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Inside the game with Ballpark Cam

When MLB Network debuted on Jan. 1, 2009, it promised to bring access to baseball fans like never before. Perhaps nowhere is that pledge more apparent than with the Ballpark Cam.

Twenty-nine of MLB's 30 ballparks are equipped with Ballpark Cam, which is installed in two areas, one just beyond the centerfield fence and another that's either behind home plate or in the home team dugout. The camera's purpose: To deliver footage fans can't usually see.

These days fans can use their TV and computer to evaluate virtually every phase of the game. They can dissect the intricacies of each player's batting stance in HD. They can use Pitch f/x data to review the speed, trajectory and movement of each pitch thrown in a game. Yet until Ballpark Cam arrived, fans at home hadn't been able to watch players go through batting and fielding practice.

Small and mid-market teams were left with few other options than to pitch their game highlights to producers of ESPN's Baseball Tonight. Now, teams have MLB Network as a post-game interview option for players who've had notable performances.

"Postgame or pregame, it's easy to get a player on [MLB Network], including on the road," said Warren Miller, director of communications for the San Diego Padres. "It's a struggle for us to get on Baseball Tonight, even when we're playing well."

One inroad for the Padres and other teams on MLBN last year was Batting Practice Live, a 30-minute show which aired from 5:30-6 p.m. EST on days when only night games were scheduled. The show was canceled during the offseason in favor of two new shows airing from 3-6 p.m. EST.

BP Live would feature MLBN analysts previewing that night's games by running through scheduled lineups as the centerfield camera displayed a live shot of the ballpark hosting that particular game. Analysts would also conduct interviews with players. MLBN said the 30-minute program was a test to gauge its production value and viewer interest.

The network's two new programs won't directly fill BP Live's void, although MLBN claims Ballpark Cam will be utilized on The Rundown, the earlier of the two new shows. The Rundown, positioned in the 3-5 p.m. EST time slot, provides a review of games played the previous day and a preview of that night's contests. Ballpark Cam is incorporated for interviews and analysis, the latter of which have proved invaluable to MLBN's analysts.

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Harold Reynolds, who played 12 years in the Majors as a second baseman for the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels, saw the potential for the cameras to show a side of the game TV viewers couldn't previously capture. "I thought it was great," Reynolds said. "Every baseball player has had extra work. The main stuff gets done before the gates are open."

Analysts can take information they get from watching the players warm up on Ballpark Cam and incorporate it into their analysis on various shows, including the nightly MLB Tonight Live, which provides live look-ins at games around the league and reviews ones already completed. And watching players practice on Ballpark Cam can unveil a few surprises, even for a baseball veteran such as Reynolds.

"I'm surprised at some of the extra work guys do," he said. "It wasn't as specific [when I played] -- straight-on flip drills and working on pivots [for throwing to a base]," Reynolds said of two common fielding drills he sees. "They get a little more specific today than 15 years ago."

Even hitting drills can catch him by surprise. There was the time early last season when Houston Astros outfielder Hunter Pence was taking batting practice while then-hitting coach Sean Berry slapped his right arm with a stick before each pitch. Berry did it so that Pence knew precisely when to swing.

"I'd never seen anything like that," Reynolds said.

The centerfield camera's ability to capture batting and fielding practice, while instrumental, represents only part of Ballpark Cam's value. The dugout/home plate camera provides access to pre- and post-game interviews with players, coaches, broadcasters and team beat writers. It's the post-game access that highlights the importance of having a camera ready to go for a quick reaction from a game.

"You never know when a guy is going to pitch a no-hitter, perfect game or hit for the cycle," said Marc Caiafa, a coordinating producer for various MLBN shows, including Batting Practice Live. "We have the ability to get a guy on camera every time."

Matt Garza provided one of those moments last season. The Chicago Cubs righthander, then a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, tossed a no-hitter July 26 against the Detroit Tigers at Tampa's Tropicana Field. Rick Vaughn, the Rays' vice president of communications, said that in the past a pitcher would have to wait until well after a game's conclusion to discuss his no-hitter. With Ballpark Cam the interview could be done immediately. "We were able to get him on minutes after throwing the no-hitter," Vaughn said. "It was amazing how many people go to share that immediate post-game [interview] on the network."

Players take notice of the camera during the game, too. Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Ryan Madson said in a 2009 post-game interview that he was "excited to use this camera, finally." Caiafa said that players can't help but notice it when the camera is focused on their dugout. "At first glance, they see it and they think "Is this thing on?"

John Entz, who as senior vice president of Production oversees all original programming at MLBN, said that players watched Batting Practice Live last season from their clubhouse, realized Ballpark Cam was showing a live feed of their dugout and then set a plan to show off their customized handshakes with teammates in front of the camera during the game.

Caiafa remembered a time last June when a heavy rainstorm hit Philadelphia and drenched Citizens Bank Park in the afternoon before that night's game. Even though the field displayed no evidence of a recent downpour on Batting Practice Live, Ballpark Cam showed the strength of the rainstorm from earlier in the day.

