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Youngsters are taking to an MIT program that teaches science by utilizing physics of baseball

Akeem Lindo of MIT’s Science of Baseball cheers during the afternoon game. Of the morning class, he said, “Teachers talk to you in a way that’s fun.’’ Akeem Lindo of MIT’s Science of Baseball cheers during the afternoon game. Of the morning class, he said, “Teachers talk to you in a way that’s fun.’’ (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - Yogi Berra once said you can’t think and hit at the same time.

However, the New York Yankees legend never attended the MIT Science of Baseball program. It encourages eighth- and ninth-grade inner-city boys to learn baseball-related math and physics each morning and then apply those principles on the ballfield in the afternoon.

Picture it as Pythagoras meets Pedroia.

By all accounts, the unique four-week, tuition-free program is a home run.

Half of the 30 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced meals at Boston and Cambridge schools. Some worry more about bullets than baseballs; “safe at home’’ is just a baseball term.

The students typically learn why a curveball curves, a knuckleball knuckles, and how the force-velocity curve affects muscles and the human skeleton.

Head coach and program director Andy Andres, assisted by four MIT varsity baseball players, thinks nothing of whizzing beach balls or hardballs around the classroom to prove a hypothesis. Then on the field, the players speak their own language. Nobody here yells “can of corn.’’

“When on a baseball field have you ever heard somebody yell ‘moment of inertia’ and people know what you mean?’’ said Andres, with a laugh.

The students are more than willing to go the distance.

Akeem Lindo, 14, of Hyde Park, gets up at 5:45 to take two buses to get to MIT in time for class. His friends make fun of him. This is his second year in the program.

“I say, ‘Hey, at least I go to a college for summer school,’ ’’ he said.

Administrators here say they would love to nurture his talents. MIT wants the diversity.

“He told me he wants to be an engineer and design instruments for doctors and you could just see the lights going on,’’ said Kate Youmans, manager of the middle school programs at MIT. “A year ago I don’t think he knew what an engineer was.’’

There are no girls in the program, a dilemma MIT has wrestled with for years.

“There’s an achievement gap where eighth- and ninth-grade boys are more likely to fail and fall through the cracks than girls,’’ said Youmans. “They have a lot of pressure from their peers that it’s not cool to be smart anymore.’’

Tajae Smith, 14, of Mattapan was initially skeptical of the program and he took some heat in the neighborhood.

“At first I thought it was going to be all work and no play,’’ he said. “It’s two hours a day of classes and then all baseball. It’s actually pretty cool because we’re learning new things, things I’ve never done.’’

Statistics in baseball are everywhere, he said.

“We do Red Sox stuff, we do Yankees stuff, but we boo when they say Yankees,’’ said Smith. “Actually, everybody wants to learn how to calculate their statistics themselves.’’

One statistic Smith wants to avoid is the growing casualty list amongst inner-city teens. Smith lives with his grandmother, he says his mother lives next door, and he does not want to discuss his father.

“This program means a lot to me, that I have enough knowledge to be here,’’ he said. “We live next to the projects. We just try to stay safe and stay out of the ’hood. Now I think I might be a baseball player or maybe an engineer. I like building stuff and this program is just so much fun.’’

This day, the fun was to be shared. Baseball For All - a group dedicated to providing baseball opportunities, especially for girls - was invited to visit MIT for the first time.

In the classroom, Andres explains the theory of Projectile Velocity as A.J. Hansborough, MIT’s baseball captain, tosses a ball.

“As you can see if you throw it straight up, it will come straight down; that’s not a good way to get distance with a baseball,’’ said Andres, a senior lecturer at Boston University who also moonlights charting pitches at Fenway Park for boston.redsox.mlb.com. “You’ve got to get the right launch angle to get the most distance.’’

Later, outside in Killian Court, the students hurl baseballs that are measured by distance, accuracy, velocity, and hang time. The homework is plugging the numbers into the Pythagorean theorem because not everyone throws in a straight line.

“You’ll figure it out,’’ said Andres. “We’re going to have fun.’’

At lunch, it’s baseball trivia time. The students are asked to name the San Diego Padres closer. (Answer: Heath Bell.) The first group that answers correctly gets to go to the buffet table without waiting.

After lunch, the boys mix with the girls to play baseball.

Michaela Sihler, 15, a high school pitcher from Port St. Lucie, Fla., who has had to overcome gender discrimination to pitch high school ball, is beaming. She may not know much about Newton’s Law, but she smoked a line-drive double toward Newton, Mass.

“Today has been an all-around great day,’’ she said. “I saw another side of baseball - the physics of baseball, and it’s really neat.’’

Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball for All and the first woman to toss batting practice to a major league team, is also duly impressed. She contacted MIT and broke down yet another barrier.

“The classroom time was phenomenal,’’ said Siegal. “Let’s not make this the end, let’s make this the beginning.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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