Taking the Season One Click at a Time, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Online Sports Trackers

Growing up in Maine, I rooted for teams well outside the standard TV coverage map for the area. In the summer, when NESN would broadcast Brian Daubach’s strikeouts as the Red Sox limped to an impotent second-place AL East finish year after year, I’d cut away at the :28 and :58 mark of each hour to ESPN, where I could check the not-yet permanent ticker to see how my favorite Toronto Blue Jays were doing.

But this detached, static experience didn’t satisfy me. As I got a bit older, a bit more innovative and Internet-savvy, I discovered a better alternative. I discovered MLB Gameday.

The peak of my MLB Gameday era was 2002-2003, which, at my house, meant we were just beyond the days of dial-up internet. And the Blue Jays, surely, were on the upswing, having found their third baseman of at least the decade to come—Eric Hinske.

I had known for a while that the internet contained information. After my own Little League season was through, my summer afternoons—out in the fan-cooled back room, where our good, hulking Windows XP was—were perpetually vacant. I would be too tired from morning sports to be active, too young and pale to entertain just hanging out outside. Steadily, I became (in the least sordid way imaginable, you guys) more familiar with the web. I learned the Blue Jays had their own website that contained news, notes, and, crucially, up-to-date scores. During games, on the right side of the screen above the box score, they also offered tracking options:

Russ Adams, much like Eric Hinske, failed to be the Blue Jays’ savior. In five years, his slash line was .247/.313/.372. (Bluejays.com via Wayback Machine)

I don’t remember my initial reluctance to listen to the game’s audio. Perhaps that connection was flaky with our internet, or I didn’t like the announcer’s voice. (That was the case with tracking my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers: Myron Cope was a legend, but goddamn was his voice rough to the uninitiated.) More likely, I knew there was something unhealthy about the behavior of following these games every day, and since we didn’t have a pair of headphones at the computer, playing audio would ruin my secrecy. My only option, then, was “Gameday.”

Gameday brewed baseball down to its essential components. The version today has been spruced up by someone fluent in UX, but its pioneering form was meager. An outline of the field, with the position players sprinkled about. To the right, a gray silhouette profile of a hitter at the plate, sized identically whether he was David Eckstein or Vladimir Guerrero. (It did flip to the left side, when someone like Hinske or Carlos Delgado stepped to bat.) And above the plate itself, a box—not a grid like on today’s broadcasts, just a box—denoting the strike zone.

When a pitch came in, three circles could show up. Green circles were balls. One of my favorite anachronisms of Gameday was when a green circle would show up right on the batter’s lumbar, typically due to an intentional walk to a switch-hitter silhouette, occasionally something else. (When a massive delay followed this green ball, you knew that the closure of his local Bass Pro Shops had triggered Josh Beckett—and that he was taking his frustrations out on the hitter.)

Red circles were strikes, and the text summary below the image showed if it were swinging, looking, or fouled off. But the best circle—bar none—was the blue circle. That meant the ball had been put in play. From there, for a brief moment, you—unlike anyone watching in-person or on TV, who was constrained by the pitch and the swing and the literal result—knew that anything could happen.

I can’t find Gameday itself, but I found a link from 2007 calling Gameday on MLB.com “the premiere destination for following live baseball on the Internet.” (Wayback Machine)

Really, the arrival of the blue circle primed the dopamine receptors. The coding system when a ball went into play required two steps: first the circle’s arrival, then the play’s outcome. This interval was crucial to enjoying the Gameday experience. For a long time, the blue circle told you nothing about the play’s outcome. It was perfect. You’d sit at the screen, waiting for the result while, in your mind’s eye, you saw web gems and upper deck shots or maybe a drive to the gap that the always-over-ambitious Raul Mondesi would try to stretch for a triple. When the Blue Jays were hitting, blue circles were a delight; when Esteban Loaiza or a young Roy Halladay toed the rubber, they harbored anxiety. There’s the old statement about the forward pass in football, about how three things can happen and two of them are bad. When a blue circle showed up with the Blue Jays in the field, the ratio seemed even worse.

Quickly, I realized that the best way to use Gameday was as an intermittent tracking tool. Much like it’s no fun to stare at your phone and perpetually wait for some cool person’s text to appear, I hated observing, through Gameday, Roy Halladay work four-pitch at-bat after four-pitch at-bat before an inevitable grounder to the left side of the infield. For the vast majority of the game, I found it better to take the information in via chunks, checking in every couple of minutes to see how things had progressed.

Everything seems inevitable when you know what’s directly preceding it: A strikeout makes sense from an 1-2 count. You may even expect it. But when you tap over to Ebaumsworld to watch the “Badger, Badger” video for the ninth time with the count at 1-0, upon returning, a strikeout is a pleasant surprise.

I became addicted, opening the Gameday window and closing it and opening it again. I was, essentially, clicking a button to receive a random reward: An advantageous 3-1 count, maybe a leadoff double. By virtue of having this ritual every batter, game after game, I could convince myself that I could manufacture success for my teams. These tricks, I realize now (and almost certainly realized then), were wholly rooted in superstition and the too-human fallacy of trying to find patterns in large numbers. Nevertheless, I’d try meaningless things like only clicking over after I had completed a good run in my solitaire game in the adjacent window or read a whole article on ESPN’s Page 2, minimizing the Gameday screen and then reopening after an appropriate amount of time to put together a rally for the team. (For whatever reason, I believed looking too long at the tracker would inevitably augur a string of bad luck for the Jays. Perhaps doing so meant I was ceding too much control to the program, that the game was playing me.)

