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Geeks and Baseball
With the baseball season in full swing, it’s time to remember how geeks and technology have transformed the game of baseball. Over the past three decades, the internet, medical advances, and the globalization media have fundamentally transformed how fans consume baseball and how ballplayers play America’s pastime. Below is a survey of some of the ways technology has effected baseball, and some ideas on how some new technologies will continue to affect baseball.
Baseball, Technology, and Fans
1. Video Games
From the beginning, video games have attempted to replicate baseball. In 1971, Don Daglow at Pomona College wrote ”Baseball.” During the early 1980s, Atari and Mattel also released baseball video games. In 1983, Mattel released Intellivision ”World Series Baseball.” For the first time, players of ”World Series Baseball” could use multiple camera angles to show the action. A gamer could see the batter from a modified “center field” camera, see baserunners in corner insets, and view defensive plays from a camera behind home plate. ”World Series Baseball” also integrated fly balls into their interface.
In 1988, baseball video games made another jump, when Electronic Arts (EA) released ”Earl Weaver Baseball”, which added an actual baseball manager provided run by artificial intelligence. The important of ”Earl Weaver Baseball” was acknowledged by Computer Gaming World in 1996 when it named ”Earl Weaver Baseball” 25th on its list of the Best 150 Games of All Time. This was the second highest ranking for any sports game in that 1981-1996 period behind FPS Sports Football.
Nintendo also hit a homerun, in 1988 when it released ”RBI Baseball.” RBI was the first video game to be licensed through the Major League Baseball Players Association. The game contained authentic major league players and rosters, and not surprisingly was a huge hit with players.
Twenty years after the first baseball video game, ”Tony La Russa Baseball” appeared on shelves across the country. The game made significant advancements in baseball game play. First, ”La Russa” included a circular Fly Ball Cursor that appeared where the ball was going to land, and grew or diminished in size based on the height of the ball. If the wind was blowing the cursor would move its location to reflect the changing course of the ball. The Fly Ball Cursor introduced real fly balls and pop-ups to computer baseball games, eliminating the last segment of the sport that had never been simulated accurately. Second, ”La Russa” allowed users to conduct drafts and set up their own leagues, all with access to the game’s comprehensive player statistics. Third, ”La Russa” was the first baseball game to offer accurate stats for each individual pitcher against each individual hitter, data that actual managers use extensively in the dugout. In contrast to many sports celebrities who merely lent their names to games, Tony La Russa spent extensive sessions over a period of years working to make the game’s artificial intelligence as accurate as possible.
The quality of baseball games has continued to develop since ”La Russa.” The development of EA’s ”MVP Baseball”, Sony’s ”MLB The Show”, Out of the Park Developments’ text-based simulation ”Out of the Park Baseball”, and the and growth of gaming systems (from Genesis to XBox360) has transformed the depth and reality of baseball games. Even players themselves admit to using them prepare for games. According to an FHM article written by 2004 AL Cy Young Winner Johan Santana (April 2006 pg. 113), “I can see the hitting zones of each player and statistically where he doesn’t like the ball. I can also get a feel for when he will swing at fastballs and when he may not expect a change-up. I wouldn’t say that I would pitch to a guy in a real-life game the same way, but it gives you ideas of how to approach certain hitters.”
2. Internet Fantasy Baseball
Hate it (girlfriends, wives) or love it (practically every baseball fan), fantasy baseball has become as popular as the sport itself. Once regulated to stat junkies who painfully calculated and managed everything on their own, the expansion of the internet has allowed millions of fans to participate in leagues with friends and other fans throughout the country. This couldn’t possibly affect the actual sport itself right? Wrong. Fantasy Baseball has a huge impact on fan interest. Did your team throw in the towel mid-season, or currently in an unwatchable rebuilding year? That’s OK. You can still follow your fantasy team and can continue to watch games involving your players via the MLB Baseball Cable Package. Major League Baseball is a product, and anything that allows your customers to constantly read, write, and talk (thus promoting) about your product in a passionate way becomes important.
