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The People's Choices

Sept. 04, 2006
Sept. 04, 2006

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Sept. 4, 2006

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The People's Choices

Be glad you donot live in Schaumburg, Ill.

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 2006 issue

In Schaumburgthey can't sit in their Barcaloungers and bitch about the Velveeta-brainedmanager who has the local minor league baseball team in last place. Because, inSchaumburg, they are the manager.

The fans of theSchaumburg Flyers, in the independent Northern League, decide who plays where.And they decide the pitching rotation. And the batting order.

And, right now,the fans have managed to manage the Flyers into dead last place.

"It's just sostupid," says catcher Ryan Walker.

This is one ofthose ideas that seemed like it might fly and has now turned into theHindenburg. In the first half of the season, when the Flyers were managed byAndy McCauley, Schaumburg finished in first place. For that they got automaticentry into the postseason.

But then, on July11, MSN, the Microsoft-owned web portal, and LivePlanet, a production company,launched FanClub Reality Baseball. The players hate it worse than broccoli. Themanager hates it but puts up with it. The fans don't seem to know diddly aboutbaseball but vote on the fan website anyway. The voting opens at the end ofeach game and closes three hours before game time the day of the next.

In the secondgame the fans put the centerfielder at first and the catcher at third, whereneither had played in years. "I go out there [to first], and I've taken noground balls," recalls Eric Cole. "I've got no cup, and I've got nofirst baseman's glove. Nice."

Little did theyknow, some of the guys on that night's opposing team--the Gary (Ind.)Railcats--were voting too. Oy. Schaumburg lost that game and hasn't stoppedlosing since. They had dropped 13 of their last 14 games through Sunday.

"This has noplace in baseball," says pitcher Dan Jackson.

It gets worse.FanClub also produces a weekly Internet reality show. So that means a 20-personfilm crew shoots the team doing everything from blowing saves to blowing noses.And the producers like drama.

"They starteda brawl," says pitcher Chris Andel, though the production company deniesit. According to the players, the editors spliced together two quotes about theKansas City T-Bones from pitcher Blake Williams into one them's-fightin'-wordstaunt. "They made it look like Blake was talking complete s--- aboutthem," Andel says.

Next thing youknow, it wasn't FanClub, it was Fight Club. And in the middle of the fracasbetween the Flyers and the T-Bones, Williams was screaming at the cameraman,"You started this!"

That's showbiz.And for all this, how much extra are the players paid? Zippo.

"I'mdone," says Williams. "This whole thing has been an embarrassment toour team and our league and to our owner, whatever his name is."

Uh, his name isRich Ehrenreich, and he says he's only trying to put fans in the seats. He'sdamn good at it too. He says attendance is up 15% (to 4,600 a game) since thefans took over. This is the same guy who signed Nigel Thatch--the Budweiser TVcharacter Leon--to pitch, even though the only thing Leon can pitch is Bud. Heeventually traded him for 60 cases of ... (wait for it) ... Bud.

He's also the guywho once signed then 96-year-old Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe to a one-daycontract. And auctioned off the Flyers' webcast play-by-play job to the highestbidder. And signed Ted Williams's son, John Henry, at age 33.

Rich ain'texactly your baseball purist.

"Look, theAmerican people decide who sits in the White House," he likes to say."I think they can handle a baseball lineup."

The question is,how far is too far? Picking the lineups? Pinch-running? Showering with theplayers? Which comes first in minor league baseball--the players' right to playthe game with integrity or the owners' right to make cash?

"What someplayers don't get," says Keith Quinn of LivePlanet, "is that they'regetting great exposure." What Quinn might not get is that scouts almostnever write in their reports, "This kid looks great in backlight."

And this is justthe beginning. The fans will manage the Flyers' upcoming playoff games. AndLivePlanet would love to do an entire league of teams. Uh, Tank? We're going tohave to ask you to slug your manager. This is sweeps week.

Ehrenreich plansfor the fans to click more, not less: Bunt here? Hit-and-run? Walk this batter?LivePlanet and MSN, meanwhile, hope to sell the show to cable next season,perhaps to ESPN or HBO.

Uh-oh.

Now starting atshortstop--Tony Soprano.

(At least he'llbe good in the brawls.)

• If you have acomment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

RIFFS of REILLY

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Which comes first in minor league baseball: theplayers' right to play the game with integrity or the owners' right to makecash with a wacky promotion?
PHOTOPETER READ MILLER