CIO in the Show

Equipping a Major League Baseball team with IT isn't all fun and games.

by / August 31, 2007 0

When young baseball players talk about getting to the "show," they mean making the major leagues. It's the dream of many youngsters, and the difficulty achieving that dream is reflected by the multimillion-dollar salaries of today's major league players.

But for Steve Conley, making the show meant becoming a dot-com millionaire - at which he says he failed. Conley worked for Ernst and Young, then Pioneer Investments. Then he worked at a dot-com company that went bust, ending the dream. But it opened the door to another dream job: IT director of the Boston Red Sox.

"I've been a baseball fan all my life, and I love computers and solving problems. I think I have the best job in the world," Conley said. "It's pretty rare when you really enjoy your job, but you also know the business you're doing is bringing fun and value to an entire region. It's special."

It's not always easy, however.

Conley and his staff operate in the oldest major league park. When Fenway Park was built in 1912, IT infrastructure wasn't a consideration, but Conley is making do. Despite a lack of space and conflicts with public spectrum, he's fitted the stadium and end-users with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and a wireless LAN.

The wireless LAN improves the reliability of the team's ticket scanning system, provides in-seat Internet access to luxury areas in the ballpark, and delivers high-speed Internet access to players, photographers, writers and staff throughout the park. 

Eventually Fenway Park will be a Wi-Fi hotspot for fans, but going full-bore with wireless is tricky, Conley said. "Wireless is a funny subject. Your core infrastructure is running on a public spectrum that conflicts with things as simple as phones and baby monitors to microwave ovens. We've had all sorts of issues. Even just the TV microwave trucks can wipe out our wireless completely, and because they run the same frequency, they will just overpower the signal."

His team also installed high-tech IP phones in some suites around the stadium, which give users several functions, including one that lets fans view the local radar loop from weather.com by hitting a button.

"I don't think someone is going to come back from a game and say, 'What a game, but they had the best phones in that suite!'" Conley said, laughing. "It's just some added value that's neat to show off."

Conley and his team also support approximately 80 roving scouts, who analyze amateur players worldwide eligible for one of two major league drafts each year.

The scouts evaluate each prospect's arm strength, speed, power and hands when fielding a ball, and electronically record the athlete's height, weight and other measurements - all the way down to his calf muscles.

Scouts also go to minor league systems all over the United States to look for prospects the club might trade for. Advanced scouts evaluate the next opponent for tendencies the team can exploit. Before each game, players and coaches go over those habits and develop a game plan. A pitcher, for instance, knows what pitches a hitter likes and the "holes" in his swing - those areas or pitches that give the hitter trouble.

"We have a large scouting department that's constantly on the road, and [our phone system] allows them to do four-digit dialing to the office at any point," Conley said. "As long as you have high-speed Internet, you can use our VPN [virtual private network] and your phone is on your laptop - and that's internationally, domestically, whatever. You can also call home without running up cell or other extraneous charges from a hotel," he said.

"We have permanent VoIP in our Dominican Republic academy," Conley added. "We have four-digit dialing, and we're bypassing

international long distance charges there."

The way scouts process the data they collect has changed over the years, Conley said, and it's his job to ensure they have the necessary mechanisms. "My role is making sure the tools they need to do their job are available - VPN, access to e-mail, BlackBerry, Internet access."

Then there's video.

Video plays a large part in most players' games. Hitters pore over video, searching for hitches in their swings when they aren't hitting well, and comparing their swings from videos taken when things were going well. Pitchers examine video to analyze the mechanics of their windup and pitch delivery.

"The team travels with three to five terabytes of video. A player can review any at-bat he wants to see of himself from the past three years at a moment's notice," Conley said. "As soon as his last at-bat ends, he can, depending on the location, watch that video. At Fenway Park, we have a video room right behind the dugout. Visiting clubhouses are a little different in terms of how far away [it is] from the dugout, but as soon as he's out of view of the field, a player could be looking at his last at-bat."

Conley doesn't travel with the team, but there's a lot of work for Conley and his IT group to keep the players, coaches, front office, scouts, media, stadium personnel and fans dialed in during a 162-game season. "Even 81 [home] games is a bit much. At the end of a long home stand, we're wiped."

 

Jim McKay Contributing Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.