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.

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