Invasion of the Otterbots

It’s a quiet evening along the water—until a glowing set of eyes peers at you over the river bank. You convince yourself it’s just a pair of fireflies. But then there’s more of them. And more.

And more.

Then there’s the quiet, seamless grind of their gears as they pull themselves onto dry land and bound toward you with the same sleekness they have in the water: The effortless instinct of nature, programmed into a machine.

It’s far too late to run. And the only final thoughts you can muster are: Otter-bots? But… why…?

Why, indeed. Fortunately, when the Otterbots descended upon Danville, Virginia this past winter, they did so as a new summer collegiate wood-bat franchise in the Appalachian League, not a horde of semiaquatic cuddle-bugs converted into killing machines.

So if it’s not “terrorizing the waterfront,” then what are Otterbots doing in Danville? This summer, the burgeoning Virginia STEM hub is going to find out. And fortunately, no one has to die.

***

Like a theoretical horde of river-dwelling killbots, the future is in a constant state of arrival. It can be jarring, damaging, and confusing at times. But with the right education, even an Otterbot can make a little more sense.

We are now living in a future that top minds foresaw decades ago. In 1994, in a coastal Virginia town four hours east of Danville called Poquoson, William L. Sellers III stated that the next generation needed nothing more than it would need science, technology, engineering, and math. Sellers had a masters degree and worked as a research engineer in fluid dynamics with NASA, as well as being a member of the local school board. Science had served him well, but as he explained, the whole point was for science to serve us all.

“Our country’s future depends on the children that are in the schools now,” Sellers said according to the Daily Press out of Newport News, Virginia. STEM was going to be an ingrained element in the coming years; a daily part of every job, career, and life. Not just for future NASA research engineers studying by flashlight in their lockers, but for the future versions of other classic mid-90s vocations that would surely remain common, like skating rink proprietors, unemployed documentarians, and coffee-house guitarists.

Almost 30 years after Seller’s proclamation, STEM is so a part of daily life we don’t even notice it, which a lot of people were able to see coming, given, again, that a NASA research engineer had said that would be the case.

That same year, Dr. Julie Brown arrived in Danville to teach at the Governor’s School for Global Economics and Technology. She is now the Director of Advanced Learning at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research there, and has invested in STEM as heavily as she’s invested in Danville itself, starting two local businesses in addition to her day job. And here in 2021, Dr. Brown is saying the same thing Seller said the year she got here, believing that STEM will be a foundational part of every human future from now on.

“As we think about opportunities in the future, we know that they are going to require our young people to have a certain level of mastery of the STEM disciplines,” Dr. Brown says. “And as we transition to an economy that’s more focused on [technology], there’s an opportunity to engage in technology and understand it, whether that’s in software development or programming, being able to problem solve or troubleshoot that technology, and really just a willingness to embrace new technology and change.”

Who knows what scientific accomplishments the next 30 years will see develop. Perhaps Danville will be the birthplace of the first fully robotic umpire. (But what if its creators aren’t well versed enough in STEM fields to prevent the new umpires’ inevitable betrayal, undeserved pomposity, and disinterest in accountability? We’d be right back to where we are now.) More exposure to STEM fields could work out the kinks and with the Otterbots in town, the IALR has a new STEM-delivery system: a very old sport.

“The baseball team provides that relevance,” Dr. Brown explains. “[Baseball provides] ways that we can talk to kids about area, perimeter, motion, gravity; we can talk about them in a math class, but if we can connect to the things that young people are interested in—and the world that they see and make them hands-on—it brings these subjects to life, and it answers the why: ‘Why do I need to know this?’”

The IALR is right around the corner from the Ottersbots’ renovated ballpark, American Legion Field. So how does a baseball team contribute to the STEM education for which its neighbors are advocating?

