Turn Practice Time Into Game Time!

Is there anything more American than baseball?  Even though many credit Abner Doubleday as the founder of the game, history.com and NBC Sports (https://mlb.nbcsports.com/2020/04/02/today-in-baseball-history-a-lie-about-how-baseball-was-invented-is-born/) provided a more accurate origin story for the American pastime.  It was thought to have originated from a merger of children’s game called Rounders, and the very British game of Cricket, which were played throughout schoolyards and college campuses until the Knickerbocker Baseball Club played the first official game in 1846.  The rest is history.  However fascinating the game history may be, the evolution of the ball merits discussion as well.

An article from the Smithsonian detailed the origins of the clean white ball with vibrant red stitching that we know today (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-the-baseball-3685086/).  I was unaware that early pitchers made their own version of baseballs, that cobblers lined them with broken rubber from shoes and wound them with yarn, or that some chose to use sturgeon eyes. With all of the variations, it wasn’t easy to compare location to location. Interestingly, there was variability and strategy in ball selection at that time.  To standardize the sport, the 5.5-6 ounces by 9-9.25 inches diameter ball with 108 stitches (MLB rule 1.09) originated in the 1870s, and has changed little since that time. The final version of the ball was selected in 1934 after the National and American Leagues agreed upon a standardized construction.  

Of course, with the “smart” tech revolution, everything has become interconnected, monitored, evaluated, and App linked.  From appliances, to cars, to communication devices, to entire homes, Bluetooth/App-enabled features have led to new ideas and uses for devices.  So, why not tech-up a baseball?  The Backyard League Gaming Baseball arrived in a 2 15/16 inches wide by 2 15//6 inches thick by 3 11/16 inches tall cardboard box.  The front cover provided the Backyard League name along the top left in an attractive cursive script.  I liked the added touch of the baseball along the lower flourish of the cursive letter B.  You will find five grey icons along the bottom of the panel: 70h play, Water Resistant, Bluetooth 4.2, IOS & Android, Play OS Inside.  The main focus of the panel was the beautiful baseball and the colorful iPhone App.  

The right side panel provided a colorful field background and a youthful child jumping for the home run steal.  With the classy Backyard League logo atop the panel, the company did a great job of overlaying digital data upon the blue of the sky and the green of the field.  You will find a QR code along the bottom left with links to the Apple/Google play store.  You will see the ball/App along the bottom right, and a quaint statement by Alex Guifford about the heightened fun of the game just beneath the jumping child.  The opposite panel proved to be a bit busier.  The panel provided five multi-lingual icons about the ball/game: 1. Play Catch, Have fun, and become a better baseball player. 2. Live sound and commentary for immersive in-game experience. 3. 8+ Games that build core throw and catch mechanics. 4. Play against yourself, challenge friends, or compete against the world.  5. Earn and Win Badges, climbing the ranks in Backyard League.  The black-colored rear panel listed the product name along the top of the panel, company address, an exploded image of the ball, product manufacturing labels, and an SKU barcode.  

I lifted the top flap with the Backyard League logo, removed the cardboard topper, removed the baseball from the box, and then the accessory bag/instruction manual.  The six-panel instruction manual provided an eleven language, 4-step getting started guide. For the first step, search for the “Backyard League” App (iOS and Google).  Next, install the included battery pack, then insert the activity tracker into the baseball.  Lastly, follow the setup instructions within the App.  The reverse side of the instruction manual provided information about mounting the CR2032 battery and the tracker within the baseball.  Once I inserted the tracker, added the included screw (with the included screwdriver), I navigated to the App Store and downloaded the Backyard League App.  When you open the App, a baseball announcer’s voice will welcome you to the App and welcome you to get started.  I tapped the orange-colored “Get Started” along the bottom panel, 

The second panel of the app will take the user to a sound panel.  Slide the ball along the orange slider, and the announcer will vocalize one of the following selections “Can you hear me? Do you hear me now?, Hello?”  My children thought it was hilarious and played with the slider for nearly ten minutes.  Once the desired sound level was selected (about 3/4 along the slider), the App guided me through the ball setup process.  I inserted the battery, inserted the tracker, then screwed the lid down (as above).  The App then vocalized, “enable Bluetooth to allow connection to the ball.”  The ingenious step-by-step process proved to be quite elementary.  Activate the ball by pressing the orange button.  If you experience issues, select the “HELP” option to navigate to another “Problems” screen.  The screen will review a few troubleshooting steps. I was unable to connect the ball to the App on the first try.  I thus removed the included battery, added another CR2032, and the ball connected without issue. 

