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No more sign stealing? Electronic pitch calling coming to big league ballparks

Two days before Opening Day, and about five years too late....

Colorado Rockies v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

So those wacky baseball owners actually pulled a fast one this week, suddenly announcing an electronic pitch-calling system for pitchers and catchers, two days before Opening Day.

Baseball’s operations and strategy officer, Chris Marinak, tells The Associated Press that the system eliminates the need for a catcher to send visual signs to the pitcher.

The catcher signals pitch type and location using a touch pad on the wrist. A receiver in the pitcher’s cap uses bone-conduction technology to the pitcher’s ear, so they hear the call.

PitchCom is specially made for baseball’s major leagues, but wireless communications in pro sports is decades old, as is the “bone phone.”

This newfound embrace of technology after eschewing it raises a few questions.

First (in Sam Kinison voice): WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THIS YEARS AGO?

It’s well known that baseball, as an institution, is resistant to change. But if the dinosaurs had a meteorite defense system at the ready, surely they would have agreed to use it before the thing hit the ground.

Hard to believe something like this wasn’t available for the 2017 World Series, to forestall the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal. Or how about the 2019 World Series, before the Astros’ tactics were made public, when the Washington Nationals’ staff knew all about them anyway and developed an elaborate system to prevent further sign stealing?

This kind of wireless technology is not that new. NFL coaches have been in their quarterbacks’ ears since 1994, and now they talk to the defensive captains, too.

The technology has clearly been refined and adapted to suit the particular needs, but it’s been secure and durable enough for use in a successful major pro sports league all that time.

Owners, however, in all their infinite wisdom, did not create a demand for such a specialized product until the sport nearly lost its credibility. Restrictions on the use of video followed; owners were reluctant to turn to technology again after blaming it for the problem.

Once the owners got behind the idea of secure communications though, PitchCom made it from Class-A to the major leagues faster than Juan Soto.

ProMystic, a decade-old supplier of wireless tools for for magicians and mentalists, developed PitchCom and approached baseball officials in 2020.

It was tested in the Low-A West league starting last season, and the tests moved to Spring Training games weeks ago.

Now PitchCom has been promoted past the robo umps, bigger bases, pitch clock, and other concepts still testing in the minors.

Owners and the players’ union approved it for use in all ballparks, starting Thursday.

One other tidbit from Marinak struck a nerve: Apparently, allowing the pitcher and catcher to communicate securely improves the pace of the game.

More than a few owners must have been jolted out of their luxury boxes when they heard that one. Cutting out a bunch of mound visits and signal resets actually picks up the game?

Huh.

One other question: Why now?

This feels rushed, but then what about the 2022 baseball season doesn’t? The lockout kept us all waiting for weeks, but then we went back-and-forth on rules like the “Manfred Man” on second base in extra innings.

Clearly, this is a good idea. The sudden embrace does seem unusual, but maybe it’s a sign baseball will embrace more good ideas soon.