Fantasy baseball would not have becomes popular without technology. Computers and the internet ushered in this sports revolution. The advent of powerful computers and the Internet revolutionized fantasy baseball, allowing scoring to be done entirely by computer, and allowing leagues to develop their own scoring system, often based on less popular statistics. In this way, fantasy baseball has become a sort of in-time simulation of baseball, and allowed many fans to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how the real-world game works.
According to a recent Fortune article, the “American male’s obsession with sports is nothing new, but try this on for size: More than half of fantasy sports fanatics spend over an hour a day just thinking about their teams.” Fantasy baseball is a ”billion dollar industry.” However, Much like the RIAA and MPAA, Major League Baseball is putting clamps on the fantasy technology that fueled professional baseball’s rebirth after the 1996 strike. MLB has decided to dramatically restructure how it licenses companies that run fantasy games on the Web. Official licensees will now likely be restricted to a Big Three of ESPN, CBS Sportsline, and Yahoo! (some reports add AOL and The Sporting News as well). “Mom and pop” shops that helped usher the fantasy baseball phenomenon into existence will be severely limited by the licensing deal. They will only be allowed information to service 5,000 customers apiece. Everyone else using baseball statistics to run small fantasy leagues will have to choose between scaling back their operations, closing up shop, or receiving a visit from MLB’s lawyers.
3. User Created Media
Before the internet, media creation was limited to professionals. Newspapers, radio, television, and niche sports magazines like Sports Illustrated possessed a virtual stranglehold over the dissemination of sports news and information.
The first user created sports media occurred with the advent of Sports Talk radio. An extension of talk radio, which has existed since the 1940s, sports talk radio took off in the early 1980s. Today, over 30 major sports talk radio stations exist throughout the country. Sports talk radio provided fans a soapbox to voice their complaints, thoughts, and analysis of sports. However, instead of ranting only to their friends and family, sports talk radio gave fans the ability to transmit their ideas to a potentially large audience.
Wanting a voice, sports fans used technology to disseminate their ideas over the internet. The first of these technologies was sports messageboard communities. While sports messageboards have never reached mainstream popularity, they have a solid presence on the net. A quick search for “baseball messageboards” in Google will return over 8.5 million hits.
Internet messageboards also represented the first Petri dish for user-created media. This sentiment is best exemplified by a scandal that occurred at the beginning of the 2000 season. Bobby Valentine, then the New York Mets manager, gave a lecture at the Wharton School of Business — an “off-the-record” talk. But “off-the-record” is only a term relevant to journalists. While the ”Daily Pennsylvanian” (Penn’s school newspaper), gave a perfunctory mention to the speech, one student-attendee went much further. Brad Rosenberg, using the username brad34, logged onto a Mets message board and claimed that Bobby V blasted some players and management. The mainstream media ran with it; then-general manager Steve Phillips hopped on a plane to Pittsburgh to pow-wow with Valentine; and minor scandal was in the works.
Today, the phenomenon that started on message boards has extended to blogs. Over the past two years, blogs have exploded. Everyone (from grandmas to infants) are starting their own blogs, and not surprisingly a number of these blogs talk about sports. Blogs provide individuals with the community of a sports talk radio and potentially infinite world-wide reach. A powerful combination. Today, there are approximately, http://sportsblogs.org/sports.php?subject=Blogs, 1158 baseball blogs floating around the internet.
4. Satellite Television
Satellites beam baseball games around the world, fueling global baseball. While the first satellite television signals were relayed in the early 1960s, widespread consumer television reception took off in the 1980s. For the first time, geography did not limit the dissemination of moving pictures. Television’s power with no geographic limits translated into new opportunities for major league baseball.
By the late 1990s, baseball games could be seamlessly and relatively inexpensively transmitted throughout the globe. This allowed Major League Baseball to reach into foreign labor and commercial markets, most notably Japan. Without satellite television, the Seattle Mariners probably would have passed on MVP outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the New York Yankees would have passed on All-Star Hideki Matsui. Satellite television helped transform regional icons like Ichiro and Matsui into worldwide phenomenon.
