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Take tech out to the ball game--sort of

Some of pro baseball's lowest-level teams incorporate technology into lives of coaches, players, fans. Photos: Minor league tech

PASCO, Wash.--I've come to this town near the Oregon/Washington border to see where professional baseball begins for a lot of players, and to see how technology is incorporated into the games they play and the teams they play for.

This is the home of the Tri-City Dust Devils, an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. For a comparison of what technology is being used, I visited Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, home of the Oakland Athletics' affiliate Vancouver Canadians. Both teams are members of the Northwest League, a class-A league.

Baseball stadiums

The answer? Technology hasn't caught up in a big way for these two teams, which are just the second step players must take up six rungs of minor league baseball on their hopeful journey toward the major leagues.

But hidden amid the bats and balls, ushers and beer salesmen, are pockets of technology that are helping these teams do business and assisting their parent clubs in evaluating the talent (or lack thereof) they have on their hands.

Surprisingly, the most obvious piece of technology in use at both ballparks is widespread, strong Wi-Fi connectivity. I , while their major league parent, the A's, don't. But at the time, I thought it must be a fluke that Vancouver's ballpark had Wi-Fi.

Then, upon my arrival Tuesday in Pasco while on my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest, I discovered that Dust Devil Stadium also had amazing wireless connectivity. Whether there's a baseball-related reason for that is not entirely clear, however.

"We switched our wireless Internet service to another company (this year)," and it was the owner of that company's idea to provide free Wi-Fi, said Darrel Ebert, the Dust Devils' general manager. "I don't know why a fan would ever want to bring a computer to a baseball game. But whatever. Sounds good to me."

To be sure, while neither the Dust Devils nor the Canadians will ever be held up as the vanguard of technology in the minor leagues, the Vancouver club is probably a little more advanced.

Road Trip 2006

For one, that's because the Canadians are part of the A's organization, and the A's, as was well-chronicled in Michael Lewis' best-seller "Moneyball," are a team that evaluates players based on a complex system of statistics and specific performance categories.

Thus, in the Canadians' clubhouse after its June 21 game against the Yakima Bears, hitting coach Benny Winslow explains to me how he must plug each player's hitting statistics for each game into an Excel database where he measures their performances against the A's patented "Hitting Points" system. That digs deeply into how effective hitters are at the plate and goes far beyond the batting average, home runs and runs batted in numbers most teams look at.

"This is our (organizational) philosophy, which is basically selfless hitting combined with a good (batting) approach," said Winslow. "This is more important to the Oakland A's organization than the statistics you find on the back of a baseball card. The A's feel this is the emphasis we need to get players to the big leagues...You can have a batter with a great batting average, but how he does with two outs or with men in scoring position, that's what wins ball games."

At the end of each week, the Canadians--and all the other A's minor league teams--send their Hitting Points statistics via the Internet to Oakland. The players with the best performances are awarded small gifts and a better chance to move one step closer to their dream of playing in the major leagues.

Another system used by both the Canadians and Dust Devils, and all other minor league teams, for that matter, is the Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) in-game box score reporting program.

Essentially, said Andre Beaucage, the Canadians' media relations assistant, he must call into MLBAM at the end of every half inning and report exactly what occurred. The results are then posted immediately onto MinorLeagueBaseball.com.

"If a guy gets hit by a pitch, I have to say what part of the body."
--Andre Beaucage, Canadians' media relations assistant

"It's to feed everyone's hunger for (baseball) information, and they're very particular: If a guy gets hit by a pitch, I have to say what part of the body," said Beaucage. "You can't satisfy people's thirst for baseball stats. It's unquenchable...It may just be a handful of people and players' families following the game, but to those people, it's really important."

For now, however, the teams must call in their reports on the phone. Beaucage hopes that will change soon.

"It would be nice if it was online," he said, "and I'm sure in a few years it probably will be."

Ebert said he thinks the technology exists to let the teams report to MLBAM via the Internet and said it just hasn't happened yet.

"They haven't gotten all the kinks worked out, electronically," Ebert said. "Everybody would have to be using the same system, and that just hasn't happened yet."

Meanwhile, little bits of technology are scattered throughout the teams' ballparks.

For example, the Dust Devils employ a radar gun that records the speed of every pitch thrown. Immediately afterward, the data is sent via a wireless signal to the centerfield scoreboard, which then displays the appropriate number.

In addition, said Ebert, the team's coaches and trainer all submit reports via the Internet after each game to the Rockies about how their players performed. It's not as sophisticated as the A's Hitting Points system, but it does help the Rockies evaluate talent.

During the game, in the Dust Devils Stadium press box, public address announcer Patrick Harvey sits in front of a PC and from that machine controls the sounds and music that play over the ballpark's loudspeaker system.

His software, known as "Game Ops Commander," is a console from which he can choose which song to play when a batter comes to the plate, as well as little sound bites from movies or other media to play in certain game situations.

For example, after a Dust Devils player made a flashy catch early in Tuesday's game, Harvey quickly played a snippet that said, "Look at me, look at me."

The truth is, however, that technology hasn't really made it to the low minors in a big way. And it's clear some involved would like to see that change.

Winslow, for instance, pointed out that he'd had to personally buy the printer he uses to print hitting reports, and complained that the Vancouver ballpark's free wireless Internet isn't available in the clubhouse.

"It doesn't go through the walls of the dungeon," Winslow said, referring to the clubhouse's thick concrete walls. "It's pretty high-tech as far as minor league baseball is concerned, but it's still (like) 1995."