The goal of the App linked ball was to improve pitch and catch.  With the App installed, swipe from the left to the right to find a beneficial how-to video, Game List (Fast Throw, Pop Fly, Longer and Longer, Bullseye, Higher and Higher), and Challenges. If you tap one of the games within the Game List, the App will provide a short video and then teach you how to play the game (objectives, how to earn points, duration).  The main App page provided three horizontal lines along the top left, a baseball player avatar along the top right, the player name along the top, the number of throws (today and all-time), today’s rank, and the number of throws.  Along the bottom of the page, you can find the speed (last and average), height (last and average), and transition time (last and average).  If desired, you can tap restart to reset the data.  When you swipe right to left again, it will take you to a profile screen.  You can tap the little pencil to change the name.  I found the “Smelly Raven” base name to be a bit comical.  In fact, my ten-year-old refused to change the name. Tap the flag icon below your avatar to change the country, select the avatar to change the color/hair to one of your likings. Next, you can choose the magnifying glass to select players to follow. Lastly, you can review the legal/regulatory options and use the music slider to adjust the music/effects/voice volume. 

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To preserve the battery, the company included a sleep mode when not activated.  To reactivate the ball, simply give it a little shake. I was impressed with the sensitivity of the tracker and with the App tracking metrics.  I loved the included videos, and my kids specifically liked the Pop fly game:  throw a pop fly, then throw a low ball to gain points based on the height difference.  Their second favorite game was the Longer and Longer game. The App will give you strikes if subsequent throws are shorter, or if you drop the ball.  The goal was to build strength and accuracy.   Both games encouraged the user to gain points by extending the distance but discouraged drops and wild throws.  If the ball hit the ground, the App subtracted points.  The App encouraged team play and working with the partner to prevent drops.

The game ball was not intended for batting and was only meant for pitch/catch activities.  Thus, if your goal is to improve hitting, this device will not meet your need.   For the kids who may be considered iPad Zombies (mine included), the added App may serve as a means to get them to go outside to play.  I think the only negative was the need for a partner to play.  I was able to get my ten-year-old outside, but my twelve-year-old did not want to play.  Additionally, when he saw us having fun and asked to join in, I could not find a method to add a second avatar/account for him.  They had to take turns as the player/coach and had to remember who had the better score.  Unfortunately, they wanted to see who was better and had the highest score.  They also wanted to try to work on keeping their own progress of throws/scores.  If there were an App version 2.0, I would like for there to be an option to keep track of the data across a few accounts. Overall, the App/ball added a significant amount of fun to pitch and catch.  The games were fun and repayable, and the announcer was hilarious.  If you messed up during the game, he announced a few comical jabs at the players like the following: “Did you even watch the videos?”  

If you are looking for the perfect gift for your young ball enthusiast, look to the Backyard League ball.  Even though older kids (12+) may initially find the ball/app a bit juvenile, I suspect that they will not want to miss out on the fun when they see it.  I found the game ball to be more enticing than I had initially thought/expected.  I found myself throwing higher to get more points in the pop fly and higher and higher games.  I found myself trying to be a bit riskier to get extra points.  Dropped balls had more meaning than when simply playing pitch/catch, and my kids reduced the urge to throw the ball beyond me or at some random tangent.  Honestly, this device provided a great deal of recreational enjoyment, and I found little to critique.  The well-crafted ball combined well with the quality packaging and App design.  Definitely consider picking up one of these devices as a gift this holiday season.    

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