Today, if you take a trip to Japan, you might see Hideki Matsui’s at-bat broadcasted in a a Tokyo bar, subway station, or even on the side of a building. Satellite Television helps baseball remain on the march.
Baseball, Technology, and Players
5. Improved Surgeries
Before 1974, if you were a pitcher and happen to tear your unlar collaterl ligament in the ‘ol elbow, you would be trading in your hat and spikes for a suit and tie. Dr. Frank Jobe changed the fortunes of hundreds of future professional pitchers when LA Dodgers pitcher Tommy John asked him to “make up something” after he was diagnosed with the career-threatening injury. The procedure, now famously called “Tommy John Surgery” , consists of having the ligament in the elbow replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body (often from the forearm, hamstring, or foot). Today, retirement is not the only ending, as success rate for this type of surgery is estimated at 85% – 90%. Recovery time is down to about a year for pitchers, and a half a year for hitters. In fact, pitchers often come back throwing a few
extra MPH on the fastball. Just think, without this procedure, Mariano Rivera, star closer for the New York Yankees, would not have been able to nail down all of those post-season victories and 4 recent World Series titles! Yankee fans
everywhere owe you a big thank you Dr. Frank Jobe.
6. Eye Enhancemants
Many professional athletes have gone through a well known laser eye surgery called LASIK. LASIK, an acronym for Laser-assisted In Situ Keratomileusis, is a form of refractive laser eye surgery procedure performed by ophthalmologists intended for correcting vision. Since baseball players rely heavily on their sight to pick up a 95 MPH fastball whizzing past their noggin, it makes sense that LASIK has been so important. Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Cirillo, Jeff Conine, Jose Cruz Jr., Wally Joyner, Greg Maddux, Mark Redman, and Larry Walker have all reportedly upgraded their vision to 20/15 or better. The popularly of LASIK surgery has led the Minnesota Twins’ medical staff to diligently educate its players about the benefits and risks of LASIK surgery.
Similarily, a contact lens designed by Bausch and Lomb and marketed by Nike has been made to aid hitters. The lenses are red and filter out certain shades to allow you to see the seams on a fastball. The quicker the batter can follow the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand, the quicker they can react to it. Is this any different than steroids?
QuesTec is a digital media company known mostly for its controversial Umpire Information System (UIS) which is used by Major League Baseball for the purpose of providing feedback and evaluation of big league umpires. The company, based out of Deer Park, New York, has been mostly involved in television replay and graphics throughout its history. In 2001, however, the company signed a 5-year contract with Major League Baseball to use its “pitch tracking” technology as a means to review the performance of home plate umpires during baseball games.
The UIS system consists of 4 cameras placed at strategic locations around a ballpark that feed into a computer network and records the locations of pitches throughout the course of a game. Computer software then generates CDs that umpires and their higher-ups can review and learn from. These CDs include video of the pitches as well as graphic representations of their locations plus feedback on the umpires’ accuracy.
Controversy over the Umpire Information System surfaced over the next several years as umpires and players alike voiced concern over the system’s accuracy on one side, and the partial and potentially biased coverage of major league games on the other. The company installed its cameras and computers in only 10 of the 30 stadiums around the league. Umpires filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to get rid of the technology; meanwhile a more hands-on approach was taken by Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling. Schilling used a bat to smash one of QuesTec’s field cameras, an act that led to a fine for the former World Series MVP.
8. Stat Analysis
Over the past few years, several teams throughout Major League Baseball have changed their approach to running their organization. Traditionally, players are evaluated by scouts using stats that have been around for centuries, such as Runs Batted In, Batting Average, and just how fast a pitcher can throw. The “Moneyball” school of thought (named after a book by Michael M. Lewis released in 2003 about the general manager of the Major League Baseball team Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane) believe this method to be subjective and flawed. Now, General Managers will evaluate their players directly from their laptops, that crunch all sorts of numbers that are centered around the ability to not record an out (hey, that is the general basis of the game, innit?). So who can draft a better ballteam, a Windows XP machine (with service pack 2 of course – without it will draft all Minnie Mendoza’s) or a scout that has seen millions of innings of baseball over the last 30+ years?
