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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Time Machine Baseball: Old games, computer announcer

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.


People who aren’t baseball fans won’t get it, but if you’re a baseball fan you probably know about the appeal of baseball on the radio. As a kid, I fell asleep while listening to baseball games on an AM radio next to my bed, usually the Giants but sometimes even the southern California teams, their transmissions reaching far across the state late in the night.

But sometimes you just want to listen to a game, and there isn’t one on. (This happens to me much less than it used to, now that I can use the MLB At Bat app to listen to any radio broadcast of any team.) And even MLB has dropped the ball when it comes to their huge archive of past games—it was not easy to find a way to re-listen to any of the Giants’ recent postseason runs this past winter using MLB’s streaming service.

Meanwhile, the world of baseball research has been doing some amazing things with historical baseball data. You may know that Baseball Reference has player and team stats as well as historical boxscores, but groups like Retrosheet are also compiling pitch-by-pitch data for as many past games as possible.

So one day, desperate for a change of pace on a long commute, iOS developer Doug Barnum put those two thoughts together and came up with an app that uses historical play-by-play data to generate “radio broadcasts” of past baseball games. It’s called Time Machine Baseball.

With Time Machine Baseball, you can listen to re-created games from 1927, 1970, or 2015 (or postseason games from 1937, 1969, or 2010), and can follow select teams or leagues through an entire season. Those seasons are free; Other seasons are available via in-app purchase.

This is a new app and while there’s a lot of potential, there’s also a lot more that could be done. The announcer is a synthetic voice with what appears to be an English accent, or at least a very old-timey American one? But in general, it’s a very clear voice, so I can understand what’s going on. And Barnum has tweaked the pronunciations of the player names to be more accurate, though I still ran into a few weird pronunciations in the games I listened to. Behind the announcer is stadium noise and additional sound effects that change as events on the field happen.

Mostly what the app lacks, in addition to the option for pitch-by-pitch calls (older games only have data for the result of each at-bat, not each pitch, so Barnum has opted to only include the outcome of each at-bat, compressing the games to about 20 minutes in length), is detail and variety. If you listen to a human baseball broadcaster, you’ll hear all sorts of banter that describes the game situation. When a runner grounds out to advance a man from first to second, Time Machine Baseball declares, “Single played by the center fielder.” It would be great if the app did a better job of emulating the expressions of radio announcers, offering different (and perhaps more colorful) ways of describing that event: “Here’s the pitch… Morgan hits it into center field, it’s going to fall in front of Henderson for a single.”

Even chatter between batters that reset the game situation would be welcome: “Two outs now, Morgan takes his lead from first base. Here’s the pitch…”

In any event, Time Machine Baseball is an app that a certain class of baseball fan is going to love. I think it’s a great idea, but if it’s going to keep me company during the times when I can’t find a live baseball game on the radio, it needs to add a little more broadcasting art to its line-up card.

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