College Baseball Was On the Clock and Chose an Electronic Wristband

39 29/06/2022

Baseball has long been called a sweet science, but no one took that literally until Vanderbilt played Oklahoma State two-and-a-half weeks ago…and a pitcher’s wristband started vibrating.

The grand ol’ game has finally gone 21st Century. Last August, the NCAA passed a rule allowing one-way electronic communication between the dugout and players on the field, and, ever since then, schools have been recruiting engineers as heavily as cleanup hitters.

Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin, a two-time college World Series champion, has always been a proponent of burgeoning technology that can speed up the game. But the first time his pitching coach Scott Brown typed the numbers 1-1 (presumably meaning fastball-away) onto a handheld keypad on Feb. 18th —and nine Commodore players wearing electronic wristbands on the field collectively nodded—the bandwidth of baseball changed forever.

“The game…moves faster than it has before,’’ Corbin said Monday. “I just think it’s a lot easier. But it’s no different than really the catcher giving the sign. Now he doesn’t give the sign. He just has to set up more than anything else so the pitcher can really deliver the ball with a 10-or-12-second time period, which shaving time off the college game is certainly I would think a good thing for everyone. Especially the consumer.

“And especially when it’s 25 degrees on a Friday night in Nashville.’’

One day after that stone-cold Feb. 18th evening at Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field, wonder of wonders: ESPN’s SEC Network showed up to broadcast the game and zoomed in on the futuristic wristbands to see what the contraptions were all about. Twitter did the same.

Before long, a company in the quaint Shenandoah Valley town of Waynesboro, Virginia, had a wonderful, beautiful, pinch-me-so-I-know-it’s-real problem on its hands.

Because its phone would not stop ring-toning.

Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin celebrating Vanderbilt's 2019 College World Series victory over Michigan.

***Twenty-four minutes is a lifetime

The company is “Game Day Signals,’’ and long before its electric wristband ever went viral over a frigid Nashville weekend, they had spent the better part of two-and-a-half years testing, tweaking and refining a product that the NCAA seemed to be ignoring.

Back in September of 2017, before Game Day Signals even existed, the NCAA had granted Southeastern Conference baseball teams permission to try one-way electronic communication between the dugout and the catcher —much the same way NFL coaches speak to their quarterbacks. The SEC contracted out with Gubser & Schnakenberg LLC (GSC), developers of a catcher’s earpiece. A coach would call pitches through a walkie-talkie or a mic pinned to their shirt. The catcher theoretically would hear it crisply, and the game would supposedly move like a bat out of hell.

Combined with the NCAA’s 20-second pitch clock, the mission to speed up the game did seem on course. But a former VMI baseball player Chris Cofer, who was a software engineer at Blackhawk Enterprise, heard how college coaches detested the pitch clock. Those coaches were all for speeding up the game, but they didn’t want their pitchers harried or rushed.

Worse, coaches complained that the walkie-talkie communication was at times erratic or muffled. “Not to knock anybody there, but we used the GSC radios, and [the signal] would cut-out on our catchers, or it wasn’t extremely clear for them,’’ says one SEC assistant coach. “The idea was to speed up the game, but it was slowing it down.’’

Cofer, who happened to the former college teammate of James Madison head coach Marlin Ikenberry, heard all the whining. He heard that the average time of a College World Series game, by 2017, had increased by 25 minutes in just five seasons. So he brainstormed a wireless wearable electronic device that both a pitcher and a catcher would use to instantly receive pitch calls from a coach, organically reducing time-of-play.

From there, Cofer teamed up with another baseball lover, fellow Virginia software developer Keith Malay, and they birthed Game Day Signals—on a whim, a prayer and common sense.

A Game Day Signals Electronic Wristband along with a baseball team's cheat sheet.

The simple technological premise, according to Malay, was “just wirelessly sending short secure signals to player displays.’’ The emphasis was on secure, so devious opposing coaches couldn’t spy, and it had to be durable enough to be worn on the diamond—meaning it wouldn’t shatter the first time a catcher took a foul ball to the wrist or wouldn’t dislodge when a player slid head-first into second.

In other words, it needed to be functional, needed to be tested, and, eventually, needed to be personally presented to the NCAA rules committee.

Malay says the testing began in early 2018, in their own backyard of Virginia. They poked around and found that the Div. III Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) would gladly be willing to trial it, league-wide, if the NCAA would grant a waiver. The NCAA acquiesced, and schools such as Lynchburg and Virginia Wesleyan were soon squaring off in electronic showdowns.

