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THE SCHEDULE MAKERS : Team Doing Badly? Blame the Stephensons of Staten Island Like Everyone Else Does

July 27, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Executives and managers ridicule them. Sportswriters and broadcasters question their intelligence. Athletes use them as scapegoats.

All because Henry and Holly Stephenson, master schedule makers, tell them where to go.

In an upstairs bedroom at their three-story home on a dead-end street not far from the Staten Island ferry landing, the Stephensons draw up the playing schedules for major league baseball.

It's a thankless job.

"It's not in anybody's interest to praise the schedule," said Henry, 46, laughing at the prospect. "I've never heard anyone say, 'Thanks to our fabulous schedule, we won the pennant this year.' "

Despite that, the Stephensons can't seem to get enough of their work. In fact, they'd like more.

They also draw up the schedule for the Major Indoor Soccer League. They put together the National Basketball Assn. schedule for seven seasons before the league decided to plan the schedule itself a few years ago. They've had talks with the National Hockey League. And they've drawn up mock schedules for the National Football League.

"It's a very interesting job," said Holly, 41, who minored in math at Cornell. "In the computer field, you tend to do fairly boring things, or you concentrate on one aspect of something. This is interesting because we follow through on the whole process--analyzing the system, doing the programming, and working on the schedule and working with the people involved.

"And then we get to go to the games at the end of the process and actually see our work."

Even with their computer handling about 85% of the work, the Stephensons said their mom-and-pop operation would be hard-pressed to produce schedules for every major American professional sports league. But they also said that it could be done.

They'd like to give it a try, too, probably for the extra money as much as the challenge. Henry would not be specific about their earnings but did say that schedule making was not making them rich. "We make enough to pay the rent," he said.

Not many people know that the major league schedules are their handiwork and probably lots fewer have any idea what's involved.

"We've found that there are two radically different perceptions of how a schedule is made," Henry said. "One is that there's a giant computer system somewhere deep in a mountain and all this complex information is fed in and it spits out a schedule.

"The other perception is, 'What's the problem?' They think it's a simple thing where these guys just write it down somewhere and go play the games."

The truth lies somewhere in between.

Although the computer does most of the work, the trouble shooting is left to the programmers.

"You'd be surprised how much has to be done by pencil," Henry said.

Added Holly: "The computer does the easy part. It will put out a beautiful schedule, but it can't compensate for problems like an arena not being available."

Or the Pope visiting Los Angeles.

Pope John Paul II was scheduled to say Mass at Dodger Stadium Sept. 16, right in the middle of a seven-game Dodger home stand.

The Dodgers, scheduled to play the first game of a two-game series against the Cincinnati Reds that day after winding up a two-game series against the Houston Astros Sept. 15, couldn't trade home series with the Reds because of a Major League Players Assn. rule that requires a day off for a team traveling from the Pacific to the Eastern time zone.

The only solution was for the teams to play a doubleheader Sept. 17, a Dodger Stadium occurrence only slightly less rare than a Papal visit.

Why a computer can't produce a schedule on its own has a lot to do with variables.

Because any team could theoretically play any other team on any given date, the number of possible schedules is "astronomically large," said Sidney Port, a professor of mathematics at UCLA.

Ronald Graham, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Center at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., told Smithsonian magazine that it would take even the fastest existing computer thousands of years to "number crunch" a schedule by considering each and every possibility.

"Real-world constraints throw curveballs at what you're trying to do," Graham told Smithsonian. "If you look at all the possible schedules, you'll get a combinatorial explosion that no computer can deal with in a reasonable amount of time. People are necessary to confine the problem. A machine can't make a judgment call. It can only do what it is told to do."

Enter the Stephensons, who in the mid-'70s were dabbling at computer work and thinking about starting a home business at the same time the NBA was considering an alternative to the late Eddie Gottlieb as its schedule maker.

Gottlieb, who had used the backs of envelopes and any other scraps of paper he could find to draw up each of the league's schedules in the NBA's first 40 years, was in his 80s at the time and ready to retire.

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