Whole new ballgame in digital age

by Eric Benderoff

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

28 May 2008


During baseball season, you’ll find Jon Passman in the press box at Wrigley Field or maybe U.S. Cellular Field. In the winter, when it’s hockey and basketball season, you might see him at the United Center.

Like any sports reporter, he goes where the action is. But Passman doesn’t fret about finding the right words to lure readers into a story. He doesn’t write for a newspaper, magazine or a blog.

Yet, it’s his account of a ballgame - a detailed report of every pitch thrown - that tells millions of fans all they need to know. Passman’s work, refreshed every minute, is sent to mobile phones, laptops and a host of other gadgets that help a nation of need-it-now sports fans not miss a moment.

Passman works for Stats LLC, a Northbrook, Ill.-based compiler of data for baseball, football, hockey and even cricket matches that sends an army of information collectors to stadiums across the globe to feed the hungry appetites of fantasy sports players, intense fans and private clients with special requests.

“People want everything as fast as possible now,” he said. “Whether it’s news, the weather or how their third baseman is doing.”

Indeed, we’ve become a nation obsessed with instant information, in part because our everyday tools, such as a mobile phone, puts whatever content we desire at our fingertips. Why wait for the box scores in the morning paper when the performance of your fantasy team can be tabulated after each at-bat?

Ironically, it’s Passman’s account of the game that becomes the morning newspaper box score. Stats, once a scrappy number-crunching start-up based in Lincolnwood,Ill., is now jointly owned by The Associated Press and News Corp.

Its roster of clients reads like a who’s who of the sports world: ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, CBS, Fox, XM and Sirius. Some clients send up-to-the minute updates via text message to your mobile phone and others use the data to populate desktop scoreboards.

Passman isn’t the only one who works for Stats from the press boxes at Chicago’s two big-league ball parks - there’s about a half-dozen others who work on a rotation. Worldwide, the company uses 350 so-called reporters to cover 85 sports at more than 55,000 live events a year, including mixed martial arts.

So how does that instant information arrive on your gadget?

It starts with people like Passman, and the process is not much different than what hundreds of fans do at a ballpark each game: keep score.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds if you’re scoring for Stats.

I sat next to Passman on a recent afternoon at Wrigley to watch him work, pitch after pitch.

He starts about 90 minutes before game time when the managers for each club release their lineups. Passman enters the lineups by selecting players from the player lists built into the Stats software on his laptop.

Then he enters the names, by hand, on an old-fashioned paper scorecard. He keeps two scorecards and both are marked after each pitch. If the wireless network in the press box crashes during a game, or his computer fails, Passman will use the paper score to record the game.

There’s another backup as well: another person, like Passman, watches the game on TV and also scores it after each pitch. If Passman’s equipment fails, the other person’s scoring will feed the gadgets.

After each pitch, Passman hits the keyboard: a `B’ for a ball, or one of two choices (swinging or watching) for a strike.

The action starts when he hits `H,’ which denotes a ball has been put in play. Several options pop up on his screen. He can hit a key for a single or one for a ground out, for example. If it’s a single, he’ll be prompted to enter what type - an infield hit or one that went into left field. If the batted ball leads to a double play, there are codes to determine the type, from a routine 6-4-3 play (shortstop to second to first) or whether a runner was doubled off a base due to a catch and throw from an outfielder.

Meanwhile, he also tracks the direction and distance of the ball in play, and finally, the degree of difficulty for the fielder, with 1 being routine and 4 being spectacular.

To score a play, Passman typically hits between 15 and 20 keys before the next pitch comes. Did I mention he marks the play on paper, too?

“I’ve got to be on my toes a little bit today,” he said. “These are two of the quickest workers I’ve seen in a while.” The two starting pitchers, Tom Gorzelanny for the Pirates and Sean Gallagher for Cubs, are not likely headed to the Hall of Fame, but they are working fast on this day.

Good for the fans and the fielders, not so much for Passman.

On the other hand, he’d rather score a game with a brisk pace. It doesn’t matter if it’s close or a blowout - “There are many times when I’ve walked out of the ballpark not knowing what the score was because I’m so focused” - just as long as it’s efficient.

“The score doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “But what does is if it’s a slow-working pitcher. Someone who tends to walk around the mound a lot. I can lose my focus a little.”

I want to kibbitz with him about a play - he’s a nice guy and talks a good game - or just show off some of the gadgets I’ve brought to see how fast his work reaches a mobile phone or laptop. (Typically less than a minute.) But he needs to focus.

Every now and then, Passman reaches for a pair of binoculars. I figure he’s just double-checking the players in the field - “You have to be careful when taking a bathroom break,” he said - but it’s really to track proprietary information for a major league client he won’t disclose.

Such private clients pay for an extended analysis that comes from a later review of the game on tape.

The after-the-game analysis also creates additional information, such as those remarkable details - he hits .222 with 2 strikes, 2 outs and runners in scoring position - that flash on the TV screen during a game.

The game comes to an end, with the Cubs winning 7-4. There weren’t many tough scoring decisions this afternoon, but there was one discrepancy between Passman’s score and the one kept by the TV-watching reporter: whether an infield pop-up from the middle of the game was caught in fair or foul territory. Passman had it right: it was fair. Checking discrepancies is important, he said. The clients pay for accuracy.

Then, before he turns his laptop off, he e-mails his score card to The Associated Press, where it is turned into a box score for the nation’s newspapers.

As the newspaper reporters head to the locker room for postgame quotes, I ask Passman what he will remember from this day.

“Not much,” he said. (I try not to look hurt.)

“I do remember some events, like when Jim Thome hit his 500th home run,” he said of a game he scored last year at U.S. Cellular Field. “That’s probably because it was a significant milestone. But maybe also because I’m a Sox fan.”

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderoff AT tribune.com.)

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