Local D1 teams such as William and Mary, Radford and James Madison also obtained limited waivers to test the device in-game, and, before long, word of mouth took a hard turn out of the state. By 2019, Iowa, Missouri, Clemson and LSU were trialing the electronic wristband in fall scrimmages —filming the pitch-calling for the Cofer and Malay so they fix or tinker with any glitches.

The evidence from the ODAC league, in 2018 and 2019, was profound and noteworthy. According to Malay, the device—worn simply by the pitcher and catcher and operated in the dugout—shaved a credible average of 24 minutes off of league games.

“We had a couple points of contact on the NCAA rules committee so we worked with them, provided statistics from all of the two years of testing,’’ Malay says. “We would provide those numbers back to the NCAA so they could see if it actually made a difference.’’

The first time they pitched it to their NCAA contacts, they received blank stares. The NCAA was still desperately interested in accelerating baseball’s pace-of-play, which is why it had granted that initial walkie-talkie waiver to the SEC. But they weren’t ready to approve the device and actually had pointed advice for Cofer and Malay.

“The NCAA did not want Bluetooth because Bluetooth is inherently less secure, is a little easier to hack, and it also has a shorter range so Bluetooth wasn’t an option,’’ Malay says. “So we made sure our devices are not Bluetooth enabled. We do not even use Bluetooth for the paring of the devices when we pare keypads to the players’ unit.

“We use low-band radio instead, which we can encrypt. So all the traffic between the coach’s device and the player’s device is encrypted. The range of the signals varies from place to place, obviously, but on average you’re looking at about 500 feet or so. That means the coach can send signals up to 500 feet to a player device.’’

Not even Yankee Stadium is 500 feet, so Cofer and Malay tied it all up into a pretty package for their NCAA contacts, hoping to be approved maybe by summer of 2020 or 2021.

But on May 8, 2020, Chris Cofer —only 46 and the father of two daughters—suddenly died.

The NCAA has made it a priority to speed up baseball pace of play.

***Do it for Chris

The news was tragic and confusing, and Malay did not give specifics on the cause of Cofer’s death. But 2020 was a peculiar pandemic year, a lost baseball year, a year that left baseball tabled at almost every amateur level. Slightly demoralized, Malay used the time to nurture the relationships with college baseball coaches that Cofer had already initiated. And by 2021, Malay again presented the case for Game Day Signals to his NCAA contacts.

College Baseball Was On the Clock and Chose an Electronic Wristband

Expecting to be denied, he was met in August of 2021 with the most unexpected and delirious news: electronic communication would be fair game in 2022.

“As I said, we were able to show over a year and a half period that the average game time that was saved was 24 minutes a game,’’ Malay says. “I think that ultimately helped a lot in the rule change.

“And then, of course, being able to say we can definitively eliminate sign stealing was another huge plus in the eyes of the NCAA.’’

The Astros sign-stealing scandal had sickened every baseball purist, and that included the NCAA. College baseball had had its own revolting sign-stealing scandal in 2004 when Florida State fingered the University of Miami for clandestinely watching opposing catchers give signs on a clubhouse TV and then, via walkie-talkie, relaying the pitch calls to their dugout.

Either way, electronic communication would likely stifle all of the funny business, and now it was up to individual baseball schools whether to deploy it or not…and, if so, with what company.

There was a myriad of options. Besides Game Day Signals, there was still GSC and a firm called Qubit that the University of Missouri began trialing this winter. Qubit places a mini-speaker inside a catcher’s hockey-style mask with Velcro, and a dugout coach can not only speak to the catcher, but can change to another channel and speak securely to other coaches and the bullpen, etc. “Qubit just kind of streamlined everything and put everything in one spot,’’ says Missouri’s baseball operations director Alex Barton. “So far, we’ve had overwhelming good reviews.’’

Another device called K-Band, a more compact wrist device that can purportedly transmit pitch calls, is also in development and could soon be on the market. But all eyes this winter were on what Corbin would do at Vanderbilt, considering he has been a key member of the NCAA baseball pace-of-play committee.

And Corbin chose the late Chris Cofer’s Game Day Signals.

Vanderbilt infielder Davis Diaz wearing the electronic display looped on his pants belt.

