The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd. The smell of freshly mowed grass. Now add the soundless blur of DSP calculations, the invisible formatting of HDTV images, the soft hum of electronic turnstiles taking tickets and you've got a ball game.
The Major League Baseball season opens next Monday, and computerization will play an increasingly important role in America's pastime. Ballparks around the country are using more microprocessors in everything from movable roofs to ever-fancier large-screen displays, and plans are in the works for smart-card purchases and Internet-based ticket swapping.
Technology is no stranger to the grand old game remember when the Houston Astrodome was the "eighth wonder of the world." But the spate of new ballparks being built is giving organizations a chance to dig into recent computer advances. Even older parks are taking advantage of technology to keep fan interest high.
"We're here for entertainment and to make the fans happy. The players don't always do that," said Jeff Szynal, manager of scoreboard operations and TV production for the Chicago White Sox.
Kids who pay more attention to screens and gadgets may ignore the actual game at new stadiums like PacBell Park, the coming replacement for San Francisco's 3Com Park (still called "Candlestick" by resentful fans). With local telecommunications carrier Pacific Bell putting its name on the new park, it's no surprise that the Giants expect to have a thoroughly wired stadium with plenty of ambitious technology.
But there's a question of how much will be turned on come opening day in April 2000. For example, plans are in place for Internet kiosks around the stadium, possibly offering access to game information or sponsors' Web sites. How useful or popular those will be is still being debated, but the Giants wanted to be prepared for the idea.
"We haven't programmed exactly what is going into these places but we have 70 places in the building wired," said Tom McDonald, vice president of marketing for the new ballpark.
Another idea being debated is the use of smart cards at concession stands. "Smart card is an interesting issue, and we have spent a lot of time on this," McDonald said. "We are probably going to go with a POS [point-of-sale] system that has smart-card capability. The only question is, do we make the investment, going in, to have smart cards or not. If you'd talked to us a year ago, there'd be no question we were going to do it. The only problem with smart card is: In the tests [run by banks], it hasn't been very successful. The American consumer doesn't seem to get it. They don't seem to use it well."
Like most new sports facilities, PacBell Park is adding amenities to attract big business. A planned 30- to 40-person conference center will be wired with videoconferencing capability and Internet connectivity for laptop computers, in the hope of attracting business meetings away from traditional hotel settings.
Also on the technology front, several ideas are being tossed around for season-ticket holders. For one, the Giants will exploit technology to track ticket usage. Turnstiles will become electronic, for example, with customers feeding in their tickets and computers collecting data.
"We intend to have electronic turnstiles so that we can capture information about our customers, how often they're using the tickets, no-shows, etc.," McDonald said.
The Giants also want to exploit the Web for ticket swapping. The idea comes from the Baltimore Orioles' "no scalping zone" outside the ballpark at Camden Yards, where picnic tables are set up for season-ticket holders to unload unwanted tickets. McDonald's hope is to transfer the process to the Web, where the Giants and an unnamed technology partner would create their own sales zone for season-ticket holders. "What we haven't determined yet is whether it's face-value only or a market-driven price point," he said.
PacBell Park's answer to Jumbotron will be bona fide HDTV. A full digital-TV studio will be used to produce scoreboard images, which will be displayed in the proper HDTV aspect ratio. The studio is being set up by Panasonic, which is providing some but not all of the equipment.
"Whether we choose Panasonic or Sony or anyone else, you're not going to get a 100 percent Panasonic edit studio. They're going to integrate other companies' equipment in," McDonald said.
Even the traditional scorekeeping will be augmented. A standard light-matrix board in center field will list the lineups and player stats, but the other scoreboards around the ballpark will show more information than usual. "On ancillary boards, we'll be very focused on pitch speed, how many pitches the pitcher has thrown, how many are balls and strikes," McDonald said.
With digital television equipment and plenty of wiring, PacBell Stadium will be state of the art. But for how long? The White Sox's Comiskey Park underscores both the positives of electronics and their fleeting status as front runners. The park opened in 1991, and technology picked early in construction means electronic equipment that's already a decade old.
