February 14, 2002
Dumping the BathwaterI dread the Winter Olympics.
In their current form, they embody and promote ideals and practices that I find, for lack of a better term, pathetic. I find subjective sports to be among the most offensive ideas around, and, as you might expect, I find figure skating, a darling of network coverage since Peggy Fleming, to be a criminal waste of network time that could better be spent covering more interesting pursuits, such as live coverage of Ray Romano's back being shaved, or a panel debate on budgetary rules and appropriations prioritization methods featuring the surviving Spice Girls. Add in network coverage and planning that makes Wonder Bread seem spicy, daring, and substantive, a dash of reflexive jingoism, and an advertising/content ratio comparable to a Tom Vu infomercial, and you have an entertainment product that's less likely to draw my viewing time than a special all-creepy-porcelain-doll episode of "Antiques Roadshow."
With that out of the way, I humbly request that you refrain from sending me e-mail calling me anti-American and a communist.
So why was I watching NBC's coverage of downhill skiing on Sunday? Because of the incredibly amazing technical gadgetry being used in said coverage. NBC has about the coolest damn thing I've ever seen in sports television, and I want it in baseball broadcasts as quickly as possible.
During the downhill, they had this display that allowed them to overlay multiple skiers on the screen, and show their movements and location at the same time. It was eye-poppingly cool. At 13.42 seconds into the run, this fast Austrian guy was here on the course, seven feet ahead of where this fast Swiss guy was. Additionally, the fast Austrian guy was in a much better position to make his turn, meaning he was going to pick up more time down the course. The execution of this was pretty seamless, the potential for this technology is vast, both for TV producers and baseball clubs.
Imagine the possibility of being able to directly compare defenders with this technology. It would allow very close comparisons of fielders, with regards to their break, line to the ball, and game speed. It'd look great on the screen, and be extremely informative and entertaining to the viewing audience. You could really contrast, for the viewing audiences, the strengths and weaknesses of different defenders, instead of relying on anecdotes and highlight reel catches, which are so often preceded by a slow jump or a bad line to the ball.
I believe this would also cause an even greater and more comprehensive review of umpire performance. When you see umpires making different calls on identical pitches on a regular screen, it has more of a visceral impact than simply trusting Questec's pitch tracker. Constant display and exposure of bad ball-and-strike calling will increase pressure on MLB to address this issue in a fashion that's more effective than their efforts thus far. (Or at least I'd like to think that.)
Baseball is a very tough sport to televise well, and the way in which it's televised has a tremendous effect on how people form their opinions about the game. TV, as a visual medium, lends itself to interesting moments, and all of us have a tendency to remember the single, outstanding moment, rather than the 5,000 more common instances of the same event. As a result, we end up with some strange artifices in the world of baseball. Brooks Robinson was a great defensive third baseman, but he's considered the best ever by many people because of about five plays in a single World Series. Ichiro Suzuki's reputation as a cannon-armed right fielder was created and reinforced by an amazing throw he made to gun down Terrence Long early last season. (Ichiro ended up with a grand total of eight assists for the year, fewer than the average MLB right fielder had.)
TV shapes our views like no other medium can. This technology has the promise to bring a greater understanding to baseball fans while being entertaining and exciting at the same time. Bring it on. Like most consumers of content, I'm absolutely in favor of more innovation and quality content in free media.
If you haven't seen this technology yet, it's actually worth a little bit of time investment in watching Bob Costas and the various flavors of NBC's Olympic coverage until it pops up again. For me, it created visions of Torii Hunter and Jim Edmonds on the screen at the same time, with time-synched movements and tracking to the ball. Simply put, it'd be technology worthy of the game being covered.
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Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.