This past January, I was heading down to Connecticut to attend the World Baseball Coaches’ Convention. It was a Saturday morning, January 15th to be exact, and I left my home in North Kingstown with a clean notebook, a large cup of piping hot coffee, and the typical giddiness I feel when I am about to be immersed in a ton of great baseball knowledge. As I was travelling south and west to Connecticut, just over the bridge which connects the two states on Route 165, my check engine light came on in my 2005 Volvo. It is an older car, the light comes on all the time, so I didn’t think much of it and kept going. Shortly passed the bridge, up the hill, down through the town of Voluntown, CT the car was just not running smoothly so I pulled into a Valero Gas Station in the town of Griswold, CT and shut the car off. I walked into the convenience store, which has a Subway and Dunkin’ inside to give my car a breather.
Standing in the Dunkin’ line to get a blueberry muffin, I was starting to feel a little anxious about continuing my trip west. My car was acting funny and I was thinking I should probably try to limp home as opposed to pushing it all the way out to Mohegan Sun and the convention. “Hey are you going to the convention? I see you have a Fenway baseball hat on” asked a Taylor Swift looking 20 something standing in the “your order is coming up soon” section of Dunkin’. “Yes, I was before my car sort of starting acting funny,” I replied. “What are you a coach or something,” asked the Jack Black looking 20 something she was standing next to. “I’m a baseball writer and commissioner of a recreation baseball league in Rhode Island.” The two 20 somethings looked at each other and motioned to the Dunkin’ counter representative. “Hey, whatever he is getting, is on me,” said the Taylor Swift looking 20 something. She came over to me and extended her hand, “Audrey Mancini and this is my business partner Sean Paul Jones.” “Like the Zeppelin bass player?” I asked? Jones replied, “my Dad was a huge Zep fan and thought it would be a cool name. You can call me PJ, please.” “Nice to meet you Audrey and PJ and thanks for the muffin,” and I started to walk out. “Wait,” yelled Audrey as I was just about to leave the convenience store, “do you have 5 minutes to hear about the ultimate baseball fan experience?”
PJ ushered me over to an RV parked in the back of the gas station and opened the side door for me. Audrey was close behind and I let her go in first. When I walked up the steps and looked to my left, I saw what appeared to be a mobile office suite. Computer screens, flat screen TVs, keypads, monitors flashing, and baseball pennants from just about every MLB team strung up on the walls of the inside of the RV. “What does UBFE stand for?” I asked as it was peppered throughout the RV on the computer screens, monitors, and walls. “The Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience,” said Audrey proudly, “this is what we are here to show you.” PJ handed me a control panel, like an iPad. On the screen was a grid with buttons underneath with the words “Fastball” and “Curveball” and “Slider” and “Changeup” and “Inside” and “Outside” and “Pitch Out.” I looked at Audrey who then handed me what appeared to be an ordinary pair of black socks. “Put this sock on your left foot, please. And this one on your right.” I complied and removed my shoes and socks and replaced it with the black socks Audrey handed to me. PJ and Audrey looked at each other and then PJ said, “Ok, push any button on the keypad, please.” I looked at the keypad and pressed “Curveball.” 2 seconds later, 2 buzzes hit my left calf muscle, presumably through the sock. “I feel a buzzer” I commented. “Good,” Audrey then instructed me “Now choose your location.” On the key pad, the screen had turned to only locations. I chose “Inside” and within 2 seconds, a single buzz hit my right calf muscle. PJ and Audrey smiled as I reacted to the buzzing in my lower leg. “What just happened?” I asked. “You just called your first pitch using the Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience software we invented.”
“We see fans wanting to get more out of the viewing and in game experience at a traditional amateur or professional baseball game,” started PJ on his elevator speech. “Fans with our software can now pay money to call a game and be part of the Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience.” “So, the fans choose the pitches and this device transmits the info to the pitcher and catcher?” I asked. “To the entire team, the players on the field, the coaches in the dugouts, the entire team will be wearing team specific gear that only they can receive signals in,” stated Audrey and she pulled up a design demo on the flat screen monitors. It showed a demo with 5 cartoon fans, all holding these key pads, pressing buttons. “If you have a bunch of fans involved, the highest percentage of the pitch selection wins out. For example, if 2 fans choose “fastball” and 3 fans choose “slider,” the software recognizes that 3 beats 2, so it transmits the “slider” message to the team. The demo continued with a tiny lighting bolt pulsing on each of the defensive players left legs, then their right legs announcing the fan’s choice for pitch and pitch location. “So you want a bunch of fans calling a professional baseball game with millions of dollars at stake on the field and the players are just supposed to go along with whatever pitch comes up and whatever location comes up?” I asked inquisitively. Audrey giggled and said, “you know that is exactly what everyone said at the convention the last two days.”