"In 1991, the Skydome in Toronto and Comiskey Park had the top equipment, the best layout in the control room and in the way we routed signals to all the screens in the park. Many other scoreboard operators came to witness our operation. Now we're way behind, though we are going to look at digital editing systems that could be here as early as next season," said Don Esposito, director of purchasing, construction and maintenance for the White Sox.
The changes during the past decade are also reflected in the Toronto Skydome, home to the Blue Jays. Built in 1989, back when new ballparks were less common, Skydome was the first baseball stadium to feature a retractable roof, protecting fans from snow and rain while allowing an outdoor atmosphere during the summer. Its Jumbotron screen in center field was the largest in the world, at 110 feet across and 33 feet high. It was long ago surpassed. Football's Baltimore Ravens enjoy the largest screen in North America, and several Japanese screens have taken the world title in succession. Skydome's screen is still impressive but may receive an overhaul soon, as its 67,200 CRTs are reaching the end of their natural life.
"We will definitely be replacing it. The CRT technology has a life span of about 10,000 to 12,000 hours, and we're right around 10,000 now," said Dan McPhee, Skydome's director of technical production. The alternative would be LED screens, which last up to 50,000 hours and are used in the majority of newly built ballparks.
The Jumbotron is essentially a massive closed-circuit television system, and in fact freelance TV directors and production crews are hired to manage the screen during events. Film crews operate from a dedicated control studio inside Skydome, using standard NTSC equipment. "We do basically a television show separate and completely apart from what's being done for TV," McPhee said.
Among the considerations for any stadium is the sound system. To eliminate problems of echo and delay, sound systems are distributed throughout a stadium now, with speakers in every section.
"When the building opened up in 1989, that was the beginning of [the era of] computer control for sound systems," McPhee said.
Delay is a problem because of the stadium's size any modern stadium has speakers throughout the stands, coordinated mathematically to prevent the sound from echoing or overlapping out of synch. Soundweb, manufactured by the U.K. company, BSS Audio, is used in Skydome to process the sound and time it properly to each section so that a delay isn't noticeable.
The computer for controlling the speakers is a proprietary box running a user interface similar to a PC's. A basic user interface allows an operator to select from the presets, while banks of computers with dozens of sound channels running through each, stacked together like Legos, make up the complete sound system, McPhee said.
Entertainment is only part of a modern ballpark's electronic controls. Fans often don't realize that there are plenty of indoor spots ranging from the skyboxes to offices to locker rooms and TV studios. The days of guards standing outside doors are as rare as starting pitchers who regularly complete games.
"All the doors have alarms that feed into a central control panel, and certain areas of the park have motion sensors. Locker rooms, certain storage areas have them," said Steve Knight, building engineer for the White Sox. "They're silent alarms so the person walking through doesn't know they've been caught. Overall, we probably have 5,000 points that are being monitored by our computer system, with heating, air conditioning, security, lights, fire and CO2 detectors. Outside the park, we have solid-state security cameras mounted on pan-and-tilt housings that watch each of the gates and some of the main parking lots."
While those items make it safer for the fans and players, there have also been some improvements that make the games safer for White Sox employees. In Comiskey, a key beneficiary is the guy who sets off fireworks after every Sox home run.
"In the old days in the old park, we had a guy called The Torch who set off the fireworks after a home run," Esposito said. "A light on the scoreboard lit up, and then he would light them. Now it's controlled through the panel, and we just hit the button. He likes that a lot better."
While electronics play a big role in most parks, the digital revolution is ignored in others. At Chicago's Wrigley Field, it's possible that a fan carrying a cell phone, palmtop and pager might have more computing power than the ever-popular park puts toward the business of entertaining fans. Chicago Cub fans experience baseball in an atmosphere similar to that of the first Cubs game at Wrigley in 1914.
"We tend not to use much of it at all," said a spokesman for the Cubs. "We're a little different. You're talking about a park that just got lights 10 years ago. We still use a scoreboard that is completely manual."