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The cameras are usually running by early afternoon in each ballpark. Local technicians employed by MLB stay at their respective ballparks all season (There are usually two or three technicians for each park). Their responsibilities include performing camera maintenance, although they don't operate them. That's controlled by a small staff at MLBN's studios in Secaucus, N.J.

Operators there pan and zoom the cameras and switch from ballpark to ballpark with the click of a mouse. Every day, several hours before games begin, operators will use the cameras to scout potential storylines. Whether it's a hitter who's working out the kinks in his swing or a star returning from injury, it's one operator's job to seek out who's practicing and what shots need to be "banked" for use later on MLB Tonight and other shows. It's another operator's job to ensure those sessions are recorded.

As this information is being logged, the operators keep their eyes open for other shots they feel could be used. It can be as simple as video of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols working with catcher Yadier Molina on his swing, a random occurrence camera operator Amelia Schimmel noticed and logged one day last season. Another time, Schimmel captured Detroit Tigers catcher Victor Martinez, then on the Boston Red Sox, throwing batting practice to his son.

It's those kinds of shots that weren't seen before Ballpark Cam. "The ancillary benefits have been much more than I think anybody anticipated," Entz said.

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Each high-resolution, high-definition camera is protected from the elements with its own weather shell. Of course, it's not the protection from rain and snow that makes them unique. It's their technology.

Panasonic AK-HC1500C box cameras, which can pan 320 degrees with zoom capability, are used in centerfield. A common complaint from baseball fans is that game cameras aren't lined up with home plate. The centerfield camera in this case doesn't need to be streamlined with the plate; there's no strike zone coverage associated with the camera. What's prioritized is that the Panasonic cameras have a clear shot to pan across the field and zoom into home plate.

"They give us a nice, cleaner picture for as long a lens as we have to put on there to be able to go from centerfield to home plate," said Mark Henry, MLBN's Director of IT.

A Canon BU-45H camera system is implemented behind home plate or in the home team dugout, depending on each park's logistics. Henry said MLBN will define where the camera should go, but they work with teams if home plate or dugout space is taken up by other equipment.

The Canon's features include 20x zoom capability, 340-degree panning and a Telemetrics Televator robotic system that can adjust the camera's height from 4 to 12 feet. "It gives us the price/performance combination that we needed," Henry said.

The technology used to make the Ballpark Cam system a possibility was already in existence before the MLBN introduced the cameras. Yet Henry said that he and the rest of the MLBN IT crew had to adapt it to ensure the network could operate from all MLB ballparks.

The first cameras were at the Padres' PETCO Park. MLBN installed Ballpark Cam in five additional parks before the 2009 season, six more during that season and another ten in 2010, including at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park in San Francisco. They continued running installations through nearly every remaining ballpark, with Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards serving as the 29th ballpark to receive the camera system. Sun Life Stadium in Miami is the lone ballpark without the cameras; MLBN will wait until the Marlins move into their new ballpark in 2012 before installing the system.

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The Rundown and MLB Tonight, which begins at 6 p.m. EST, an hour before the first night's games commence, will serve as the primary venues on which to use Ballpark Cam as a game preview tool. (The 5-6 p.m. EST slot between Rundown and Tonight is filled by Intentional Talk, a live talk show that's hosted by Chris Rose and Kevin Millar.)

Whatever way MLBN incorporates Ballpark Cam to preview games is welcomed by teams. "To have MLB Network around ... they are an advocate [of us] that helps us a lot," Miller said.

Shaun Rachau, the vice president of communications for the Arizona Diamondbacks, recalled a time last season when starting pitcher Brandon Webb, now with the Texas Rangers, would toss simulated games as part of his rehabilitation for a right shoulder injury. "I think it's great that our fans could see that," Rachau said. "We're a middle-market team. We always need to fight to get some national exposure."

One team who gets national exposure -- the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- might have felt they had too much of it one day last July 28. Starting pitcher Joel Pineiro was warming up in the team's bullpen for that day's game against the Red Sox when he suffered a left oblique strain. The centerfield camera at Angel Stadium caught the injury and Pineiro's subsequent on-field meeting with trainers. Teams are typically sensitive about revealing a player's injury to the media, but the Angels had no choice but to leave with Pineiro's situation appearing on Ballpark Cam.

Miller said the Padres haven't had concerns about a player getting hurt with Ballpark Cam rolling, emphasizing there are plenty other media members from other outlets to report whatever Ballpark Cam captures. Vaughn said it warrants teams to remind players not to put themselves in an embarrassing situation, given that the cameras are live.

"We have to learn more about what the player rituals are, and what they are doing," Entz said. "You never know if at 3:30 during the day Victor Martinez is going to be playing catch with his son."

Ballpark Cam may even make its way to Spring Training sites. Entz conceded it might not be practical monetarily, but that having cameras at the ballparks in Florida and Arizona would "open a huge amount of possibilities." For MLBN, the Ballpark Cam system serves as a conduit for baseball fans to gain more exposure to players and game information than they would have thought possible a few years ago.

"It's a place to take viewers," he said, "that we -- or anybody -- have never been able to take them before."

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