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GeekWire at the Ballpark: AM radio vs. digital audio; robot umpires; and Amazon cuts the line

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Trying out different play-by-play audio options in the stands at T-Mobile Park. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

Sitting in the stands down the first base line Thursday at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, I was feeling like a real fan, in my white Mariners jersey with GEEKWIRE on the back, Louisville Slugger baseball glove, Mariners spring training hat circa 2007, white Felix Hernandez socks, and noise-canceling headphones attached via cord to my portable AM-FM radio, perched between the seats in front of me for optimal reception.

That’s when the guy a few seats to my left turned my way and made a humbling observation … he wondered if I was cosplaying as Steve Bartman.

You may remember Bartman as the unfortunate Cubs fan in the hat and headphones at the 2003 National League Championship Series, who deflected a ball that might otherwise have been caught by Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou. If you’ve seen the video or a picture or watched the documentary, you’ll have a sense for what I looked like in the stands at the Mariners game this week.

But this was not cosplay. This was a tech test.

On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we pit old-fashioned terrestrial radio against smartphone audio streams for play-by-play in the stands. Then, we debate pros and cons of baseball analytics and robot umpires. And finally, we experience the highs and lows of Amazon’s retail technology at its hometown stadium.

Listen above, and continue reading for more.

Radio vs. smartphone: I like baseball, but I’m a real fan of multi-sensory experiences, especially seeing something live and simultaneously having somebody talking in your ears, pointing things out that you might otherwise miss.

At a modern-day baseball game, there’s so much happening in the stands, on the scoreboard, and among the people around you, it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening on the field.

Longtime baseball fans know the solution: bring a transistor radio to the game, maybe with some headphones, and follow along with the help of the play-by-play announcer and color commentator up in the booth.

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Nowadays, there are several apps that offer the ability to stream the audio of a game on your smartphone. In an ideal world, the experience of listening to the game via your phone in the stands would be perfectly in sync.

But in reality, anyone streaming the audio from the MLB app, TuneIn, or the 710 Seattle Sports radio app wouldn’t hear a home run call or any other play-by-play in their ears until at least 30 seconds after it happens on the field, given a significant delay in the audio stream.

This has annoyed me for a while. My ideal scenario would be to go to the game with a family member or buddy who also wanted to have the play-by-play going. Sitting next to each other, we could each have an Airpod in one ear, listening to the live stream from our phones and chatting in between pitches, almost like we were sitting on the couch together, except the game would be live in real life in front of us.

But the delay makes the phrase “live stream” a misnomer, and renders this scenario laughable. Testing it out during the game on Thursday, the stream from my phone was typically about two pitches behind the live action, at least.

I had a similar experience the last time I tried this at the ballpark, a few years ago, so this time I was prepared. I brought an AM FM portable digital transistor radio, purchased from Amazon the day before for $21.99.

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Tuning into the game, literally. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Sure enough, good old-fashioned terrestrial radio saved the day. There was a slight delay, but only a few seconds, between the action on the field and the broadcast.

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It was certainly workable, and an interesting example of old technology beating new.

I have a few theories about the reasons for the difference — including network latency, extra advertising in the live stream, or maybe an MLB policy or media rights issue — but I wasn’t able to get an answer in time for this episode. I’ll see if I can find out, and feel free let me know your ideas and theories at [email protected].

In the meantime, I’ll be perfecting my Steve Bartman cosplay in the stands. Anybody who appreciates listening to the play-by-play while watching a game is OK by me.

Tech at the ballpark: In the second segment, my colleague John Cook and I discuss and debate ways to make the game faster, the potential for augmented reality in the stands, the benefits and drawbacks of replacing umpires with robots, and John’s surprising misgivings about T-Mobile Park’s retractable roof.

Amazon One and “Just Walk Out” at the game: Of course, one of the worst parts of going to any professional sports game is waiting in line for a beverage or a snack and missing a pivotal play on the field.

But this is one of the locations where Amazon offers its Just Walk Out Technology, at a grab-and-go food and beverage store called the “Walk-Off Market,” which opened at T-Mobile Park earlier this year near Section 126 behind home plate.

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Using my palm to enter the Amazon-powered “Walk-Off Market.” (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

You can enter either by swiping a credit card or scanning your palm if you’ve already registered with the Amazon One system. The overhead cameras and sensors track you through the store to see what you take, and automatically charge your card.

Since I had already registered my palm and credit card with Amazon One at the Amazon Go store at the company’s headquarters back in 2020, I was able to enter the store at T-Mobile Park just by hovering my palm over the sensor, and the gate swung open. I headed straight for the large refrigerators in the back … but was stopped by a worker who asked to see my ID.

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I understand that there are liquor laws governing this, but if I’m going to give Amazon my biometrics, it would be great if the system could know that I’m well over the age of 21, and somehow allow me to pass into the beer section without needing to produce my ID. Consider that customer feedback for the folks over in the Day One Tower.

At any rate, after pondering the large selection of beer, I made my selection and grabbed a Mariner Dog from the hot case. Before exiting, I opened my beer can per another worker’s instructions — they don’t want fans to be able to use an unopened beer can as a projectile from the stand. Even with that, and getting carded, the whole experience took about two-and-minutes. It easily could have been less than a minute if I’d spent less time selecting the beer.

My colleagues Kurt Schlosser and Taylor Soper put together a full video and story when the “Walk-Off Market” opened.

But I do have an important postscript to add about that hot dog, which Taylor and I discussed when we were back in the stands on Thursday afternoon. The hot dog was lukewarm, and the bun was stale. As Taylor observed, I had run into one of the downsides of grab-and-go food service.

OK podcast fans, that’s the ballgame. Thanks for listening (and reading).

Listen above, or subscribe to GeekWire in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

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