“Ideally, we’d be partnering with the baseball team to have a summer STEM camp where we’re taking kids over to the ballpark and we’re engaging them in real life math activities and physics and STEM disciplines and introducing these topics in a relevant way that lets them get outside and run around,” Dr. Brown says. “We want the opportunity to host teachers. And we want to make this community stickier–we want more people coming here.”

Danville is a place like a lot of others. The industries that built it (tobacco, textiles, railroads) have dried up. Now there’s fresh, sterile condominiums downtown. Some are thrilled about the art collective; some are worried the city is trying too hard to attract newcomers and not doing enough for the people who already live there. There’s an Amtrak stop. A couple of state high school golf titles. A casino that’s become a hot topic of debate. A highly walkable river district. And more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the Commonwealth.

Baseball has been here a lot, too. In the 1905 season of the Virginia-North Carolina League, Danville was the only reason “Virginia” was in the league’s name. When it was announced the league would disband that season, the Danville club played out the stretch with a bunch of exhibition games throughout their home state, which drew such interest that somebody got the crazy idea to form a “Virginia League,” according to Baseball and Richmond, A History of the Professional Game, 1884-2000 by W. Harrison Daniel and Scott P. Mayer

The mayor of Danville was 90 years old when he threw out the first pitch of the season in 1934 while a brass band played him on and off the field, wrote Danville’s The Bee. At the time, the team was owned by a local businessman who employed three of the players and the manager in his warehouses over the winter. This was to both get them paid and keep them in shape — two of them needed to gain some weight, he noted; one of them had the weight and just needed more muscle.

In 1954, the Danville squad had three local boys in training camp, as we learn from a picture of them in The Bee playing pinochle in their dorm. The manager that year was Andy Gilbert, who had returned to baseball after breaking his neck sliding into second while simultaneously being hit in the head by the catcher’s throw. The year after his injury, he played in 118 games for Danville. A hero.

And now, Danville has the Otterbots, a franchise eager to build off what and who Danville is, and in some ways, has always been. As the future continues to relentlessly and annoyingly arrive, an already underway transformation will come complete before the next one begins.

“The Otterbots represent that transformation,” Dr. Brown says.

***

First, the stuff you want to know:

Is an “Otterbot” an otter that has been turned into a robot, or a robot built to look like an otter?

The first one.

Are we more likely to see an otter or a robot take part in pre-game activities?

A robot.

Do Otterbots have souls?

Yes.

What other names did they consider?

“Apparently there is a Sasquatch-esque creature rumored to be living in the Appalachian Mountains, colloquially referred to as a ‘Woodbooger,” says Otterbots GM Austin Scher. “I did not know that until I saw that name come through [as a suggestion].”

What names did they not consider?

“Ospreys’ was never an option,” says Ryan Keur, who, with his wife Brittany, owns the Otterbots and another Appalachian League franchise, the Burlington Sock Puppets, through their company, Knuckleball Entertainment, LLC.

His aversion to “ospreys” as a concept is understandable. Years ago, the minor league Daytona Tortugas blasted a salvo of fireworks after their home opener in 2018. One fan noticed as the smoke and debris came back down to earth that a pair of ospreys had nested on top of the left field lights and may have been in peril.

No one wants the flaming carcass of a sea bird crashing through the windows of one of their box suites. When the issue was brought up, Keur, the Tortugas’ team president at the time, had the direction of their fireworks cannon changed and had a new structure built away from the field where the ospreys could nest the following year out of harm’s way.

“I thought I was never going to have to answer an osprey question ever again,” he says.

His story about preventing pyrotechnic-related sea bird fatalities is indicative of another challenge for a new ball team in town: Organizations with any intention of being part of a community need to be active participants. The town’s people are their fans. Its struggles are the team’s struggles. Its causes are the team’s causes. Whether the team choose to address that or not determines the legitimacy of any claims that it is, in fact, a member of the community.

