San Francisco's PacBell Park: High-Tech at the Old Ball Game
You once had to be tough to be a San Francisco Giants fan. The National League baseball team played in Candlestick Park (later renamed 3Com Park), where the chilled wind off the San Francisco Bay blew dust and popcorn bags, and people bundled up as if they were prepared for snow. Some strong gusts even blew pitchers off the mound. Candlestick was also a faceless kind of place, functional but unimaginative. You went for the baseball, not for the architecture.
But this year, the Giants have a new, warmer home---often described as an "intimate" place to see baseball. Pacific Bell Park, or "PacBell Park," as the locals call it, is named for the local telephone company, which paid millions of dollars for the privilege. Like the new ball parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Colorado, PacBell was designed to evoke baseball of old, before it was played in big stadiums that also host football in winter. These new venues have a sensual contradiction---they look as if they should smell of cigars and have decades of dirt ground into the floor. Except that the litter is picked up, smoking is mostly banned, and the turnstiles contain barcode readers linked with a customer database.
On a balmy spring morning, with the team playing in Florida, I drove out to the ball park to meet with Bill Schlough, vice president and chief information officer for the San Francisco Giants. At age 30, Schlough has gotten around. He did technology consulting for Electronic Data Systems, supporting clients like Advanced Micro Devices, Amdahl, and Grumman. But his real love is sporting events. In 1994, Schlough served as the technology manager at Stanford University when it hosted part of the World Cup soccer tournament. "Once I got into the event industry, I got hooked," he recalls. Schlough became a consultant to the Atlanta Olympics and, later, the Atlanta Braves baseball club. After picking up an MBA from the Wharton School, he moved west to build PacBell's information infrastructure from the ground up. The building is almost complete.
Slough says that despite the glamour, the pressure for events programming can be enormous. "Opening day is not going to move. It's on April 11th. Period. This year, the Sydney Olympics will open on September 15th, and you can't change that. When I worked on the commercial side, I was never inspired by the product I helped create. Here the product is on the field every day and all around you at the ballpark---and that keeps you going."
PacBell is the closest big league stadium to the Silicon Valley, and so perhaps it's not surprising that Schlough oversees a 10-person technical staff, the largest in baseball, with specialists in telecommunications and networking, a four-person help desk for the front office, and three people doing database design work.
PacBell Park is the first self-financed ballpark---built with no taxpayer funding---since Dodger Stadium was built in Los Angeles in 1962. (Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1923 when the New York Yankees self-financed Yankee Stadium.) The Giants own it all: dugouts, scoreboard and bleachers. Only the land below is leased---from the San Francisco Port authority. To offset the stadium's $319 million cost, the Giants have not skimped on ballpark advertising. Logos and brand names are everywhere, from the 80-foot wooden Coca-Cola bottle perched above the bleachers, to the running stock quotes sponsored by a securities firm, to the Sega Dreamcast booth where kids can play simulated baseball while the real thing is played below, to the 400 or so televisions provided by Panasonic. Panasonic---a brand name of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.---is to be found anywhere there's a video signal, including the Giants 24' x 32' Astrovision screen, PacBell's security system, and the team's new DVD-based coaching system.
For the most part, PacBell's technologies scored high during the first home stand. One exception was the scoreboard, which displayed some highly visible glitches, such as showing one player batting three times in the lineup. "We're still working out the kinks," Schlough says.
While PacBell Park may be the baseball stadium of choice for Silicon Valley engineers, it is not the most technologically crazed in the major leagues. That award probably should go to Tropicana Field, the 43,000 seat, multi-use, dome stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That venue features LCD displays mounted on the swivel arms, attached to the most expensive seats behind home plate. If the action on the field isn't enough to keep you awake, you can query everything from scouting reports to player statistics, shop for merchandise, play trivia games and vote for your favorite player for the All Star game. Next year, the stadium will open a cyber cafe.
But Giants fans told the team that they come to the ball park to get away from computer screens. If you want a high-tech distraction like a cell phones or Palm Pilot, you must bring it yourself. But fans take a risk in not paying attention to the game. Because PacBell's foul zone is among the smallest in baseball, and some sections of the park require constant vigilance if you value your head.