What made the device desirable, according to Corbin, is that every player on the field would wear it, not just the pitcher and catcher. Outfielders had the device embedded in their wristbands; infielders tended to keep it clipped on their belts. The possibilities were endless. A maximum of six numbers could be punched in, which meant coaches could use the keyboard to call bunt defense, first-and-third defense, pickoffs, steals, hit-and-run, run-and-hit, sac bunts, shifts, even hidden ball tricks.

Corbin said his pitchers can still shake off his catchers if they don’t like a pitch-call, and that the sport has not maniacally changed due to the device. But perhaps the most quantitative benefit is that all nine players now know what pitch is coming, virtually unheard of.

“It’s…just looking down at a wristwatch for your numbers and then [the pitcher saying] ‘I like that pitch, no, I don’t like this pitch. I’m going to defer to another pitch,’ ’’ Corbin said. “Quite simple, really. But at least the catchers and pitchers are on the same page, and at least the infielders are on the same page in terms of their anticipatory movement towards the potential of a ball being thrown in, away, speed, that type of thing, so they can get a better jump.

“I think getting the jump is really anticipation. It’s your mind moving before the play actually happens. That’s anticipation. So if you anticipate, let’s say a right-handed breaking ball moving away from a right-handed pull hitter, then if I’m a right fielder, there’s a feeling of I’m going to move up a little bit because he’s got a chance to deflect the ball in my area with not a lot of pop. So I might move in a little bit. So, yes, [the device helps] certainly from a defensive standpoint.’’

But it wasn’t just Vanderbilt. Whether anyone knew it or not, Cofer’s electronic wristband displays were also being worn by the University of Virginia, Clemson, N.C. State, Alabama, James Madison and out west at the University of Pacific.

Only Vanderbilt and Pacific had all nine players wearing it. But that was the weekend of Feb. 18th. That was before the Nashville SEC Network broadcast. That as before Twitter weighed in.

That was before the Los Angeles Dodgers called.

Alabama pitcher Grayson Hitt pitching early this season wearing a Game Day Signals wristband.

***Big Brother was watching

Imagine a Major League game with…no signs.

It may not happen today, tomorrow or in four years. But in the best interest of baseball’s the-game-is-too-long and the Astros-are-still-stealing-signs dilemmas, electronic wristbands are going to be discussed.

Before the Vanderbilt-Oklahoma State series, the Reds and Pirates had already received a batch from Malay to trial in minor league practice and intersquad scrimmages. The coaches who asked for them are former college coaches who knew the wristbands would help with defensive shifts and offensive signs.

Last season, teams in the Low-A West league had already used a similar transmittable wrist band designed by the company PitchCom. But this was the Dodgers —the wealthy, analytic-driven Dodgers— asking for Game Day Signals. The Dodgers were Vanderbilt times 12. If they wanted the wristbands, the Padres were going to want them, and the Giants were going to want them.

It was enough to make an old big league third base coach—who spent a lifetime of touching his forearm, his sleeve, his mouth and the bill of his cap— want to puke.

“Well, they’ve been trying to speed the game up since 1915,’’ Rich Donnelly says.

Donnelly was Jim Leyland’s third base coach in Pittsburgh and Miami who spent 50 years in the game. He used to practice signs in a mirror and try them out on his wife and kids before games. He remembers Rangers manager Billy Martin’s calling pitches alright— by shouting from the dugout, “Throw the curveball!’’ He is a purist and will tell you he’s a purist.

"Well, I’ve seen those wristbands, and I’ll tell you, somebody will break the code,’’ says Donnelly, now in his 70s. “They’ve been breaking the code in baseball for 100 years. So whether it’s electronically or not, somebody will break the code. Somebody will notice the type of face a pitcher makes when he gets a fastball call, or his face on an off-speed call. Codes are meant to be broken.

Virginia is another Power 5 school to align with Game Day Signals, as pitcher Will Geerdes throws wearing an electric wristband.

“They’re never going to speed the game up to two hours long unless they make the game 7 innings long, which that’s a possibility, too. As long as there’s 9 innings of commercials on both sides of the inning, the games are always going to be three hours.’’

But there is nothing an OG can do about it now. After the Vanderbilt-Oklahoma State series, it wasn’t just the Dodgers calling — it was every power conference in the NCAA.

As he looked up toward the heavens for Chris Cofer, Keith Malay fielded not five, not 10, not 20, not 35, not 45, not 50, not 75, not 100 phone calls.

As of today, exactly 111 baseball schools have called requesting electronic wristbands.

It's either all in the name of science…or divine intervention.

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