“I think at the center of our entire business model is becoming entrenched within our communities and being much more than just a baseball team,” says Keur, a five-time Minor League Executive of the Year. “The players come in and out, but at the end of the day, we’re here from an organizational standpoint 365 days a year. So how do we continue to have an impact, day in and day out, on our community and utilize baseball as that conduit for how we engage with the community?”

Step one is to dispatch your most talkative executive to shake people’s hands.

“If you were to walk around the city of Danville, and you were to walk into the city council chambers, or a bar in town, or a rotary meeting, and you were to ask about the Danville baseball team, everybody would know who the Danville Otterbots are,” Keur says, crediting Scher for the rapidly spreading name recognition. “And I think that’s a testament to the aggressive nature that we had in entering the market; we were really confident in our ability for what we could do for this community.”

Not bad for a place where a city councilman once stood up at a town meeting in 1974 and announced that “professional baseball is dead,” per the Danville Register.

That was 47 years ago, so clearly, he was reading the room wrong. The statement was referencing Danville’s campaign to attract a big league club, as Danville’s collective interest level in baseball had been deemed unworthy of one: That summer, two Carolina League games had been staged in Danville to gauge public interest and a total of 637 people had shown up to watch. But big league ball is never the only game in town. Around the same time, 1,200 boys, ages eight to 18, had participated in three local little league programs, wrote the Register. The kids loved baseball, and organizers loved the money the town would get from hosting youth tournaments. Their failure to attract a big club of their own was grim, but did nothing to keep baseball out of Danville, because nothing ever really had.

The Appalachian League was labeled “Class D” at various times since 1911, meaning the populations of its teams’ cities were no higher than 200,000. From 1963 until last year, it was a Rookie League fostering the development of, at various times, Twins, Braves, Rays, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Mets, Yankees, and Reds prospects.

When MLB hacked off a few fingers of its minor league system in an attempt to fix baseball (and in the process, removed its product from a host of small towns), the Appy League was spared by being re-designated as a wood-bat circuit for college freshmen and sophomores. It is now part of the Prospect Development Pipeline, which is “the collaborative effort between MLB and USA Baseball that establishes a player development pathway for amateur baseball players in the United States.”

That’s the league in which the Otterbots will see action this summer at American Legion Field. Following the pandemic-shortened year, as well as MLB trying to force the future to arrive by moving bases and mounds around, fiddling with the ball, and inventing baserunners when games take too long to end, part of the joy of the 2021 season will simply be playing baseball at all.

“We were going on 13, 14 months without being able to open to the public,” Scher says. “Looking forward to what will hopefully be a very long and successful tenure with the Otterbots here in Danville, and being able to start fresh on the heels of a summer without baseball, is huge. In a situation like this—when the league has undergone changes, and baseball has undergone changes, players have undergone changes in high school, college, and indie leagues—from a community standpoint, being able to attach ourselves to the town and to the people and being able to build from the ground up with this new identity… my mind is racing right now, because it’s exciting.”

Given the current minor league landscape, Scher knows how lucky he is to be standing here, tearing up at the thought of his first ballpark dog of the season.

“There are several communities that, six to eight months ago, were fighting for their lives and have not been able to find new homes either in an existing league or a new league. I hurt for those communities. I also feel fortunate to be part of this new Appalachian League.”

Each community has a chance to create or intensify their identities. In previous seasons, each Appalachian League team just inherited the name of their major league parent club. Scher sees appeal in each of the towns, from Greeneville to Burlington, having their own distinct identity, inspired by the towns in which they play, not the big league affiliate to whom they surrender all their best players.

“I think every team nailed the rebrand,” Scher says. “But I think we did the best.”

“The things that we continued to hear, and then we continued to get submissions about were built around advanced machinery and this kind of next generation look towards automation and robotics,” Keur says. “There was so much good information that we continued to learn about that we wanted to try and bundle it all together and build a name that really encompassed all these different elements.”

