Baseball, dating back to the era when the grandfather clock was state of the art, is a low-tech, even no-tech sport.
But when it comes to Web 2.0, Major League Baseball (MLB) has brought the bleeding edge into the ballpark.
As games resumed on Friday after the traditional mid-season break for the All-Star Game, IBM announced that MLB is using WebSphere Portal technology to assure the authenticity of homerun balls caught in the stands by fans. Information from the Web on potential security problems and weather conditions are also now available to the umpires via the portal.
As sports memorabilia brings record auction prices – more than $750,000 for Barry Bonds' record home run ball -- the Web 2.0 technology provides instant provenance by authenticating home run balls immediately after they are hit into the bleachers, explained Larry Bowden, IBM vice president for portals and mashups.
"Major League Baseball has taken a major step basically putting the Web environment out into the stands," said.
Beginning with last week's All-Star Game, a security guard armed with handheld device from Symbol Technologies Inc., with wireless connectivity to the IBM WebSphere Portal, will go to the fan that has just caught a homerun ball, Bowden said.
"The balls have a hologram on them," he explained. "At the All Star Game they had authorized security personnel who could watch the person catch the ball, and then come up to them and with their handheld device they would register the person who caught the ball, scan that particular hologram. Then that person's information goes into a database to record that they are the person who owns this ball."
That information is then wirelessly uploaded to MLB's IBM DB2 9 data server. If the lucky fan then puts the ball up for sale on eBay, potential buyers with be able to check the database to ensure that they are dealing with the rightful owner of the authentic ball hit by this player in this game on this date.
This will be especially helpful in avoiding fraud and confusion for balls involved in home run records, such as with Bonds' current record 762nd homer. The Web 2.0 technology replaces the manual system that was still in use last year. That manual system did not allow fans to access the data, making "forgery was a legitimate concern," according to IBM.
Umpires get Google Gadgets
Baseball may not have instant replay yet, but umpires have instant access to current weather data via Google Gadgets, and information on players and teams from baseball databases with the Umpire Desktop, which also went online for the second half of the season, Bowden said.
A PC dedicated to the portal are now located in the umpires' dressing room where they can check if any thunder storms threaten to delay or cancel the game, he said.
Although they may not be known as technical marvels, some umpires also carry Blackberry-type devices that allow them to check the portal from the field during a game. The more tech savvy umpires, can get to the portal by logging into a virtual private network (VPN) from their home computer or from laptops and mobile devices, Bowden said.
The link to weather data could be checked between innings by the umpires' crew chief, for example, telling him how soon an approaching storm is coming, and what the duration might be.
Even umpires who are not tech savvy Blackberry carriers can make use of the portal in the dressing room, which can be customized for their skill levels, Bowden said.
"One of the benefits of having a portal is you can personalize it for who the person is, put the information in context for just the game they are interested in," he explained. "You do a lot of work for them in the portal so it's not like a Web page where they have to do searching and be savvy about how the Web works. They are getting information presented to them only for the particular game they're interested in, their schedule, their weather, the players involved."
The image of baseball run by cigar chomping executives whom considered a pencil and a scorecard state of the art, has gone the way of flannel uniforms, the IBM executive said.
"Major League Baseball is a little more on the cutting edge," Bowden said, comparing MLB to other sports organizations IBM works with. "Baseball is not just experimenting with technology, they are looking at how technology can benefit the game by making sure their personnel are real-time informed. They are out there leading the way."