Can high tech really improve baseball?

Baseball may be a game of inches, but does it have to be monitored by IBM?

Baseball may be a game of inches, but does it have to be monitored by IBM?

This week, 25 years ago, on July 24, 1983, I caught the George Brett pine tar baseball. Yes, I did, no lie. I sold it to the late Barry Halper, a minor owner of the Yankees who paid me $500 plus 12 tickets -- very good seats mind you -- for Yankee games that season.

To verify that the ball I caught was indeed The Pine Tar baseball, I produced the ticket stubs to show that I was sitting in the seats where the ball landed.

There was also some video that showed me in a striped shirt to verify my identity.

Well, times have certainly changed.

Holograms on baseballs

MLB and IBM announced a program called Hologram last week that, "when a fan catches a home run ball, a security guard will link up with the fan and place a unique hologram on the ball. This information will be wirelessly uploaded to MLB's IBM DB2 9 data server. This way, if the fan decides to sell the ball to a retailer, potential buyers can verify its authenticity immediately online. "

This is an actual sticker placed on all licensed merchandise to stop unscrupulous retailers from making a buck. (Only the scrupulous retailers are allowed to do that.)

All of that is a pretty big change from 1983. I don't follow baseball as closely as I used to but I've heard that some fans are now getting more than $500 for selling a significant piece of baseball memorabilia. Probably just a rumor.

For those interested in baseball history, I looked closely at the ball before handing it over and never saw any pine tar. Of course nowadays, if it did have a smudge of pine tar, the security guard would probably place the hologram sticker right over it. Such is progress.

A picture of the pine tar ball and the bat as well can be found the April 1987 issue of Smithsonian magazine. As far as I know the pine tar ball now resides in the Smithsonian.

Umpire Desktop -- more data than we need

The IBM-MLB announcement, however, talked about some other, more troubling technology now available to major league baseball. This once again brings up the issue of when does too much of a good thing, especially in high tech, become a not so good thing.

IBM in conjunction with the MLB and E2 Consulting, the software developer of Hologram, also created Umpire Desktop. Umpire Desktop gives umps info in real time, such as up-to-the-minute weather forecasts. But it also aggregates unstructured data, and the question becomes what will the arbiters of balls and strikes and everything else in the rule book do with this additional information.

I spoke with IBM's Jason Andersen, product manager for IBM WebSphere Portal, the framework around which the hologram application and Umpire Desktop were built.

For the most part, Andersen says Umpire Desktop is a "postmortem kind of thing."

There might be snippets of video presented through the portal mashed with the MLB rule book or with other calls relevant to an event in the game which can be used after the game by umpires to review any precedents, or while these plays are still fresh in their memory it can be used to self-critique.

Not that the game would be played over. I'm sure the umps would keep any mistakes to themselves.

Technology can't force Boston and Tampa Bay to play nice

But Umpire Desktop can also be used by the umpire and "security" officials, says Andersen, prior to a game.

For example, recently there have been a couple instances between Tampa Bay and Boston of fights breaking out.

"The umpire may want to know that Coco Crisp rushed the mound when he got hit by a pitched ball."

"Yeah, OK," I say. "What about it?" I bet if Sam Palmisano got deliberately hit by a pitched ball he'd rush the mound, too.

The question is what will the umpires and the "security" officials do with this information? Maybe if it happens three times during the season, the next time Tampa Bay comes into town for a three-game series with Boston they'll decide to suspend Coco Crisp before he even takes the field, "for the good of the game."

The application uses semantic tagging on content to associate events and/or Web pages in order to make connections.

So what the umps might have is tagged video of Coco Crisp rushing the mound, and they send that tag off to their intranet and broadcast that info out to the World Wide Web that might link to other so-called related data on Crisp.

Then and now

About 10 seconds after I caught the pine tar baseball, Billy Martin, the manager of the Yankees, charged out of the dugout to inform the umpires that the home run was illegal because Brett broke the regulation of how high up the pine tar could be on the bat. Legal limit is 18 inches up.

Only later did it come out that Martin knew that Brett tarred his bat a bit too high on the handle all season. He waited to use that information when it would be most useful, and he didn't need semantic tagging of content to bring the relevant data into a contextual framework of a portal or a business intelligence app to tell him when to use it, either.

If Umpire Desktop existed back then, maybe pictures of Brett batting would have been tagged with content on the pine tar rule and an ump might have stopped Bret at the beginning of the season. Then of course I never would have gotten my $500 and 12 tickets -- good seats -- still I'm pretty sure probably one of the highest dollar amounts paid to a fan for a piece of memorabilia with or without a hologram attached.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.