doubleheader the day before, in the searing Sonoran heat, as the playoffs neared. This being a rookie league team, below Single-A, even below Low-Single-A, every player had recently been drafted or acquired from overseas.

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