Turns out Audrey and PJ had been pitching their idea at the convention for 2 days straight and were taking the morning off to recharge their batteries with a hike in Exeter’s Acadia Park. The “No’s” were aplenty from baseball coaches, league officials, umpires, and just about anyone they spoke to at the convention. “As you can see from our appearances, we are not athletes. We are computer geeks, if you look up the definition in the dictionary, our pictures are probably right there. But, we are also huge baseball fans. If we were given the opportunity to be a part of a real game, like the module and demo here, we would absolutely jump at the chance. And we are so convinced that others would do the same. You said you run a recreation league? Would you try it for one game, we will give you the software free of charge to try out for one game. If you don’t like it or its not what you think, it won’t cost you anything. We just need a sample game, that’s all we have been pitching for the last 2 years.” “Two years, you have had this idea for 2 years now?” I asked. PJ answered “Aud and I met at St. George’s School. We actually graduated at age 16, then went to Cal Poly, and graduated at 19. At Cal Poly, we used to travel to Dodger and Angels games and just dream about the ultimate fan experience. We actually came up with the software for our senior project and have been “pitching” it ever since. You are actually the first one to get as far as the socks, so congrats.” I took a deep breathe and looked at the two deeply passionate baseball fans and thought of my own baseball fandom. “Sure I’ll give it shot, I will pitch it to my Calamari League managers and with their blessing, maybe we can try it out this Spring in the Calamari League.” Audrey and PJ jumped up and down, shaking the RV, then calmed down and shook my hand. We agreed to stay in contact over the Spring via Zoom so I could learn more about the product and how it could be used.
For the past 2 months, every Wednesday morning, Audrey and PJ and I have met virtually to go over the Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience software and devices. “The software will have a range of just over the size of a baseball field, so the “fans” calling the game need to be within the field for the best reception and transmission of the signals.” I searched around the many Rhode Island baseball fields that I have set up for the Calamari League play and settled on Slocum’s Lischio Field, which has a press box overlooking the field, just above the 3rd base dugout. Through a baseball contact, I was able to gain access to Lischio Field on a late February Saturday for the afternoon and met PJ and Audrey there. I donned the socks and trotted out to the pitcher’s mound. PJ and Audrey walked up the wooden steps to the press box and set up the computers and keypads. I looked up to the press box and removed my cap, a baseball signal that means I am ready or the pitcher is ready to play, and then assumed the ready position on the mound. Just as the demo went, 2 seconds later I received 2 buzzes on my left calf. Curveball. And then one buzz on my right calf. Inside. I went into my windup with Audrey and PJ yelling and screaming and chanting from the press box and threw an imaginary curveball. “Now go over to Shortstop and we will hit you again,” yelled PJ. So, I went over to the shortstop spot and just like on the mound, received the two signals on my left and right calf. “Now go way, way out to the right field foul pole,” pointed Audrey and I jogged happily out to the far reaches of right field at Lischio Field. I removed my cap and then waited. 2 seconds later, a buzz, then another buzz. Successful trial run. Now it was time for a real game situation.
At the March 9th, Spring Fever Calamari League Meeting, I pitched the idea to the 12 managers assembled over at Newport’s O’Brien’s Pub. I brought Audrey and PJ to help with some of the technical questions and answer some of the objections from the group. Much to our surprise, 10 out of 12 managers agreed to participate and would give feedback to Audrey and PJ after their game to help make the experience and the product potentially better. The first game using the Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience was set for a matchup between the Mackerel Cove Clamshells of Jamestown (who agreed to be the first team to use the software) and the Kingston Paratroopers of West Kingston on Sunday, March 20th – the first day of Spring at Lischio Field. Audrey and PJ would get the Clamshells the special socks days ahead of the game. And the Clamshells Manager, Buddy Fields and I got to work on selecting a group of “fans” to participate in the first ever Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience game!