I knew, of course, that this was a rather pathetic way to digest a game. But soon, I had decoded each system inside and out, and I was getting more information than the program had been designed to transmit. During any Jays game, I knew that when there was a massive delay when a blue circle had gone on the screen, this was generally good news for the hitting team: There were more outcomes to code—a new runner was on base, the man on first had scored, maybe even, Christ, there had been a throwing error and the new runner had advanced a base—and the flustered intern who had been tasked with monitoring the afternoon’s Gameday duties was now hyperventilating. Sometimes, though, the long pause brought surprises: An outfield assist to end the inning, a throwing error that caused the zealous runner to then commit fielders’ interference. One time, when I was tracking my ill-fated fantasy baseball team, Marlins closer Todd Jones and third baseman Mike Lowell combined on a perfectly-executed hidden ball trick, and I swear the screen merely vaporized the runner on third without any explanation.

One year, Gameday’s pitch tracking received an update: The circles, forever naked, had become detailed. All of them now carried speed and pitch type data, but most importantly, the blue circle’s mystery was gone. Besides just denoting a ball “in play,” the blue circle told you in advance if the outcome resulted in “out(s) recorded,” “no out recorded,” or “run(s) scored.” Gameday, while improving in an informational sense, had steadily encroached on its imaginative elements. Before, you could be ignorant; now you’d know, with the appearance of each circle, at the minimum a broad range of what to expect.

The tracker still had some nuance: A fielder’s choice where a runner scored from third still got marked as a “run(s) scored” play, but a run-scoring double play fell under the umbrella of “out(s) recorded.” But mostly, the insane uncertainty of the system—the setup and the payoff, the fun of the whole thing—had been neutered. A few surprises remained (would one run score, or three?), but you would never again be waiting on a coder’s frantic fingers to tell you if there had been a grand slam or a double play. No longer could every blue circle maybe, potentially, translate into a moonshot to center.

And as technology further improved, the lag time between the initial scent of the outcome and the actual outcome declined. The payoffs couldn’t built up as much. And the bugs happened with less frequency. Gameday, today, provides a valid, informative tracker, an awful development. By becoming more modern, the archaic system actually lost much of its kitschy appeal.

The 2016 version of Gameday looks snazzy, even incorporating elements of the home ballpark in each window. (mlb.com/gameday via Wayback Machine)

Through high school and college, I increasingly lacked the time and interest to sit by a computer and track my teams; I required a more active viewing experience. I found friends with the NFL Red Zone package, and eventually bars with TVs and cheap beer. (I also grew increasingly comfortable with frequenting, um, alternative websites—whose URLs almost never ended with “dot com”—that would generously provide streams of games.) I stopped watching baseball altogether, as the Blue Jays ensconced themselves in the lower tiers of the league and viewing 162 games became an ordeal more than a joy. I started writing about sports, too, finding the synthesized form of every game insufficient for any sort of reporting purposes. I assumed that, having moved beyond my nascent days of fandom, Gameday and its ilk would become blips in my rearview.

But I can’t escape game trackers entirely. Once I entered the working world, they popped right back into my life. It’s no secret they’re perfect for the cubicle, able to be tucked away in a corner tab, easily accessible once the boss dips out for the day.

A few weeks ago, I had the Wimbledon Slamtracker up on my screen. It’s not nearly as great as Gameday. Your best “predictor”—equivalent to the blue circles of Gameday—is merely the serve speed. You can deduce whether it’s a first or second serve, but the tracker doesn’t clarify if the serve was a fault, so it’s a fairly useless indicator. But still, there comes value from bopping in and out of the window, seeing, say, Gilles Muller earn a break point against Rafael Nadal, clicking away, and then returning, burdened with hope, thirty-five or so seconds later. The tracker serves as the dumbest rewards game there is; every time I click back on the tab, I’ll have bad news or a pleasant surprise. But like a rat in a lab, I’ve found I’ll apparently play the game as long as necessary. When you’re at work, I figure, that’s not a bad deal.

Yet the other appeal of these trackers is almost ethereal. A comeback from down love-40 no longer arises from a natural succession of a couple winners and a string of double faults. It’s a sign of divine intervention. Gameday abstracts the sport, curbing its limitations, putting the probable and improbable on level footing. Occasionally, it delivers the impossible.

In October 2015, I studied Gameday in utter confusion as the Blue Jays, tied with the Rangers in the seventh inning of a win-or-go-home Divisional Playoff, fell behind due to one of the strangest plays in baseball history.

The summary text for the event—“Odor scored on throwing error by catcher Martin.”—is grossly inadequate. A routine toss back from the catcher to the pitcher, one that happens hundreds of times each game without incident—a play that doesn’t warrant any circle, let alone a blue one—went awry when a bat that never falls in the path of the ball fell in the path of the ball. Were circumstances slightly different (the ball dead, the act intentional) nothing would’ve counted. But it stood. The play had tangible impact; without some nervy Texas fielding and Jose Bautista’s heroics, the fluke could’ve altered baseball history. And while I was quite pissed at the time, stewing at my monitor with the window veiled by spreadsheet after spreadsheet, I realized, begrudgingly, that such a situation was the optimal Gameday experience: the kind of play that could only happen when you let your imagination run wild.

Lucas Hubbard is a writer in Durham, North Carolina, who no longer has computer privileges at his day job.

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