The turning point of this falls epic Boston Red Sox comeback in the American League Championship Series took place not in the ninth inning of Game 4—when Dave Roberts stole second base, putting the tying run in scoring position—but two innings earlier, when Roberts made his way from the dugout through the teams clubhouse to the weight room, where the Red Sox video command center is arrayed against the end wall.
There, Roberts asked Billy Broadbent, who handles video systems for the Red Sox, to queue up footage of New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera pitching from the stretch with a man on first base. Two innings later, Roberts put to good use what he had learned from the teams massive digital archive of opposing pitchers.
Inserted as a pinch runner in place of Kevin Millar, who had singled, Roberts stole second off Rivera. When Bill Mueller singled, Roberts scored the tying run, igniting a comeback that eventually led to an extra-inning victory for the Red Sox.
That win, of course, was the first of four straight against the Yankees and another four straight against the St. Louis Cardinals, giving the Sox their first World Series championship since 1918. But without the ability to retrieve crucial video footage within seconds, the “Red Sox Nation” that follows the team might still be waiting for that championship.
Red Sox fans can point to many heroes for the teams success, although few would think of technology as a key contributor. However, Red Sox management, led by principal owner John Henry, has taken an aggressive approach to IT over the past several years, which is beginning to pay off in several areas.
“Ownership definitely has an eye toward using whatever tools are available. They view IT as a tool. Thats how they run the operation,” said Red Sox CIO Steve Conley, who makes sure Henry stays on top of things, having hooked up a T-1 line to the owners residence.
The state-of-the-art video archive is just one piece of the Red Sox IT operation, which encompasses statistical support systems for the manager, coaches and players; support for the teams army of scouts; ticket sales; promotion; and support for the press and broadcast networks, not to mention routine office chores.
Nearly all the systems that perform these tasks have been overhauled since Conley joined the team four years ago. At that time, the digital video play-by-play system was in its infancy; the teams 80 PCs were running Windows 95; servers were running Windows NT 4.0; the network was a 10M-bps shared-hub Ethernet LAN; and a fair amount of work was being done by typewriter.
“The network was a hodgepodge and not tied together. There was no real storage capacity, just an e-mail server,” said Conley. “It crashed once a day. People just dealt with it. For me, it was an embarrassment.”
“If I could have done it financially, I would have replaced the whole infrastructure,” Conley said. Instead, he put together a three-year plan. From a tiny office underneath Fenway Parks home-plate grandstand, Conley has overseen the steady replacement of the teams PCs, servers and network. He has also rolled out Scout Advisor, an IBM Lotus Notes-based scouting system thats hosted by E Solutions Corp., and a Wi-Fi network for press photographers that lets them file their photos from the press box. He is in the midst of rolling out a VOIP (voice over IP) system, with new CRM (customer relationship management) and EIS (executive information system) deployments on the horizon.
When Conley surveyed the IT infrastructure at Fenway Park, which was built in 1912, the one bright spot was the fiber-optic cable that had been strung through the ballpark in the early 1990s. Conley built on that network, bringing in Extreme Networks Summit 2400 and Alpine Layer 3 switches with intelligent routing. Now all users have 10/100M-bps Ethernet with Gigabit Ethernet server uplinks. Conley is segmenting the network for the heavy video users who produce the “Red Sox Stories” and “The Red Sox Report” TV shows and said he is considering bringing Gigabit Ethernet to their desktops.
Conley also called on CTC Communications Corp. for Internet access services and uses a Cisco Systems Inc. VPN and a Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. firewall.
Conley has increased the PC population to nearly 200, including a number with flat-panel screens for cramped Fenway and laptops for the 50-person scouting staff. At the ballpark, 80 percent of some 140 Hewlett-Packard Development Company L.P. PCs are running Windows XP Professional, with 20 percent running Windows 2000. Working with solution provider Akibia Inc., Conley recently upgraded users to Microsoft Corp.s Office 2003 and Exchange Server 2003.
In the server room, Conley brought in HP ProLiant rack-mounted systems and installed an HP Modular Smart Array Fibre Channel SAN (storage area network). Hes now looking at wares from several vendors, including EMC Corp. and Hitachi Data Systems Corp., to upgrade the SAN. Eventually, extensive video storage demands could drive his capacity to 130 uncompressed terabytes.
No less important was a telephone system upgrade from a 20-year-old Mitel Network Systems Corp. system for ticket sales and a Nortel Networks Ltd. Centrex system for office staff. “It gave up the ghost just before tickets went on sale for the 2003 season,” Conley said. “We rented a small Avaya [Inc.] platform for one year.”
That system was upgraded to an Avaya 8700. “We put in the new system over Christmas and New Year. There was not one lost call during the upgrade,” Conley said.
Next Page: VOIP for Tech-Savvy Scouts
VOIP for Tech
Now Conley is deploying Avaya IP Softphones to scouts and managers so they can make calls through their laptops. Not all baseball people are tech-savvy, however, so Conley is targeting a 30-to-40-percent acceptance rate on the VOIP system by next June. By then, he figures he can show significant cost savings and will be able to push for broader use.
“When you use a laptop and a headset the first time, its weird,” Conley said.
Another project, which, like the video archive system, could mean the difference between winning and losing, is a decision support system to help club executives such as Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino evaluate player trades. “Larry Lucchino is always comparing data to last year, two years ago and so on. Were building our own internal analytic system from the ground up that analyzes potential trades and shows the estimated impact of a player through win differential. Anything that can help make a decision, well do it,” Conley said.
Equally important will be a new CRM system. With the Sox selling out every game at Fenway, one might ask, Why bother?
“I have a hard time envisioning our popularity growing any more. But nows the time to get the fan information, so if you have lean times, youve got Red Sox Nation in a database so you can go out and touch them,” Conley said.
He is examining a number of CRM applications, including those made by SAS Institute Inc., Microsoft, Salesforce.com Inc., Onyx Software Corp. and SmartDM Inc. Another project that the Red Sox, working with MLB Advanced Media L.P., may beta test next year is the use of cell phone text messaging for ticket purchases.
Although his overall IT budget, at $1.4 million, is not large and his staff consists of only two assistants and two interns, in addition to Broadbent and Carr, Conleys not about to become a free agent. He grew up in the Boston area following the team and joined the Red Sox after stints at a mutual funds company and at Ernst & Young, where he met former Red Sox Chief Operating Officer John Buckley. “For me, its a dream job,” Conley said. “Im doing the stuff that I love in a great environment. Its great. Im lucky. Theres no other way to describe it.”
And as far as technology is concerned, Conley believes the fun is just starting. “The focus on technology and baseball seems like it doubles every year. Were at the very beginning.”
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on IT management from CIO Insight.