Game time was set for 11am on Sunday March 20th. The Clamshells, all wearing their special socks, along with the Paratroopers arrived an hour before game time and hit the field for warmups while their family members, friends, co-workers, and some interested fans all packed the bleachers and grassy areas of Lischio Field on a very pleasant 50 something degree day. Audrey and PJ’s RV was parked in the main parking lot next to the Slocum Fire Station. I met up with the 5 fans who would be “calling” the game and ushered them up to the press box. I had met with the “fans” a few times already in the week leading up to the game to go over the keypad, the purpose of the exercise, and answer any questions they may have about the process. I showed them the pitch selection options and the location options. I got mostly nods from the group, who seemed to know a thing or two about video games, baseball, and how things worked computer wise. In the press box, Audrey was just finishing up setting up the final steps in the software and said hello to all the fans and said “have a great game everyone.” I stayed upstairs with the fans as game time approached. Through the PA system, I announced the lineups for the Paratroopers and then the Clamshells. The National Anthem was played, and then the Clamshells jogged out to the field to take their positions. 10 warmup pitches by the Clamshells’ Austin Lake, a throw down to second base by catcher Barry Shortz and it was game time. The 5 “fans” looked out and saw Lake standing on the mound and then it was time for their first pitch selection.
5 out of 5 fans voted for “fastball” and “middle” for the first pitch. The buttons pushed. Myself, Audrey, and PJ waited for Lake to react and go into his windup. And there it was. The first fan generated pitch call in the history of Amateur or Professional baseball was off and hurling towards home plate. The umpire, my son Harrison, a junior at North Kingstown High School, raised his hand up and yelled out “Strike.” Audrey and PJ ran up to the press box and banged on the door. “I see they called fastball and he threw a fastball.” Audrey said. “Yup, let’s see how this goes, but so far so good guys,” I said as I shut the door and went back over to the fans who were just about to call their next pitch. Audrey and PJ walked down the steps and stood in front of the fence next to the 3rd base dugout, grinning from ear to ear. The next call, “fastball” again, and Lake nodded, a veteran pitchers habit of nodding when he/she gets a signal from their catcher. Lake went into his windup and threw another fastball, this one was hit to the 2nd baseman, who tossed to first for the out. Another milestone, the first out in a game called by fans. Audrey, PJ, and I were thrilled with the results after just one batter. And a small amount of relief was realized that this fan experience experiment might be a success after all.
Lake would go on to pitch his 2 innings (Calamari League rule) of near perfect baseball. Only 1 strikeout, 2 walks, one hit batter, 1 run allowed, but no hits. The pace of the game was very comfortable and Mackarel’s Erin Standish took the mound. Standish nodded to the “fans” after each pitch, similar to Lake, and she fired pitch after pitch with very similar results. In fact, in the top of the 3rd inning, Standish threw only 5 pitches and got 3 outs on a pop fly to center, a ground out to the 3rd basemen, and a foiled bunt attempt which Standish took care of herself. Audrey motioned me down to the field and asked me if the Paratroopers had any…. “Don’t say the word I think you are going to say,” I stopped her. “It’s bad luck to say that word or words during a game such as this.” Standish finished the 4th with a walk, 2 strikeouts, and no hits.
In the top of the 5th inning, the score was very close. Mackarel had built a small lead at 4-1 but the big story was the….I can’t say it or I will jinx it. The Clamshells sent their player/manager, Buddy Fields, out for the 5th inning. The Paratroopers JT Anderson was the first batter. The “fans” were on a roll and were feeling very confident so they called “changeup” on the first pitch from Fields. Fields nodded, as did his previous pitchers Lake and Standish, then hurled in an “Eephus” type ball to Anderson. Anderson, an Incredible Hulk looking 50 year old former Paratrooper himself, launched a foul ball that went over the trees in left field about 600 feet. Fields called time out, walked to home plate, and shook Anderson’s hand, much to the delight of the teams and the fans. Fields jogged back to the mound, received his next pitch from the “fans”, nodded with a smirk and a shrug, then threw fastball after fastball up and out of the strike zone. To which Anderson swung and missed and swung and missed twice for a a strikeout. And like Lake and Standish, Fields tossed a no-hit top of the 5th inning. 5 innings of play, 5 innings of fans calling the game for the Clamshells pitchers, 5 innings of no “you know what.”