We can’t have a baseball article without mentioning the S-Word now can we? Steroids are an invention of modern medicine. German scientists first developed anabolic steroids in the 1940s, learning to produce testosterone in a laboratory setting.
Now, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters have written a book detailing Barry Bonds’ steroid use, called ”Game of Shadows”, which goes into a lot of detail behind everything Bonds did to chemically enhance his body. Bonds allegedly used every conceivable method of steroid use, including pills, liquid, creams, and injections (by himself and trainer). His methods obviously worked (though there was no testing to get around), because Bonds (now 41 years old) bulked up tremendously over the past 8 years and starting hitting homers at record paces.
The more that comes out about these players, the more 1995-2004 will be forever known as the “steroid era.” We might never know exactly who took steroids during this time, but everyone will definitely treat the stats over the last decade with skepticism. Now that MLB has finally started testing the players, will certain players desperate for that extra edge try new technologies that can’t be detected? Its ironic though. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa practically saved the sport after the 1994 strike by captivating the fans with their 1998 chase for Roger Maris’ home run record of 61. Now, after numerous congress hearings and a lot of “no comments,” their reputations are completely tarnished due to alleged steroid use. Yet they may have saved baseball.
Future of Baseball and Technology
10. User Controlled Broadcast
Just this week, Rupert Murdoch, speaking to the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, said: “A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it and very much as they want it.” What does this mean for baseball?
Baseball on demand will continue to develop. Wait, one minute! Can’t I already get baseball on demand? I can buy the MLB Package on cable tv or can stream every game with MLB.TV. True, but we’re talking about the future here, and the scope of on-demand sports will only broaden over the next couple of decades.
Don’t be surprised if Major League Baseball takes a cue from video games and starts to give consumers control over how they watch a baseball game. Imagine the following: you turn on a ballgame and with your remote control you are given the option of choosing the camera angle you want to view the game. You want to watch the game from the catchers perspective, click your remote and you can what a big league slider looks look. Want to watch a play from an outfielder’s perspective? Its your choice, you control how you want to view the game.
Fans will also be given the opportunity to choose an announcer. Think Joe Morgan should be fired? Why be forced to listen to his broadcast? Instead, fans will be given a choice between a wide range of announcers. Want funny announcers? Click. Want home-town announcers? Want to hear the game in Russian? Click. Its your call.
Don’t be surprised if many of these announcers aren’t hired by a professional sports teams. Instead, these announcers might be your neighbor, your friend, or even your grandma. The continued growth of podcasting and the inevitable maturation of podcasting distribution channels will make it easy for anyone to try their luck out as a professional broadcaster.
11. Information Markets to Predict Gameplay
Information markets aggregate information in an attempt and appear to be the best tool human’s have to predict future events. Building on the ideas of Friedrich Hayek, various different professions and organizations have begun using information markets to help them make better decisions. For example, the Iowa Electronic Markets, TradeSports, and WahlStreet have predict election outcomes better than opinion polls. Google also uses information markets forecast product launch dates, new office openings, and many other things of strategic importance to Google.
How does an information market work? Information markets aggregate the decisions of individuals and translate those decisions into a consensus probability that a given future event will occur. For example, at Google, the company issues stocks for 146 events in 43 different subject areas (no payment is required to play). Much like a stock market, Google employees buy and sell these shares reaching a market price–the consensus decision. Google looks at these market prices when deciding whether to make an important decision.
The same tool that has helped transform Google to one of the most powerful companies in the world will eventually be employed by professional baseball teams to make important baseball decisions. Baseball teams will use these markets to decide when to promote their a prospect from AAA to the majors, whether or not they should trade their aging star for a young prospect.
Just as baseball statistics transformed the operation of baseball teams in the 1990s and 2000s, information markets will transform the way baseball organizations operate in the future.
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