Can You Hear Me Now?: MLB and Bullpen Cell Phones

The dugout phone is a thing of the past. At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, MLB and T-Mobile announced a partnership that will replace dugout phones with these. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reports the dugout phones will remain in place — in case teams want to use them — but teams will have to opt in, “depending on whether they have a competing carrier.” (Like AT&T or US Cellular.) Oh, and T-Mobile’s paying the league $125 million over three years.

The new phone will be a modified Samsung Galaxy 3; T-Mobile provides photo mockups in its press kit. The bullpen phones will operate on a separate, “geofenced” network that only operates in the dugout and will not interact with the cell phone calls fans make  elsewhere in the stadium. T-Mobile has also announced they will try to make wireless connectivity in stadiums work better for fans, which is great.

I say “modified,” because the phones will basically be walkie-talkies. They will not be smartphones, says Matt Bourne, Major League Baseball’s vice president of business public relations. “The only function the phones will be programmed to do will be to place calls between the bullpen and the dugout,” Bourne told me in an email. “You won’t be able to call anywhere else, use apps, connect to the internet, take photos or utilize any other feature typically included in smartphones.”

There have been problems with dugout phones, as Andrew Keh of The New York Times writes. In one game in 2011, someone on the Cardinals forgot to put the phone all the way back on the hook, so it couldn’t ring. In another, the lines went dead. In a game in 2003, Eric Gagne was so angry that he accidentally broke the cord. And so on.

Rovell notes the notion of replacing bullpen phones gained a great deal more urgency after the 2011 World Series, when Cardinals bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist couldn’t understand Tony La Russa and warmed up the wrong pitcher. It has been more than a year since then, but this will wind down the more-than-80-year history of bullpen phones.

A 2011 New York Times article traced the history, quoting baseball historian Peter Morris, who found dugout phones have been in use since at least 1930. As the article explains: “When a manager needed a relief pitcher [before] then — which wasn’t often — bullpens were usually in foul territory, close enough so a few steps and a few shouted words accomplished the task.” There was apparently a forerunner to the bullpen phone in Boston in 1908 and 1909, which essentially was a bell wired to a buzzer to tell a pitcher when to warm up.

This isn’t the first time baseball has experimented with putting cell phones in dugouts. And there’s a reason those Samsung Galaxies won’t be able to browse the internet or use any apps: Back in 2006, the Cubs announced a partnership with Motorola, unveiling the system in June. But it appears to have died with little fanfare, and that system is very likely the one that the Times article refers to in this paragraph:

Another National League team, in an effort to improve communications between the dugout and the bullpen, experimented with specially designed mobile telephones in recent years. That ended because the team’s coaches weren’t happy with them, although it didn’t help, either, that players had run up $70,000 in Internet usage charges.

(The mobile phones used by the National League team had a secure direct line, but the Web-surfing function had not been disabled, hence the large bill at the end of the experiment.)

More problems with the Cubs’ phones were chronicled in this column.

So here’s how it will work this time around: “Each ballpark will get the equivalent of a small cellular system with a miniature cell tower,” reports Richard Sandomir, of The New York Times. The World Baseball Classic in March will serve as a test run, and then it will be rolled out into major league stadiums. But as Sandomir writes, “Whether each stadium will have it in 2013 has not been determined.”

Back in 2000, Sandy Alderson (then MLB’s vice president of baseball operations) sent out a memo restricting the use of “electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel.” So that has clearly been swept away or superseded.

There is a snarky column to be written about Major League Baseball’s footdragging when it comes to technology, particularly with regard to video replay. But the fact is, that would miss the point, because this isn’t about a rule change. It’s about a new sponsorship.

If you want baseball to make a technological upgrade, they may say no. But if you pay them $100 million, they will probably say yes.

We hoped you liked reading Can You Hear Me Now?: MLB and Bullpen Cell Phones by Alex Remington!

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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