Stone: High-Tech Ways to Get Your Baseball Fix

It's April again—time for my annual, six-month-long root canal without anesthesia to begin. Yup, I'm a Cleveland Indians fan.

There are reasons to be optimistic this year. We have a solid group of talented young players, an experienced pitching rotation and the inexorable wind of probability at our back. Boston and Chicago kicked their jinxes, so it's just gotta be the Tribe's turn. Except it probably won't be, since Cleveland has such notoriously bad luck. On April 2, for example, our ace pitcher, the towering C. C. Sabathia, strained a muscle in his stomach and landed on the disabled list. In the very first game. After three innings. Cavs star LeBron James hasn't even been able to conquer the city's funky karma. But let's leave the incisive baseball commentary to NEWSWEEK's Mark Starr. What I'm most excited about this year are the options—the 12 ways I now have to allow my beloved team to rip the heart from my chest on a daily basis. Major League Baseball has been ridiculously slow in its investigation into the use of steroids by players. But when it comes to new media and exploiting the Internet, the league has been smart. Six years ago, the 30 teams funneled $1 million each into a new company, MLB Advanced Media, to develop an online strategy. Today, the stand-alone company has 285 employees and brought in $265 million in revenue last year. We can largely thank MLBAM and its CEO, Bob Bowman, for the fact that we now have 12 different ways to follow the game. No. 1: The old-fashioned way—going to the game. The Tribe plays the Oakland Athletics five times in the San Francisco Bay Area, so you can be sure I'll be forking over $10 for the cheap bleacher seats. This year, the A's have covered the upper third deck of McAfee Coliseum with a giant tarp to make the cavernous stadium feel more intimate. Which means there will be fewer angry A's fans screaming at me to take my Tribe hat off. Nos. 2 and 3: Regular radio and television. When the Tribe games are broadcast on national or local radio or TV, I'll try to tune in. No. 4: MLB's "extra innings" package on cable and satellite systems like Comcast digital cable and DirecTV. For $159 to $179 a season, (depending on which cable or satellite provider you have and where you live), you can watch 60 games a week from television markets other than your own. No. 5: Satellite radio. In 2004, baseball signed an 11-year, $650 million deal with XM Satellite Radio. The service costs $12.95 a month. Some of the new receivers, like the portable Pioneer Inno, are superslick and work like regular portable radios, even when you're roaming away from your home or car. But XM carries only the home-team feed of each game, so I can't listen to my beloved Indians radio announcers when the Tribe is on the road. No. 6: Gameday audio on MLB.com. For $14.95 for the season, Bob Bowman's company streams the radio broadcast of every game over the Internet. You can choose either the home or away radio announcers, which is why I've purchased this package the last few seasons. Listening to Tribe broadcaster Tom Hamilton and his wildly animated home-run call—"it's a drive ... waaaaay back ... gone!"—is an addiction I don't want to break. No. 7: MLB.TV. The TV broadcast of every game is streamed over the Internet at MLB.com. It costs $14.95 a month or $79.95 for the entire season and has been hugely popular in its first three full seasons. For now, MLB.TV provides only the home-team feeds—so you can only get the home team's TV announcers. But Bowman says that's changing later this season. MLB Advanced Media wired every ballpark with broadband, and soon, it will unlock that potential, allowing fans to watch either the home or away video feed while listening to the home or away audio announcers on top of it if they choose. It's the ultimate fan's dream—creating personalized mash-ups of a baseball broadcast—so let's call that No. 8. "Our strategy is to do everything we can to make the fans love the game. We ask, what do the fans want to see, hear, smell, touch? We want them to know everything there is to know about the game," Bowman says. He notes that the challenge of the new feature is to synchronize the audio and video, so that listeners don't, for example, hear a radio ad for Cleveland's best sausages while the video feed shows the players in the dugout. No. 9: But what if I'm away from my home computer, but still need to hear the Tribe's opponent score the inevitable spirit-crushing run in its final at-bat? For the past few years, you could listen to games over your cell phone through the service of a San Francisco Bay-area company called MobiTV. But the league thought the startup was charging too much and hadn't quite mastered the technology. Last year, MLB Advanced Media unveiled a direct-radio service with Verizon and soon, it will launch one with Sprint. For $4.95 a month, if you're a customer of those two mobile carriers, you can listen to any game, with the announcer of your choice, over your mobile phone. No. 10: Text messages. To start receiving text alerts on the progress of your favorite players and teams during games, send a text message to 65246 with the name of your team ("Indians"). For $3.95 a month, you get text messages with breaking news, trades and notification of lead changes in a game after the seventh inning. So every time designated hitter Travis Hafner homers for the Tribe, my phone will vibrate, and I'll instantly ignore whatever else I'm currently doing, such as driving on the highway. "It's the greatest product we have, but I'm not saying that everyone in my family likes it," Bowman says. No. 11: GameCast. This is the tried-and-true graphical representation of each game's action and statistics on the Web. There are different versions on MLB.com, ESPN.com and CBS.SportsLine.com, among other sites. It's a great way to follow a game's progress when you're at your PC and really preoccupied with other stuff. Bowman says that later this season, fans will be able to load the GameCast application onto their mobile phones. No. 12: Fan chat rooms. While I'm devoted to the Indians radio announcers and local Cleveland beat writers, sometimes other fans are the best analysts. On the Cleveland Indians forum at Scout.com, for example, fans voluntarily pitch in with real-time commentary on games in progress. For some reason, I find their rousing optimism and melancholy disappointment to be awfully therapeutic. They're Indians fans—they understand my pain.

Stone: High-Tech Ways to Get Your Baseball Fix | News