Greatest hits, in the palm of your hand

It's hard to say exactly which moment it was that we realized the iPod had taken over our entire civilization. But it might have been this one:

The day we first heard, last summer, that baseball players were using their iPods to do their pregame video studies -- as opposed to, say, their pregame Shakira video studies.

What we have here, friends, is one of history's most amazing gizmos ever. Name any other invention of all time that you can use to:

• Listen to every song ever recorded by Green Day.

• Watch the last 77 episodes of "24."

• Show off pictures of your kids.

• Hear actual ESPN.com employees yelling at each other through the miracle of one of our inimitable (thankfully) ESPN podcasts.

• Play Sudoku.

And sort through every at-bat Todd Helton has ever had against Armando Benitez.

Sheesh, you sure can't do all that with a microwave -- while riding on an airplane. So is this a tremendous world, or what?

Even in baseball, technology keeps rampaging along -- pushing all of us in directions that would have caused Abner Doubleday to seek immediate psychiatric care. But when it comes to our Amazing Hot Stove Heaters Innovation of the Year, we've reached a whole new technological plateau.

The iPod as indispensable baseball tool. Who knew?

"I'll tell you one thing," Astros pitcher Jason Jennings told ESPN.com. "It sure beats looking at videotape."

"A couple of years ago, when Preston Wilson was with us, he used to have us put all his at-bats on 8 mm tape. … Now, instead of having four shelves of tape just for Preston, we've got one iPod we can plug in."
-- Brian Jones, Rockies video coaching coordinator

Until a few weeks ago, Jennings played for the team that pioneered the iPod's invasion of baseball -- the Rockies. He was one of 17 Rockies players who got swept up last season in a trend that began with an event that didn't exactly have the look of a major sporting revolution at the time:

Brian Jones, then the Rockies' assistant coordinator of video coaching, got an iPod for Christmas. Pretty earth-shattering, huh?

It wasn't even a video iPod, either. Just your basic Nano. But all it took was some initial fooling around with it to get Jones thinking there might be more to this fascinating gadget than the ability to download the Red Hot Chili Peppers on it.

So Jones and his video cohort, Mike Hamilton, did some iExperimenting to see if it might be possible to load their baseball videos on this cool little contraption. And the next thing they knew …

A future Hot Stove Heater was born.

That was just about one year ago exactly. What has gone on since might not quite rival the last 12 months of YouTube. Nevertheless, Jones says now, "it's been kind of crazy."

Crazy as in one Rockies player after another asking to join the iPod Video Club.

Crazy as in adding minor leaguers, and even amateurs, to the iPod video hit collection for the development people and front office.

Crazy as in other teams reading, hearing and inquiring about this, then spreading the magic to their players.

Crazy as in Pat Riley instructing his video guy to call and check this out.

Crazy as in Hamilton and Jones being honored by their fellow video coordinators with the 2006 Award of Excellence -- and giving a tutorial workshop -- at the winter meetings.

"If you'd told me three or four years ago we'd be doing this, I'd have never believed it," said Jones, who recently succeeded Hamilton as the Rockies' chief video coordinator. "A couple of years ago, when Preston Wilson was with us, he used to have us put all his at-bats on 8 mm tape. … Now, instead of having four shelves of tape just for Preston, we've got one iPod we can plug in."

Alas, all this innovating came too late for Preston. But last spring training, when Jones told Helton and Jamey Carroll about his iPod aspirations, they couldn't have jumped at his offer faster if it had come with a guarantee that they'd also hit .380.

"I showed it to Helton," Jones said. "And the next day, he brought his iPod in, and we put all his hits on there, dating back to 1998."

There were 1,509 of those hits, by the way. And when Helton's iPod didn't instantly explode or anything, the Rockies knew they were on to something.

Eventually, more than two-thirds of the roster had piled on and turned this team into baseball's official iSquad. Every player gets his own custom set of videos loaded onto his personal iPod, sorted by date, hitter, pitcher and opponent -- and updated every week or so.

"The great thing is, it's so easy to use," said Jennings, who became a happy iPod convert in a hurry. "It's such an easy thing to have access to. You can go to Best Buy and, by that night, you can have all your starts for the last four years on there."

Cool. But you're no doubt thinking: Does any of this really matter? Well, yeah. In fact, Jennings actually thinks his iPod turned his whole season around.

He had a 6.60 ERA going into a May 1 start against the Braves when he and catcher Danny Ardoin sat down at his locker to look at his previous starts against the same group of hitters. And something clicked -- not just through his earbuds, either.

"We looked at the pitches they were hitting against me before, and that night we sort of went a different way, and it worked," Jennings said. "We lost the game [2-0], because Tim Hudson threw a one-hitter. But I threw the ball well. And after that start, I really took off from there."

For the record, Jennings' ERA from that day on was 3.31. Which, by Rockies standards, is the equivalent of about 1.31. So we'll just amble out of the way now and watch about 700 pitchers stampede over to Best Buy.

There are, of course, disadvantages to watching this stuff on your iPod. For one thing, you might not get quite the same visualization effect from studying video on a 2½-inch screen as you would on a 52-inch flat screen. (Hey, talk about your small strike zones.)

And, for another thing, those iPods always present nonstop opportunities for, um, distractions.

"I admit I've got a bunch of country music videos on there," Jennings confessed. "And I think 'Prison Break' was a big hit on our team last year. I know a lot of guys were watching that. … I mean, sometimes you need a break, you know? It's not just for baseball."

Hmmm. Sounds like a catchy slogan for the folks at Apple once this really catches on: "The iPod -- It's Not Just for Baseball."

But when those iPods are used for baseball, it's hard to beat the doodads for sheer portability. It wasn't unusual to see Rockies players studying their video last season on planes and buses, in hotel rooms and sitting at their very own lockers on the road, miles from the team video room. Heck, there were even iPod sightings, Jones swears, in restaurants.

"I went to lunch one day with a player," Jones reported. "And before the lunch came, he pulled up video of his at-bats against Dave Williams, [the pitcher] who we were facing that night. And that's the advantage of this thing. You can't really go out to lunch and bring your DVD recorder with you while you're waiting for your food."

Well, you can, we suppose -- if you bring a really long extension cord. But we get the idea.

Except this, of course, is only the beginning.

Then again, in technology, everything turns out to be just the beginning. But you have to wonder where this latest revolution is heading.

We know it's heading, first off, to quite a few other teams. We did a quick survey and found players on the Phillies, Marlins, Mariners, Indians and Red Sox who were either already doing iPrep or had asked people in their organizations to look into it. So undoubtedly, hundreds of players will be on board faster than you can say, "Download."

And, given the limitations of the current iPod, you know there will be more advanced versions -- and competitors -- busting out all over technospace any minute. In fact, Jones says he has spent the winter demo-ing a portable media player by Archos, with a 4½-inch screen and greater file compatibility.

But it's not as if iPods and media players are the only toys in baseball players' toy chests. So undoubtedly, other devices are going to barge their way into this mix, too.

"I've had some guys asking if I can load video on their Palm Treo phones," Jones said. "But I haven't quite mastered that yet."

And one of these days, we predict, you'll see a pitcher take a walk behind the mound during a key at-bat, pull out his iPod and take a quick video-refresher course before launching the big pitch of the night. Heck, if NFL quarterbacks can get plays radioed right into their helmets, why not?

"So then you know what'll happen," Jennings laughed. "Instead of getting kicked out of games for using pine tar, we'll get kicked out for using our iPods."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.