Tuning in ... far from home From all over the world, fans turn to Webcasts to follow their teams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Babe Ruth called his shot today, it would be heard around the world. Via the Internet, that is.

More than a million baseball fans scattered across the globe are using their computers to listen to their favorite teams' live broadcasts as technology changes the way Americans tune in to their favorite pastime.

Just ask Katrina Birkelien, a transplanted Orioles fan in Honolulu.

"Hawaii is wonderful, but one of the things we miss most is going to the ballpark to watch the Orioles," says Birkelien, an Army nurse and graduate of Western Maryland College. "So my family and I are listening to the radio broadcasts of the games on the computer. It really makes us feel like we are back home. We get more games now than you'd ever imagine."

Birkelien tunes into the Orioles courtesy of WBAL's radio Webcast, a pioneering effort when the station started it two years ago. Today, every major league club broadcasts over the Internet using streaming audio technology that delivers real-time digital sound over a medium that was originally designed for data.

If you're a radio junkie, the Web offers more than just baseball. You can listen to your favorite pop music station in Britain, police scanner channels in Los Angeles and Chicago, news reports in Russia, and rush-hour traffic updates from Rome. At WBAL, callers from around the country jump into debates on the station's regular talk shows.

But for anyone who can remember the old days - two years ago - when leaving home meant a painful separation from your baseball team, the Internet is as revolutionary to fanhood as game highlight movie reels were in the 1920s.

"Until this year I would spend countless nights listening to broadcasts fade in and out from KDKA in Pittsburgh," says Ed McConnell, a 51-year-old Lansdowne computer programmer and hard-core Pirates fan. "But the Internet has changed all that. I hardly ever miss an entire Pirate game now."

McConnell spent his childhood in a small Pennsylvania town 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, where he was often glued to the speaker of a scratchy little AM radio. When he was 12, he listened to one of baseball's most famous games - 12 innings of perfect pitching by Harvey Haddix against the Milwaukee Braves on May 26, 1959.

Haddix and the Pirates lost in the 13th, but the game - and the radio - are engraved in McConnell's memory. He still likes to listen to baseball, rather than watch on TV. It's no small irony that he and thousands of others are availing themselves of this old-fashioned pleasure with today's most high-tech home gadget the computer.

"I even got a wireless PC speaker so I can listen to the games

outside," McConnell says. "All in all, it's great. It sure beats having to drive around in my car hoping to find a spot that has good reception."

Officials at WBAL radio, one of the first stations to broadcast over the Internet, say they've received hundreds of e-mail letters from baseball fans - on every continent.

"We've had people respond from England, Israel, Brazil, and dozens of other countries," says Chris Beau-champ, WBAL's Internet producer. "Some are U.S. servicemen, some are native Baltimoreans who just want their baseball fix, and some are people out of town who could watch the game where they are, but they want to hear the hometown voices."

Tuning in is relatively simple. In addition to your Web browser, you'll need a sound card, speakers or headphones and the Real Audio Player, a plug-in, or program, that receives Internet broadcasts and works with your browser. You can download a free copy from its publisher, Real Networks Inc., at www.realaudio.com.

For now, at least, the broadcasts themselves are free, too. But Major League Baseball officials tout Internet radio as the sound wave of the future, and some fans worry that other teams will try to emulate the Cleveland Indians, who tried to charge Internet listeners $7.95 a month for the games.

That effort was abandoned, largely because it infuriated transplanted fans like Dean Horvath, 40, who listens in via computer from his Carroll County home.

"Charging for the audio feed is another way they try to get into your wallet, like with the $6 beers and the $40 box seats at the ballpark," Horvath said. "It's not that I can't afford $7 a month. But people already pay $20 a month for Internet service. The extra dip into the fans' wallet captures perfectly what i with big league baseball today."

On the other hand, Internet radio has given fans new ways to work around the baseball establishment. Consider the cadre of Oriole cyberfans who listen to Jon Miller, the popular announcer who departed Baltimore two years ago because he wasn't enough of a "homer" for Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

Miller now calls games for the San Francisco Giants and station KNBR, but his entertaining play-by-play commentary still TC resonates through the speakers of computers throughout Maryland.

"Listening to Jon Miller do the Giants games is a reminder of how great a loss his departure from Baltimore is for local fans of baseball on the radio," said Mike Whitney of Baltimore.

"It's great because they're West Coast and you can listen to Miller falling asleep, like we were able to do here for so many wonderful years," added Charles Jenkins of Columbia.

Baseball teams are using the increasing popularity of Internet radio to spin off other radio features. The New York Yankees, for example, signed a landmark deal in April with Broadcast.com, the largest Internet Webcasting company, for a package of offerings that includes a live program with Yankee players and audio highlights from games past.

Teams elsewhere say they're likely to produce similar fare.

Other major sports leagues also report increasing numbers of Internet listeners. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League each broadcast more than 1,000 games over the Web this year. An NHL spokesman estimated that hockey games drew 500,000 fans a month.

Fans of other sports without mass American appeal are delighted with Webcasts, too. Keir Knight, a journalist in Mount Airy who hails from Brighton, England, listens to cricket matches from home via British Broadcasting Corp. Webcasts.

"It is a very, very slow-pitched game, and because of that it translates well for radio, much like baseball," says Knight. "The commentators in cricket are the best in the world. They are without peer. Listening to it really is a cure for homesickness. I used to listen to cricket on the radio at school when I was six."

Baseball officials say it's hard to say why people tune in, but their e-mail tells them that transplants are longing for a taste of home - right down to the local commercials.

That hometown feeling is important to Stephanie Vardavas is a lawyer for Nike Inc. in Portland, Ore. who graduated from Parkville High School in 1973. The longtime Orioles fan first distinguished herself as a Yale undergraduate in 1975, when she persuaded legendary third-baseman Brooks Robinson to lend her his uniform to wear on Halloween.

"It was great," she recalled. "It had a top button missing, and the right thigh was worn from where he had slid."

Now Vardavas listens to Orioles games on her computer, which has become a symbolic digital shrine to the Birds.

"My hard drive partitions are named Brooks and Frank - after the Robinsons," she explained.

Tune in

Want to listen to radio on the Web? Check out these sites:

WBAL Radio (Orioles broadcasts)

http://wbal.com

Other sports broadcasts on the Web

www.broadcast.com/sports/

Real Networks (Real Audio Player)

www.realaudio.com

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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