Big pitch for Royals’ opening day gets even bigger with ‘smart baseball’

Relay the Way, the 9.49-mile baseball toss set for the Royals’ opening day, is already a success — and it’s about to get even better.

It took less than three days to sign up the 2,500 people needed to throw the ball, about 20 feet each, from Union Station to Kauffman Stadium, where it will be used Sunday for the first pitch of the world champions’ 2016 season.

And everyone who signed up could make a donation to the event — $30 was suggested — raising money and awareness for the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy.

Not bad for a long game of short toss.

But VML, the Kansas City-based agency that came up with the idea, didn’t stop there.

“We didn’t want this to be a one-off public relations event,” said Tony Snethen, executive creative director at VML, which is known for innovative digital marketing. “We wanted to get the whole city involved … so we thought about how to add a digital component.”

To do that, Matt Bell, VML’s resident mad scientist (that’s his real job title), is turning the baseball into a smart ball, with a tiny computer embedded in its core. For $1, any baseball fan in Kansas City — or anywhere around the world — can sign up at to send the ball a tweet, perhaps about what baseball in Kansas City means to them.

And just before the ball crosses the plate — or bounces in the dirt, as ceremonial first pitches sometimes do — the thousands of messages will be uploaded into the ball, making it a digital time capsule of the event and the day.

To make the ball smart, Bell has cut open several to examine what sorts of twine and cork and other materials are inside. He has used computer-aided design software to make 2D models of various approaches to removing the core, replacing it with a Wi-Fi-capable computer chip and closing the ball back up.

Bell also has worked to keep the ball’s weight regulation, so it will feel just like a regular ball for everyone in this longest Opening Day first pitch ever. Only a small USB port on the ball will give it away.

Bell also has used a 3D printer at VML’s innovation lab to make cushioning materials for the computer core so it will survive being dropped along the route.

“We’ve talked about the ball as the skull and the components as the brain,” he said. “The 3D printer has made it a lot easier to make and test materials to prevent a ‘concussion.’ 

The hope is that the same ball makes it from start to finish, but Snethen said there would be backups “in case the ball rolls down the sewer.”

After the game, the ball’s final resting place could be the academy when it is completed in the 18th and Vine District, next to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The museum and the Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman also have been discussed as appropriate sites for the public to see the ball and be able to access its store of messages.

The academy is mainly a Royals’ project, a $14 million dream that includes four ball fields in a first phase and a second phase for a building with classrooms, office space, a full-size baseball infield and batting cages. With $7 million in support from the city, state, MLB and the baseball players’ association alone, the project is already deep into its second-phase fundraising.

Catcher Salvy Perez is donating $1 million. Teammates Alex Gordon and Chris Young have chipped in undisclosed amounts. And some of the people along the Relay the Way route — such as general manager Dayton Moore and Hall of Famer George Brett — have no doubt ponied up way more than $30.

Moore and Brett, in fact, anchor the project’s fundraising committee, along with Mayor Sly James and several other local leaders. Fundraising is ahead of schedule, so the indoor facility could beat its tentative opening date in spring 2017. And once it’s open, the Royals will cover its half-million-dollar annual operating budget.

The academy will teach baseball to kids from 6 to 18. Besides boosting baseball, the academy will give the area another community center and teach the young players science, math, technology, business and life lessons.

“The academy’s not just for teaching baseball, but all that encompasses the game,” Snethen said. “Dayton said in five years he’d like to have everyone involved in a game there — the umpire, grounds crew, the announcer calling the game — to have learned at the academy.”

There are a few other Urban Youth Academies around the country, the first at Compton, Calif., but it’s thought that Kansas City’s will be the biggest. Moore has called it the most important thing the Royals will do, a way to further connect the team to the community and counter the decline in inner-city interest in baseball.

Snethen said he and his colleagues, who donated all their time and efforts for the project, were happy for the chance to help give kids a place to play ball and succeed in life.

“And it all starts,” he said, “with a single game of catch.”

Relay the Way

▪ At 9 a.m. Sunday, rain or shine, the baseball relay will start at Union Station. Each of the 2,500 participants along the route to Kauffman Stadium will toss the baseball about 20 feet to the next person in line.

▪ To find out where they will be along the route, participants will pick up their event packets at Union Station from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday or noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. The information will include where they can park near their spot, and the time to be sure they are at their spot.

▪ The spots are being randomly assigned, but people who wanted to be next to each other in line could ensure that by signing up as a team.

▪ Police officers will block off roads to ensure safety and keep the ball moving. Volunteers and fellow fans will cheer participants along the route, and cameras and security will be in the area of the ball at all times.

▪ The relay will go from Union Station north to 18th Street, east toward 18th and Vine, south on Brooklyn and east on Linwood to Stadium Drive and then the stadium service tunnel.

▪ The route and other information about the relay can be found at

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