by Michael Fitzgerald

The Detroit Tigers and Baseball IT

Apr 01, 20034 mins

When he interviewed to be the Detroit Tigers’ IT skipper in 1999, Cole Stewart couldn’t name a single player on the roster. What Stewart did offer was experience connecting IT systems to business processes, gained during a 22-year career at General Motors. And with the club building the new $300 million Comerica Park at the time, Stewart was deemed the right choice to manage the Tigers’ IT. He’s now probably the closest thing to a bona fide CIO in major league baseball.

“They didn’t need somebody who knew baseball. They needed somebody who knew how to get the stadium up and running,” says Stewart, whose official title is senior director of information technology.

Stewart, 53, joined the Tigers front office with three tasks: Make sure 40,000-seat Comerica Park was built to accommodate new information systems; head off any Y2K problems; and institute IT standards for systems and networks where none existed. With these tasks accomplished and the new downtown Detroit stadium opened, Stewart says he’s continuing to work on integrating business systems in an industry known for creating information silos. He supports everything from back-office functions to stadium message boards. He’s worked with marketers to mine data from a CRM application to identify prospects for season ticket plans, and to connect scouts in the field?typically zealous guardians of their own applications?to management back home.

Stewart says he’s doing the same things he did running truck deployment at GM?a job that meant supporting an entire product life cycle, from concept design through manufacturing to shipments. Only here, baseball is the product. Sales revolve around tickets, advertising and concessions. R&D means finding talented players who then become inventory. There’s payroll, of course. That includes 1,500 stadium workers for home games, and just-in-time inventory for hot dogs, beer and other concessions.

“If you look at all the things going on in baseball and treat them like a standard IT guy would, you have knowledge management issues and storage issues and data processing issues and data quality issues,” Stewart says.

Data quality presents huge issues in baseball, a.k.a. statistics heaven: Every pitch is recorded and analyzed. But having data and trusting it are two different things. The data, purchased from sources such as Inside Edge, often does not map with scouts’ impressions developed during the three to five years an average player spends in the minor leagues. In the future, Stewart wants to create trusted data on Tigers’ players, from raw prospect to star. For now, new manager Alan Trammell, a star shortstop when the team last won the World Series in 1984, will take road trips armed with a notebook computer and DVDs with everything that’s available on rival teams, including digital video and spreadsheets on opposing pitcher and batter tendencies.

Stewart has developed a new interest in the game, and despite long hours (9 a.m. to whenever, especially when the team is at home), he says “it’s gotta be the coolest IT job in the world.”

Stewart’s dedication has earned him fans. “He’s one of the most amazing guys I’ve worked with,” says Michael Smith, assistant to baseball operations for the Tigers. Smith says Stewart’s work in figuring out new approaches to ticket sales (like using sales records to tailor multigame ticket packages for repeat customers) and thinking about better ways to analyze rival teams’ players shows both short-term execution and long-term vision. One thing Stewart’s already planned for: supporting the media crush that would cover the Tigers in the World Series. Long-suffering fans?Detroit’s last winning season was a decade ago?hope he gets his chance.