Sunday, September 13, 2009

The More Baseball Changes, The More Remote It Becomes

Caption: Angel Pagan strikes out in the top of the ninth inning with runners on to end the game.

Image credit: Screenshots of Major League Baseball's Gameday by Cujo359

The Philadelphia Phillies just beat the New York Mets 5 - 4 in the first half of a day-night doubleheader. That's not a terribly interesting result, except for the fact that once again the Phillies' ace closer Brad Lidge managed to make it a one-run game before he finally struck out Angel Pagan to win it.

What's interesting is how I know that. This is a screenshot of Major League Baseball's Gameday, a Flashmedia-based play-by-play program that shows the status of a game as it's being played. For a fan, this provides much of the information one needs to know - the pitch count, the location of the pitches, what happens to those pitches when the hitter manages to hit them. It provides much of the information provided by radio coverage of a game. What it doesn't provide, of course, is video. That costs money. Embracing new technology, yet making decisions that leave many fans out in the cold is a thing Major League Baseball does all too often these days.

Caption: The full Gameday display, showing Jeremy Reed singling to center to drive in a run.

The Gameday display consists of a status column on the left, the pitching and hitting display in the middle, and statistics on the right. I was viewing it on my laptop computer's 1280x768 pixel display, so it's clearly designed to work well on a low resolution screen. A fan can note all sorts of things with this information. For instance, it looks like pitcher Brad Lidge, whose best pitch is the slider, isn't too confident in it at the moment. He threw three fastballs in a row to the same area to Reed, who promptly hit the snot out of the third one. Lidge's work to previous hitters showed that the slider was often ending up in the middle of the strike zone, which is the place only the most overpowering pitchers can let their pitches go.

It's possible, incidentally, to replay various at bats just by clicking on those at bats in the scrolling list at the bottom center.

Just as an aside, I once wrote that baseball is a game played at the extremes of human abilities. This is an example of that. A major league pitcher has to throw pitches that end up along that white area in the display above. It's an area of about 18 inches (45 centimeters) by 24 inches (60cm) or so, depending on the height of the batter. The pitcher starts out 60 feet, 6 inches (roughly 18 meters) from the plate. Just throwing a ball into that box consistently is a difficult task, and major league pitchers have to keep the ball in that 3 inch (7.5 cm) border around the box, or they will soon be ex-major league pitchers.

Gameday is a marvelous bit of web technology. It uses the capabilities of the Internet to bring real-time situational information to people all over the country. It's as though a fan can listen to a radio broadcast of any major league game he wants.

Of course, if you want your baseball experience to be more visual, things get tougher. One of the reasons I haven't written much about baseball the last couple of seasons is that I haven't seen many games. In fact, this year I've seen two games, and I only saw those because I was on vacation, visiting someone who had cable television. The Seattle Mariners, my local team, have not been on broadcast television in two years. I don't know why this is, but it can't be because the stations that used to broadcast them have better entertainment available.

It's supposedly possible to see games on the Internet now. I haven't been able to check that assertion out, though. The service requires a Flashmedia player, and at the moment there is only one provider of that player. Flash is becoming an open standard, but it's a complicated one. Until it is fully understood, no alternative players will be available. The only open source alternative I'm aware of Gnash, is at least a year away from supporting programs like Gameday at its current rate of progress. Until that day arrives, I won't be interested in spending the $50 or so that MLB.TVcosts at the beginning of the season. At least, I won't without being pretty sure I have alternatives if Adobe decides not to support my platform anymore. Since they never show games for free using that service, except for a week or two during spring training, I might still be reluctant to risk that much money, only to find that either the computer or my Internet connection couldn't handle the service properly.

This, it seems to me, is emblematic of the problem with baseball these days. Everything has a price. There are no local games on free TV, no free or "demo" games to show whether a fan's computer setup can handle the Internet broadcasts. How are people who don't have much money, particularly the young, going to be able to see games? How are future ballplayers and fans going to get hooked on the game? If you're willing to spend money, you can see, but before spending money most of us want to know if what we're paying for is worth the price. I learned to love the game by following my local team on broadcast TV. Nowadays, seeing it on broadcast TV is something one can do maybe once a week, and only for whatever big-market teams the network that hates baseball wants to cover.

Even as someone who's been a fan his whole life, the game is starting to get less interesting to me. There are plenty of other ways to spend one's time besides being glued to a TV for three hours. I'm learning more of them the longer there are no games on TV.

Major League Baseball could afford to show some games on broadcast TV. They could show a game or two a day on the Internet that either wasn't going to attract much outside interest, or that were already sold out and weren't being nationally televised. They could do that, but they choose not to.

Even though it is embracing modern technology to bring the game to its fans, baseball hasn't gotten over its greed. Ultimately, baseball is going to suffer for thinking only about the present.

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