One section of PacBell is definitely wired: the park's 57 executive suites, which are typically rented to corporations. Each boasts six voice and six dialup data ports along with a television and CD player (Panasonic, of course), and a modest kitchen. While a DSL offering might have been expected from a ballpark named after a telecommunications company, dial-up proved more practical given that most laptops can't support the broadband connection. But a DSL connection, is available in the park's business center, along with computers, printers, fax machines and copiers---everything you need to have a productive day at the ballpark.
Card readers replace ticket takers
The work of Schlough's information technology staff is evident from the moment you enter. PacBell has 46 electronic turnstiles located at the park's four gates, as well as in the entrances via the retail store and restaurant. Each turnstile employs a barcode to validate the tickets. With machines replacing human ticket takers, people are now employed as "greeters" to help smooth the flow---and to explain to the technically-challenged how the machines work. Ultimately, says Schlough, the barcode system could also enable the Giants to create a secondary market for season tickets. "We could invalidate the current ticket and resell them online---as opposed to an online auction system like eBay, where you have to go online and then transfer the physical tickets."
The turnstiles are linked with a database system that provides an instant count of attendance and is part of a broader program for keeping fans happy and well supplied in Giants merchandise and services. The Giants are not alone in amassing as much information as possible about their customers. According to New York Times reporter Peter Lewis, who wrote about the technology in the three newest major league ball parks---Houston, Detroit and San Francisco---the gadgets and data collection can add millions of dollars to the cost of the stadiums while squeezing more money out of fans and sponsors. Lewis notes that many teams "are collecting so much data about fans -- not to mention players -- that the game is almost becoming a new sport, databaseball."
In moving to PacBell park, the Giants organization consolidated information from multiple incompatible customer databases gleaned from the ticket operation, retail store, and website. The laborious work was done by Pandesic, a partnership between Intel and SAP, to create a massive customer management system. Databaseball indeed. "The name of this game," says Schlough, "is keeping customers coming back." The Giants use the data in working with its best customers---the charter seat holders---much the way a Las Vegas casino identifies and caters to its heaviest gamblers. The Giants have a customer rewards point system, comparable to an airline's frequent flier program, that is accessible from the Web.
Not that any of this marketing effort seems immediately necessary. The Giants have all but sold out PacBell Park's first season (except for 500 tickets that go on sale the day of each game). But once the novelty of the new ball park wears off, will fans keep coming back? "Our bottom line is we want to keep this ballpark full," says Schlough. "Cleveland is a great model: building a beautiful park, fielding a great team, and taking care of the customers. They sold out for seven seasons in a row."
Panasonic Video Coaching System
The most ambitious technological innovation at PacBell Park is a DVD-based video coaching system, built in partnership with the Panasonic Corporate Systems Company---Panasonic's systems integration service. "All teams have some sort of video coaching and scouting system, but few talk about it," says Schlough, who says the Giants wouldn't talk about it either were it not for the deal with Panasonic.
When the team played at Candlestick, the Giants used a video tape system to record a library of interactions between the player and pitcher. The new system uses a jukebox of 750 rewritable DVD-RAMs, creating about 4.
"The images are accessible from computers in the clubhouse and the general manager's office," says Schlough. A browser interface will make them available to any computer linked with PacBell's internal network. Pitchers can break down their wind up, batters can look at the elements of their swing. With a database query, a batter can see how he swung against a certain pitcher on a certain date. The digital images can be freeze-framed and replayed in slow motion more clearly than with analog video. The system also records opposing players, although the team will still send out advance scouts. "But potentially, this technology could streamline that process, too, because we have the ability to download video feeds from satellite," says Schlough.
While the coaching system accepts video feed from any of the remote-controlled cameras in the park, the best angles usually come from the broadcast television network feed, which also provides accompanying statistics and player information. The raw video feed is edited in real-time from a production room in the stadium. "All you see are the 'action clips'---from where the pitcher starts the windup to where the ball is caught," says Kelly Kotera, the Panasonic senior systems engineer who designed the system. "Or, for example, if it's ball four, we record the action until the batter gets to first base." Base steals, pick-offs, home runs are all recorded. Everything else---the pitcher spitting, the batter kicking dirt, the pitcher grabbing his crotch protector, the batter stepping out of the box---is not.
