Baseball Gone Batty

A minor league team lets fans help manage as part of a Web reality show. Some say the interactivity runs afoul of the sport's tradition.

September 01, 2006|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — Weary from the trip to Kansas City, where his Schaumburg Flyers just lost their 12th straight game, Manager Andy McCauley drops by his boss' office to learn which players the Internet masses have chosen for him to start.

"This is the strangest one yet," warns Rich Ehrenreich, the minor league team's president and managing partner.

Nothing unusual about the field positions. But as Ehrenreich runs through the batting order against the Joliet JackHammers, McCauley lowers his forehead to his hand and wonders what the fans were thinking.

An outfielder who often bats last is leading off. The second spot, usually reserved for a hitter who runs well and gets on base often, is occupied by a big catcher who does neither. The slugger who normally bats fourth is dropped to sixth.

"That is, uh ... really?" McCauley asks.

"It makes no sense," Ehrenreich concedes. "But you know what? It could be just goofy enough to work."

"Just goofy enough to work" may well prove to be the operating principle of the Flyers' experiment with fan-picked lineups as part of "Fan Club: Reality Baseball," an Internet show that takes fantasy baseball leagues to new levels of interactivity.

To promote his club, Ehrenreich signed on to have cameras follow the Flyers through a half-season of baseball -- 48 games -- in the independent Northern League, where ballplayers earn meager salaries trying to get noticed by big-league organizations.

And Ehrenreich agreed to let fans, voting online, decide the team's starting lineup each night. Diehard supporters, opposing fans and Web surfers who know nothing about the team all have an equal say about which Flyers play and which ride the pine.

"It's 'Bull Durham'-meets-fantasy-sports come to life," said Larry Tanz, chief executive of LivePlanet, the Santa Monica-based production company that created the reality show, which can be seen on Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Video website and at

But in reaching out to his customers, Ehrenreich has ticked off his manager, many of his players and even some fans. They say the promotion threatens the integrity of baseball.

"No one, I don't care what your job is, likes to be told what to do, let alone from 10,000 guys sitting on their couches," McCauley said.

The longest losing streak in the club's history, which reached 14 games before ending Sunday, didn't lessen their distaste. The team won the division title in the first half of the split season, going 31-17. But since "Fan Club" began to start the second half, the team has gone 14-31, good for last place, with three games remaining.

Whether that's because of "Fan Club" is unclear -- some players got hurt, others moved up to big-league clubs and four were suspended for a bench-clearing brawl against the Kansas City T-Bones.

Nonetheless, attendance at the Flyers' Alexian Field has ticked up since "Fan Club" debuted.

Lacking the star power of the major leagues, the lower levels of professional baseball are famous for their wacky stunts to sell tickets, such as free admission for the worst toupees, mimes reenacting plays from atop the dugout and fish-tossing competitions in the infield.

But competition for fans' time and money is stiffer than ever. The explosion in digital media is allowing people to more easily mix and match their TV programming, music, movies, video games and sporting events. Instead of fighting that trend, the Flyers owners are trying to embrace it.

Throughout the history of organized sports, supporters have second-guessed managers' decisions and said they could do better. "Fan Club" gives them the chance.

"Fans are pretty smart, and managers aren't always right," Ehrenreich said. "I thought this was a good way to reward the fans."

In future seasons of "Fan Club," LivePlanet, Microsoft and the Flyers want to let fans trade and release players via online voting and use real-time software to swap in another pitcher or hitter during a game.

It's unclear how many are taking advantage of the opportunity: The involved parties won't say how many people vote for lineups or watch the show. Microsoft said that "Fan Club" episodes have been viewed a total of more than 500,000 times.

Number-crunching computer programs have played an increasingly important role in baseball personnel decisions, sparking debates over the merits of hard data versus instincts in baseball. But handing over managerial control to a bunch of mouse-wielding fans could happen only in a place like the Northern League.

In most of minor league baseball, player development trumps winning. The vast majority of lower-level teams are affiliates of a major league team and follow strict rules set by the parent clubs, such as the maximum number of pitches a prospect can throw or the fielding position a young talent must play.

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