PJ came up to the press box again. “How are the fans doing?” he asked. “I think they are having the time of their lives.” I said as the top of the 6th inning was about to get underway. The score was now 6-1, as the Clamshells added two more runs in their bottom of the 5th inning. Up next was the Clamshells closer, Juanita Baker who had actually played semi-pro baseball while stationed in Hawaii in the late 1980s. At 55 years old and the head strength and conditioning coach for the actual Army Paratroopers stationed in Kingston, Baker looked like a professional baseball player more than anyone else on the field that day. Baker, unlike Lake, Standish, and Fields, did not nod when the signal came in. She just wound up and fired strike after strike. No emotion, no nodding, all business. The “fans” signaled her pitch after pitch until another milestone was met – an immaculate inning. 9 pitches, 9 strikes, 3 outs. Audrey and PJ were beside themselves at the fence, jumping up and down like little kids when the ice cream truck bell rings on your street in the summer. One more inning to go and with Baker on the mound, a historic first Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience could possibly be in the books.
The Clamshells, seemingly not fazed at all by the “you know what” tacked on another run in their half of the 6th inning to run the score up to 7-1. Baker sprinted out of the dugout and got through her warmup pitches, Buddy Fields (now catching) tossed a strike down to second base and the last at bats for the Paratroopers were coming up. Ok here we go. I looked out at Baker. Baker didn’t move. She was just standing on the mound. 10 seconds went by, 20 seconds. Audrey looked up at the press box. PJ started walking up the wooden steps. I looked down at the fans, who were actually pausing to select their next pitch. A changeup in the process? The “fans” had been so fast, so responsive to signaling. The batter asked for time and stepped out of the batters box. I looked at one of the fans and he said “trying to get into his head,” motioning to the Paratroopers Anderson. I laughed out loud and said “well played, proceed.” Then the “fans” selected a pitch, Baker wound up and threw a curveball that spun Anderson around so badly that he fell down. The “fans” all giggled and then went ahead and “struck out” Anderson with a fastball and another curveball. Baker had thrown 12 pitchers and recorded 4 outs. The next batter, The Paratroopers Sharon Peters flew out to right field on the first pitch Baker threw. 2 outs. Up walked the Paratroopers Alex Wright who was determined to break up the fun and the “you know what.” Alex dug in to the batter’s box with a big smile, which quickly turned to a frown. Baker reared back and threw 2 fastballs right down the middle, as per the “fans” instructions for a quick 0-2 count. Wright stepped out, adjusted his batting gloves, then dug back in. The “fans” stalled again, trying to play some mind games with Wright, then selected “changeup” and “away” to end the game. Baker went into the windup, then tossed a near perfect circle changeup, to which Alex Wright swung through and my umpire son declared “Strike 3, You’re Out!!”
And the Clamshells teammates in the dugout raced towards the mound and threw up their gloves and hugged each other. Then the family members ran out onto the field and joined them. After a few moments of hugging and hi-fives, the Clamshells lined up at home plate and shook hands with the Paratroopers. All while Audrey and PJ were hugging and hi-fiving each other and then ran up the stairs to congratulate the “fans” for a historic no-hitter performance in the first ever Ultimate Baseball Fan Experience. The entire game was recorded, as were the pitch selections in the press box, and the fan reactions in the stands. Audrey and PJ had enough data and game footage and positive information to to take their idea to the next convention or baseball event. And as for the 5 “fans,” I escorted them back to their parents who were waiting for them on the field. Average age, 11 years old. Average video game skills, expert!!! Baseball fans, absolutely. In fact, every single one of them had played on the North Kingstown District All Star 11U team in 2021.
Final score – Clamshells 7, Paratroopers 1. A no hitter thrown by Lake, Standish, Fields, and Baker – the first ever in Calamari League history, called by 5 fans aged 11 years old from the press box above the 3rd base dugout at Lischio Field on the first day of Spring, 2022. Wow!!! A truly historic day and a truly historic Rhode Island Baseball Experience.
Happy April Fools Day Everyone!