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Who's on first? It's your call

Through voting on Net, fans to manage ball club

 

By Sasha Talcott, Globe Staff | July 12, 2006

 

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. -- For baseball fans, second-guessing the manager's decisions -- and running him out of town after mistakes -- is an essential part of the game.

 

Now, a minor league team will find out whether fans can do the job better. The Schaumburg Flyers, an independent team west of Chicago, yesterday declared that from here on in, fans will take over managerial duties for the team.

 

Through Internet voting, the public will decide the team's batting order, pitching rotation, and which players to trade. Even the style of team uniforms could go up for a vote. Yesterday, fans took control of their first managerial task -- deciding which nine players to start in the game -- and, over the next several weeks, the team plans to give them the rest of the managerial duties as well.

 

Envisioning their experiment as a cross between ``Bull Durham" and ``American Idol," the Flyers will allow a camera crew to videotape the action -- including the locker room and players' personal lives -- and broadcast it in streaming video over the Internet. The idea is the brainchild of executives at a Los Angeles production company called LivePlanet, which is working with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.

 

The project's backers said they were surprised they could persuade a real baseball team to play along.

Poll: How would you manage the Red Sox?

 

``The word is `stunned,' " said Joe Michaels, director of business development for MSN. ``When we first heard about it, we thought it was one of the craziest ideas we'd ever come across. That's what we liked about it. Who would have thought we'd get to manage a real baseball team?"

 

At the Flyers' ballpark yesterday, Andy McCauley, manager of the team, said he was not thrilled about the prospect of fans taking over his duties.

 

``Being around someone 24/7 is different than searching for five minutes on a website," he said. ``A lot of these guys have played for me for three or four years. I know what makes them tick."

 

So far, the fans have not made big changes. In fact, they voted for a starting lineup almost identical to the Flyers' normal roster. The one hiccup: McCauley had considered starting Justin Hendrickson, a left fielder and first baseman who had just returned to the team after getting hit in the face by a pitch last season. The fans, however, picked someone else.

 

Hendrickson took it in stride. ``Everyone wants a chance to play every day, but they don't know who I am yet," he said. He has no plans to lobby fans to put him in the game. ``If they don't need me to play, I won't play."

 

Once the fans vote on an issue, the Flyers consider it binding. Still, their experiment comes with some limits: Players only can play their own positions, so there will be no pitchers chasing fly balls in center field. Right now, fans can only make decisions before each game, but the project's backers plan to let them vote during games to decide on such things as when to take a pitcher out of game.

 

Sponsors of the project, dubbed ``Reality Baseball," are talking about enlisting other teams, or even a whole minor league, so that the Flyers can have rivals. Before selecting the Flyers, LivePlanet, the production company, interviewed dozens of teams -- including the Brockton Rox in Massachusetts -- and some of the teams still are lobbying to be included, executives said. The Rox were such a strong candidate that film crews at one point shot test footage of them, but the Flyers' eagerness won out.

 

In the past several years, however, the Brockton team (no relation to the Boston Red Sox) has dabbled on its own with letting fans be manager. During one 2004 game, the Rox gave fans signs that said ``yes" on one side and ``no" on the other, then let them vote on issues such as whether the Rox should pinch hit, or if the runner should steal a base.

 

The team's president, Jim Lucas, is leaning against giving fans control over the Rox for the entire season. ``The flip side of the incredible innovation that they're using is that they're handcuffing the manager's ability to effectively run the team," he said.

 

There are other hurdles that limit how far fan voting can spread. The Flyers make a good candidate for the project because they are independent from the farm systems of Major League Baseball -- they play in the Northern League. Whereas MLB-affiliated minor league teams are built to develop players for the big leagues, the Flyers and other Northern League teams explicitly want to win. Farm teams of major league clubs, however, may be willing to play someone to develop his skills, regardless of how he's doing at the moment.

 

Baseball purists worry fan voting will damage the integrity of the game.

Poll: How would you manage the Red Sox?

 

``For all of the fan entertainment we try to present, we recognize that it always ranks second to the game," said Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox's executive vice president of public affairs. ``If people have different priorities, and are willing to put the entertainment value over the fidelity of the sport, and if that works for that community, to each his own. But with the Red Sox and Red Sox fans, the game must come first."

 

Reality Baseball's sponsors are betting that it will be a commercial success. They hope to turn the Flyers into America's team, with a national or even international following of fans. All told, MSN executives expect more than 1 million loyal viewers to return frequently to the website, fanclub.msn.com -- the size of the audience for a cable television show.

 

Some of the Flyers' players still are getting used to the idea. When the team made a trip to Kansas City recently, camera crews followed them to local bars, attracting a crowd of onlookers. A few of the players are not thrilled that camera crews plan to follow them out on dates, and record their conversations in the locker room.

 

The real question remains: With fans in control, will the Flyers win? Even one of the team's owners, Richard Ehrenreich, admits he does not know.

 

``I don't think we'll lose any more, necessarily," he said.

 

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

? Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

http://www.boston.com/business/technology/..._its_your_call/

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