Before "The Star-Spangled Banner" is sung, Navy jets go ceremonially zooming overhead, and the first cracked peanut shell hits the ground today, let's talk about the important stuff when it comes to the inaugural game of the 2011 Major League Baseball season: Baseball apps for your smartphone or tablet.
While baseball is surely the most romanticized of American professional sports, it's also by far the geekiest. After all, it was a certain set of baseball fans' and executives' reliance on and obsession with player performance numbers that gave birth to the curious science behind baseball statistics nicknamed "sabermetrics."
In some sports you can't look away or you'll miss a key play. Baseball moves at a bit more easygoing pace. "People say it's slow, but it's a thinking game," is how basketball coaching legend John Wooden once defended the sport.
With all that time between plays, and of course with OPS and VORP--that's "on-base percentage plus slugging" and "value over replacement player" to the uninitiated--to calculate (and pick the perfect roster of players for your fantasy team, obviously), it makes sense that the geekiest sport of them all offers so many ways to use technology to watch it.
Here are some of the best ways to watch, follow, or fantasize about America's pastime, and of course, keep score of games.
MLB At Bat '11
It's the official--and officially the best--way to watch baseball via a portable device. It's certainly not cheap, but most devout baseball fans consider it essential. At Bat '11 for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad costs $14.99, but the coolest features, like watching live games (out of market only), require a subscription to MLB.TV that starts at $99 for the season.
There's a lot that's new this year for the iOS version of At Bat, but the cost-conscious will be most excited to read this: Volvo is sponsoring a free trial for MLB.TV for the entire month of April--on iOS only. That means once you buy the At Bat app, you can watch any game live (again, out of your home market) without being an MLB.TV subscriber for that month.
Also new this year: at least three times during a game you're watching, an orange "Live Look In" button will appear on the screen giving you the option to jump into another game for a period of time. MLB will use the feature to let viewers see pivotal game moments, like a bases-loaded bottom of the 9th situation. And it won't matter where you're watching from--the feature will be blessedly free of black-out restrictions.
Specific to the iPad version of At Bat is an improvement to the GameDay feature, which simulates games in progress with pitch trajectory visualizations and streaming play-by-play information. If it looks more to you like a really well-done video game this year, that's because MLB got Sony to lend it the images from its MLB 11: The Show game. This year the ballpark backdrops and players (who change home and away uniforms) look more realistic than ever.
The iPhone and iPod Touch versions of the At Bat app have been updated with the latest mobile obsession: check-ins. This year if you "check in" to a ballpark on the app, you'll unlock some hidden features. Those include interactive maps of the stadium to find restrooms; ATMs; and exactly which concession stand serves your favorite beer, thanks to the included menus. Plus, the home team will offer special deals for fans that check in, which could include seat upgrades, coupons for gear, food discounts, and more.
The app will also keep track of stats from the games you've been to. That way, by midseason you can track how well (or poorly) your team did, including players' batting averages or pitching performances, during the games you saw in person.
But MLB At Bat isn't actually the only game in town when it comes to iOS baseball apps. A few more suggestions:
*If you're old-school or just a baseball geek, the very high-rated ESPN iScore ($9.99) will let you score the game yourself, whether it's little league, high-school baseball, or the pros.
*Need to understand the current baseball season in all its crazy-specific minutia? Then download the appified version of The Baseball Prospectus (divided into American League and National League, each $9.99). It comes with essays about players, previews of teams, and sortable stats. Or there's the 2011 Baseball Encyclopedia, which at $1.99 is a bit cheaper and promises to generate any kind of stats leaderboard you can conceive of.
*For fantasy baseball aficionados, Draft Kit '11: Front Office ($4.99) syncs automatically with CBS, ESPN, and Yahoo fantasy leagues, and uses a Bloomberg-derived algorithm to rank and predict player performance. It will also help you manage your teams and pick players.
*And if you just can't get enough of MLB-related gossip, there's an entire app devoted to potential player swaps. You can buy MLB Trade Rumors for iPhone and iPod Touch only for $2.99.
After conducting a trial during the postseason last year, MLB At Bat for Android now officially allows live-game watching via an MLB.TV subscription like its iOS counterparts. (Note: there is no free April trial offer available for this platform.) But if you don't have an MLB.TV subscription, you can watch one free out-of-market game per week.
The Android version also has the Live Look In and ballpark check-in features. Unique to the platform is the ability to set up a widget on an Android home screen to jump right to your favorite team's page. MLB says its app will run on Android 2.2 phones, which it says is about "10 or 12 devices."
*ESPN iScore, the score-keeping app, is also available on Android for $9.99.
*For up-to-the-minute and free fantasy league info, RotoWire Fantasy News. Bonus: it covers all four major sports leagues in the U.S., not just baseball.
Research In Motion's platform is woefully devoid of cool baseball apps. But there are some ways to keep up with the sport via your smartphone.
MLB At Bat for BlackBerry ($14.99) doesn't support live game video, but you can access live home and away audio to hear the game, and keep up via the GameDay simulation feature.
Baseball Scorecard costs just 99 cents and is a basic scorekeeping app for any game, be it major league or little league.
If free is your ideal price, CBS Sports (owned by CBS, publisher of CNET), ScoreMobile, and individual MLB teams offer free game-tracking and game updates apps.