It was the ninth inning of a Major League Baseball game that would make history for the wrong reason.
The crowd waited to erupt in celebration of MLB’s unprecedented third “perfect game” of the season – contests in which a pitcher allows no baserunners in an entire game of at least nine innings. Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers wound up for what should have been his last pitch. The batter connected for a ground ball, which shot toward the hole between first and second bases. Galarraga rushed to cover the first-base bag as the first baseman moved away to scoop up the ball and throw it to Galarraga; Galarraga’s mitt closed over the ball and his right foot touched down on the base, one step ahead of the runner.
But in a call that instantly became the subject of invective, tears and countless media stories, the first-base umpire called the runner safe. Replays quickly proved the call to be incorrect.
That heart-rending game was on June 2, 2010, well within the era of high-def, computer-augmented everything, but MLB was still relying on the human eye for close and crucial calls. Something had to change.
It was exactly the kind of real-world technical challenge that attracted Chris Marinak, who graduated in 2002 from the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science with a degree in computer engineering. Marinak is now senior vice president of league economics and strategy for MLB – not necessarily the first job title that springs to mind for a person with a computer programming background.
After the Galarraga mistake, Marinak helped lead the project to design MLB’s state-of-the-art, instant-replay system, which after a little more than a year of implementation, feedback (positive and negative) and adjustments, will back up calls for a second World Series beginning Tuesday.
Prior to the 2014 season, only questionable home runs had been subject to instant replay and overturned calls. Now, video of every play in every game – regular-season or postseason – is fed to a replay command center in New York City. Team managers and umpire crew chiefs can ask for review from the command center, where umpires staff video monitors to review the plays in question, make official rulings and communicate them back to the chief umpires on the field.
“It’s an incredibly advanced center that we’ve built,” Marinak said. “There are something like 55 TVs on the wall. On any given night, we can have 15 games going on with dozens of camera angles streamed live from each park. It’s a good, real-world application of technology.”
Marinak, who pitched for the UVA baseball team, is living his dream. After graduating from UVA, he went to work for Capital One’s Information Technology division, where he focused on projects related to customer marketing.
“I enjoyed all that, but I knew right away that I was more interested in the application of technology versus the creation of the technology,” he said. He stayed connected to baseball, coaching high school players in Northern Virginia and Richmond.
On his application essay for Harvard Business School, Marinak wrote about his hope to use his technical and business acumen in professional sports. It was about the time the 2004 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” by Michael Lewis, had become a national sensation. The book showed how the Oakland Athletics used data to build a winning team and challenge traditional decision-making that other major-league teams held as incontrovertible.
While he was at Harvard, Marinak pitched himself – hard – to all 30 major league teams, explaining his interest in getting a job after business school. That led to a contact for an internship with MLB, focused on helping develop a database of all league, team and player statistics going back to 1876. It was “big data” for baseball.
“That’s a direct application of my engineering background,” Marinak said. “A lot of the computer courses I took were directly relevant to that project. It really helped our teams in terms of being able to analyze their players and to understand whether they wanted to sign a player, trade a player, bring up a player from the minor leagues. It allowed them to make those decisions much more easily.”
Eventually, Marinak’s networking and solid contributions to the database project paid off, because he was offered his full-time job with MLB before graduating from Harvard in 2008.
“The Engineering School teaches you how to balance your life and your workload – how to be effective in a real-world scenario, especially a business scenario.” - Chris Marinak
In addition to the historical database and the instant-replay system, Marinak led a 2009 project to make MLB’s medical records system electronic. Instead of paper records following players after signing and trades, now all records are instantly available to the managers and trainers who must help keep players healthy.
Last spring, Sports Business Journal named Marinak to its “40 Under 40” list of up-and-coming sports executives.
Marinak credits his Engineering School experience – juggling a full, demanding course load and a heavy athletic schedule – with preparing him for life in New York City, working for a major business enterprise while also starting his family. He and his wife, Jennifer, have a toddler daughter.
“The Engineering School curriculum, where you have four or five hours of class a day and four or five hours of research, and then you have a life on top of that, that’s what the real world is like,” he said. “You have a career and a family and a life. The Engineering School teaches you how to balance your life and your workload – how to be effective in a real-world scenario, especially a business scenario.”
The skill set also is broadly applicable to many different careers that might not spring to mind when people think of engineering. So far for Marinak, there are no Galarraga-style regrets about what might have been.
“You can be passionate about anything in life, and engineering is something you can apply to it,” he said.