Choosing to lean into Danville’s STEM scene makes the Otterbots part of the local action. There’s the Danville Science Center, where you can learn about the parallels between the physics of humans and machines and race a virtual Usain Bolt. The IALR deploys a 45-foot mobile vehicle into the community called The Inspiration Lab for hands-on STEM education activities across Southern Virginia. In 2013, the Academy for Engineering and Technology started offering a dual-enrollment program for STEM-focused high school juniors and seniors in Danville. Wendell Scott, one of the first African-American NASCAR drivers and the first African-American winner of a race in the Grand National Series, is honored in his hometown of Danville through the foundation that bears his name, which has a “Steer into STEM” program for youth in the Dan River Region.

It’s almost like STEM is inescapable, whether you know or acknowledge it’s there or not. And with all this science and math buzzing around, the only thing left to do is send it to the future.

That’s why the Otterbots and their partners will march kids over from the IALR and teach them about objects in motion. They will host a summer coding camp this June. They will hold the first annual #BOTS STEM Night, honoring teachers and highlighting the George Washington High School Cyber Team. They will help bring baseball and softball into the elementary school physical education curriculums. They will start a summer reading program with Danville Public Schools. They will honor an educator at every home game. They hope to have physics demonstrations between innings. They will teach kids that STEM has never been more present in baseball than right now, and you don’t have to be an All-Star center fielder to have a career in baseball.

“We’re seeing where we can fill the gap and continue to utilize baseball as a great way to educate the community,” Keur says.

***

The Dan River, 214 miles long as it swerves through North Carolina and Virginia, is dwarfed in size and fame by the nation’s longer, wider waterways, more commonly referred to in classic literature. But enough otters can still frolic and snooze in the waters of the Dan that they were a popular suggestion for Danville’s new ball club as well. The Dan River Twins is a children’s book by Cyndy Unwin about a pair of otter siblings, Danny and Mist, on the day of the Otter Frolics, an event in which all the young otters of the Dan gather to see who is “the fastest, the swimmiest, the climbiest, and best of all, the slide-iest.”

Despite its smaller size, in 2014, the Dan River was still the site of the third largest toxic spill in U.S. history when a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of “poisonous sludge and slurry” into a river that was minding its own business. It makes you wonder why we’re so wary of a robot apocalypse, with humans so eager to do the job themselves.

When the killbots do come, they won’t be otters; they’ll be silent, airborne, and precise. They’ll also be here soon. Already in MLB, we see hints of technology’s first attempts to confuse and destroy us. But each blessed year that science (or humans wielding it) doesn’t betray and murder us all, we can use it to prepare the next generation for a future in which there will be even more of it. Because there always will be.

Baseball, with a smaller minor league circuit than in previous years and an inexplicable need to black out viewers from watching their local major league squads, doesn’t have that same assurance anymore. But in Danville, the Otterbots, in addition to local educators, authors, and organizations, will join an effort to strengthen a modern aspect of the town’s infrastructure and offer pathways to the future for its younger residents.

“It’s an opportunity to create community,” Dr. Brown says, but it’s not just that. It’s the opportunity to create overlap between communities: Just as STEM education can be furthered through baseball, so can a community itself, where people can gather to see who is the science-iest, the technology-est, the math-iest, and the most engineerful.

“Our natural tendency is to be together with other people,” she says. “We’re social creatures. We want to convene. Baseball games are opportunities to bring people together; people who may not [regularly] interact with each other. It’s a way to create a different community.”

Every community can benefit from the STEM fields, and a lucky few can benefit from baseball, too. The combination can hopefully be as productive as those behind it are imagining as they keep one eye on the ball and one eye on the future.

…and maybe a quick glimpse at the riverbank once in a while.

Just in case.





Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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Doug Lampertmember
11 months ago

Having now gone to our local minor league team’s home games, I’m glad that someone out there got a name possibly even worse than Rocket City Trash Pandas.

Possibly STEM people need to be kept away from naming things, otherwise it’s just a matter of time before we get Bally McBaseFace.