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Digital Killed the Radio Star

One of my signs of spring is that I have to figure out once again how to work my portable radio.

No, I'm not an idiot. (Or perhaps I am, but this isn't the thing that proves it.) It's that my portable radio is a little lozenge of silver plastic whose various buttons had writing explaining their functions when the radio was new. But that was around 1999 — the writing wore off long ago in the slow-motion tumble dry of living in various man-purses and backpacks, and now there's nothing whatsoever to indicate what the buttons do. So every March I wind up remembering this through trial and error. On/Off? No, AM/FM. Hmm. Volume? Nope — that's the tuner. OK, think I've got it. Ready for another year!

As the silver plastic and worn-away lettering might indicate, my portable radio was cheap — I think it was like $10 on Canal Street long ago. But it's endured pretty well. It has a soap-on-a-rope cord that goes around your neck, though this means that if you get walking quickly the radio starts to move with your stride and smacks you in the breastbone with each step. (Moral of the story: Walk slow. Enjoy the world.) Pop in a pair of earbuds and you can listen to the game relatively unobtrusively, or drop one earbud to conduct a conversation of sorts (at least at a Lame Husband level of competence) or make a phone call. I mastered all this long ago, making it part of my Mets routine.

Except its day has passed.

I was trying to solve another problem when I bought the MLB At Bat app for my iPhone. My old job was in a newsroom, and I had a TV on my desk, one that was usually on CNN but could be quietly switched to SNY for afternoon games. My new office has no TVs and radio reception is iffy if you're not right by a window, so I figured that MLB At Bat's animations of pitches and game summaries might be the thing for keeping track of the game. (Shades of my old Motorola SportsTrax [1], which let you keep track of every game and offered audio cues to your own team. The grand slam noise was quite something.)

I didn't realize that MLB At Bat also has Gameday Audio — for every team. Or that videos of key plays get queued up as the game goes along — it's like watching a little TV when you've got WiFi, and pretty good even on 3G. So I can listen to the FAN whereever I can get a cell signal. Or switch to the enemy broadcast. Or listen to Rangers-Mariners just because. Or review how the game has unfolded if I get to it late. Or check if the pitcher is hitting his spots by peering at the pitch chart for this at-bat. Or check for video of how the Nats scored a run, if the Nats should score a run. It's not just that all this fits in my pocket — it's that it was already in my pocket. I'm still getting used to this — it's like a little piece of the Jetsons come true.

You can guess the rest: My faithful little silver radio has barely emerged from the backpack this spring. On the cusp of May, its buttons remain mysterious.

I'm normally the guy who's all for Progress without asking too many questions, whether Progress means Carlos Gomez or Citi Field. But I confess to a twinge of sadness here. The radio did its job well for good seasons and bad, chronicling the adventures and misadventures of Carlos Beltran and David Wright and Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza (catcher) and Pat Mahomes and Kevin Appier and Tsuyoshi Shinjo and David Newhan and Mike Piazza (first baseman). But then Radio came to Spring Training '09 and saw he'd been replaced by a rookie who could do everything he did as part of warmups. The kid was like Albert Pujols crossed with Johan Santana, skills-wise, and that was that. Radio hadn't just been Wally Pipp'd; he'd been reinvented right out of the game.

MLB At Bat is one of those technological moments that are promised incessantly but actually happen pretty rarely: an instantly obvious Before and After. The moment I saw what it could do, I realized from now on this was how I'd keep track of the Mets when there was no TV. But I see the tiniest of reasons to keep the old silver bullet on the roster. MLB At Bat gobbles battery power like I inhale Shackburgers, and doing something else on the iPhone (like, say, using it to talk with somebody) shutters and silences it. I imagine these things will be taken care of matter-of-factly soon enough, wrinkles erased by application of software Botox, but for now they're enough to give the old radio a stay of execution. And that makes me happy.