Baseball Gone Batty
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 fanclub.msn.com.
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.
Not in the Northern League. Its eight teams, which include the likes of the Calgary Vipers and the Edmonton Cracker-Cats, operate independently of the major league teams. They have one goal: make money by putting a winning team on the field or by putting on at least an interesting show.
In 1998, Ehrenreich and his business partners paid about $1 million for a struggling franchise in Thunder Bay, Canada. They renamed the team the Flyers and moved it the following season to this office-park suburb 30 miles west of Chicago.
A corporate lawyer by training, Ehrenreich is more businessman than showman, but his team has resorted to some stunts to garner attention.
In 2001, for instance, the team held a regular promotion called “You Make the Call.” During games, then-manager Ron Kittle would radio the press box with a choice between two pinch-hitters or relievers, then make a move based on fan applause.
Enter LivePlanet. Co-founded by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the production company had been trying for nearly five years to do an interactive series about minor league baseball.
Trying to boost its online advertising revenue, Microsoft agreed to pick up some of the costs, line up advertisers and distribute the show on its websites.
In April, the Northern League’s owners voted to let LivePlanet follow the Flyers. Fans were allowed to decide each game’s lineup, but each player could be placed only at one of his listed positions. For example, a third baseman listed as the emergency catcher could be tapped to start at catcher -- but the fans couldn’t have an outfielder pitch.
LivePlanet talked with about 50 teams across the country but wanted to start the first season with just one. Ehrenreich needed the league’s approval and the other owners were happy to oblige.
“Not only does it provide fun for fans, it gives them an opportunity to see what the life of a minor league baseball player is like,” said Commissioner Jim Weigel. “Most fans think the average baseball player is getting paid millions of dollars and driving a Mercedes. The guys in our league are barely getting by. It’s a struggle.”
That’s an understatement. Each team’s salary is capped at $104,000 per season -- for the entire team. The Flyers pay an average salary of $1,700 per month during the season, which runs from mid-May to early September. Most players stay with host families. In the off-season, the team’s catcher is a substitute teacher, and the star reliever tends bar.
They do it for a shot at making the major leagues. Northern League players who have made it include Rey Ordonez, a former Gold Glove shortstop with the New York Mets, and Baltimore Oriole first baseman Kevin Millar.
That’s why “Fan Club” drives some players nuts.
“This isn’t a last-resort league,” said Dan Jackson, the 28-year-old Flyers closer. “There’s a lot of guys with chances to move on. Being out of position doesn’t better your chances to move on, or better us to win the game.”
Some players don’t mind the attention.
Players gather to watch themselves on screen in the clubhouse, which features a new sofa and a computer. Cameras follow the Flyers as they play poker, rehab from injuries, brawl with Kansas City and try to pick up women in nightclubs.
There are other perks of being on a reality show: When the girlfriend of center fielder Eric Cole flew in for a visit, he whisked her into a limo for dinner at a fancy restaurant. LivePlanet picked up the tab.
The change has been toughest on McCauley. During his second season with the Flyers in 2004, McCauley led the team to its first division title since 1999 and was named Northern League manager of the year.
He entered this season with a won-lost record of 143-137 with the Flyers and managed the team to the division’s best record in the first half, guaranteeing a spot in the playoffs, which begin Tuesday.
In mid-June, Ehrenreich called a team meeting and sprang the news on his players: Soon their roles would be in the hands of the fans, and their lives would be in the sights of the LivePlanet camera crews. Players had five days to sign the LivePlanet contract or request a trade.
All stayed, agreeing to let Web surfers call the shots.
The experiment began well enough July 11. Fans made no major lineup changes against the Gary SouthShore RailCats, and the team won, 4-2.
The second night, McCauley said, “is when the lineup from hell came down.”
When LivePlanet producers handed him the fans’ lineup, McCauley erupted. After playing every game the first half of the season, Josue Lopez, a slugging first baseman from Trabuco Canyon, was riding the pine. Cole, the center fielder, was starting at first base, where he hadn’t played in four years, and backup catcher Ryan Walker was manning third base. (McCauley had listed the players as eligible at those positions in case they were needed but had no idea fans would start them there.)
During the third inning, a RailCat batter dropped a bunt down the third base line. Walker uncorked a bad throw and Cole couldn’t handle it, leading to two runs. The Flyers lost, 5-2.
The lineups soon stabilized. LivePlanet began listing player statistics and “Manager’s Choice” selections. With a few minor tweaks, fans have generally gone with McCauley’s recommendations. Flyers fan Chris Connelly says he generally spends his lunch break voting -- often a hundred times, each for McCauley’s picks.
“He’s the manager -- he knows best,” said the 43-year-old telecommunications technician. “I let the professionals do their jobs.”
Some players haven’t gotten used to the fan voting.
“It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of in baseball, period,” said Jackson, the closer. “We’ve been told this is for the fans -- to give back to the fans. You want to give back to the fans, let them vote on the price of beer.”
Ehrenreich said if he wanted advice on how to run his business, he wouldn’t ask his relief pitcher.
“If they can’t handle this, how are they going to handle the distraction of major league baseball?” Ehrenreich asked.
Besides, he said, “Nobody would care if we were winning.”
But as the Flyers prepared last weekend for their final regular-season home series, they weren’t winning. Despite thunderstorms threatening to the north, more than 5,500 fans filed into Alexian Field to watch the Flyers take on the JackHammers.
The Flyers are trying to stop their skid and turn things around before the playoffs.
Season-ticket holder Richard Del Boccio, a 64-year-old retired airline mechanic who says he misses games “only when there’s a family wedding or funeral,” sits in the first row behind the home dugout and rings his blue Flyers cowbell every time a Flyers pitcher throws a strike.
Del Boccio says he likes that Ehrenreich is trying something to boost attendance. But he doesn’t like the “Fan Club” idea. “You hate to see fans pick the lineup, because any fan can do it” even fans of opposing teams, he said. “Ever since we started this, our record went down the drain.”
Meanwhile, Ehrenreich sits in his owner’s luxury box with the lights off and watches the Flyers drop another game, by a 4-1 score. The shuffled lineup picked by the Internet masses scratches out only five hits.
On this night, “just goofy enough to work” doesn’t.