The images are then compressed using MPEG-2 . "We do very high compression for creating video CD and slightly less compression, delivering much higher quality, for recording on write-once DVD-R and rewritable DVD-RAM media," says Kotera. Many players view the video CDs on highly portable "palm theater" class devices, which are especially convenient when traveling on the road. Another advantage is the cost of the media: 87 cents for CD write-once media versus about $40 for a writable DVD. Each video sequence is also indexed in a database, so that queries can be made on the batter, pitcher, time of day, and the result of pitch.
The images are archived on a library of 750 DVD RAM disks. Any six of those disks can be staged in a six-drive jukebox. The system does a lot of 'pre---fetching'-anticipating what the viewer will want to see next. Kotera says that any archived image can be fetched within 20 seconds. If the image is already loaded on the jukebox, the transition from one disk to another is seamless.
The coaching system at PacBell is the first in the major leagues, and Major League Baseball officials are still grappling with how the images can be used, especially during play, so as not to give one team an unfair advantage. But while the Giants may be the first to use the DVD-based system, they probably won't be alone. Panasonic has built a pared-down version in Houston and Kotera says other clubs are also interested. Kotera also thinks that Japanese teams could also benefit, as well.
Among the Baseball Geeks
The following week, I returned to the ballpark to watch a night game against the Colorado Rockies from the PacBell press box. With the exception of the sepia photos of Giants of old hanging from its white walls, this long, gently curved room has the charm of an airport cafeteria. But it also has some of the best seats in the house, as it sits about 25 rows behind home plate. Print reporters sit on swivel chairs and work on a lower or upper table, each stretching the length of the box. In this room full of baseball geeks, I was an obvious fraud: I carried no spiral-bound score cards and used a whimp-sized, Windows CE handheld instead of a proper seven pound laptop.
I imagined the press room would be equipped with terminals connected to DSL ports, allowing reporters to dig up statistics, capture images in real-time, and emailing girlfriends. But aside from the laptops and Web connection, baseball reporting has retained its traditions. Press releases are still printed on paper, as are the detailed daily notes, enough statistics to fill an annual report, produced by each team.
To my left, I hear a grinding sound. No, it can't be, but yes---a reporter has brought his own decidedly low-tech device: an electronic pencil sharpener. He is Thomas Harding of the Colorado Springs Gazette---at www.
Watching the game behind the plate glass of the press room is to be at the ball game, yet removed from it. When the Giants hit a ball off the left field fence, you hear the muted roar outside, but mostly, the intense tapping of laptops within---as if a business office has been plunked down in the middle of a baseball game. As a matter of decorum, reporters don't cheer, though if you listen, you can get a running commentary of the game muttered in low tones to colleagues.
Between innings, I ask Harding about the Rockies' starting pitcher, Masato Yoshii. Harding says the team picked him up in a trade this year from the New York Mets, and so far, he has been impressive. "Let's see---I think Yoshii has a Web page." Harding enters Yoshii's name into the Hotbot search engine, and there it is: "Masato Yoshii: My Official Web Site," where you can learn that the pitcher speaks Spanish, likes hanging out at the racetrack, and fell down on the mound while still managing to strike out Sammy Sosa.
As the game moves into the seventh inning, the room grows more focused. Reporters clack away at their laptops, call their editors, and watch the massive, scoreboard clock for deadlines. In the eighth inning, the Rockies substitute a reliever for Yoshii. Probably a mistake, because the Giants scored four runs, winning the game 5-0.
By the time I had stuffed my binoculars and computer into a small backpack, Harding was gone. I slowly worked my way out of the parking lot and got home near midnight. Curious, I turned on my computer and checked out gazette.
"Rockies lose well-pitched game"
By Thomas Harding/
SAN FRANCISCO - Good pitching pays.
It just didn't for the Colorado Rockies Friday night.
Masato Yoshii gave the Rockies a rare quality start - seven two-hit, three-strikeout innings. But the San Francisco Giants' Joe Nathan continued to serve notice that he is a rare talent.... Yoshii's performance was the best by a Colorado starter this year. In some ways it was better than Nathan's. Yoshii didn't walk anyone and needed just 71 pitches, to Nathan's 109."The Rockies might have lost the game, but rookie Harding had got his story on the Web within minutes of the last pitch.