Glen McGregor and I met for a coffee on Friday to talk about politics, political journalism and his role as social media editor for the Ottawa Citizen. It was a fun and insightful conversation which somehow turned to baseball – specifically our memories of the Montreal Expos and the Ottawa Lynx. Then it struck me how the Ottawa Lynx and my work in digital communication and online community building are intrinsically connected.

OPENING PITCH

I was once a committed baseball fan. That love led me to the exciting summer of 1995; the first and only championship season of the Ottawa Lynx. I worked for them that summer. I delivered my first real business pitch — on my own initiative. It was a time when companies were getting into the website craze, most of them pushing products and merchandise online rather than offering value to customers, current and prospective. I could sense it wouldn’t be long before minor league ball teams would follow suit and saw an opportunity to offer greater value to fans and ticket holders through the web. So, I approached the front office of the team and pitched the idea of creating a website that delivered value rather than a shopping cart.

The Lynx loved the idea. The plan was to publish line scores, box scores, team and player stats, season and club records and summaries of club activities (such as roster moves) on a daily basis. Basically, to offer the fans what they couldn’t get anywhere else. My proposal was designed to augment any media coverage rather than compete with it (I didn’t want the website to result in lost interest in Citizen or Sun coverage of the team).

FIRST UP

The Ottawa Lynx became the first baseball club in the International League to have a website.

As webmaster, I woke up at 5am everyday and grabbed the latest statistical information, scratched together some other relevant updates and manually coded the web pages. The information was online before the vast majority of the public had gotten out of bed. I kept a historical record of the games of 1995 on the site so fans could cross reference the information. It was all linked since site search technology wasn’t freely and easily available.

Two or three other ILB teams launched their own web pages as the season progressed. Those sites were about merchandising.

THE RALLY (AN ASIDE)

The Lynx had a great team in 95. That combined with the URL being promoted during the games helped drive interest in the site. They clinched a playoff spot at the second last game of the season (against the Syracuse Sky Chiefs, for those keeping tabs). If I recall correctly, manager Pete Mackanin celebrated by granting pitcher J.J. Thobe’s request to set the batting order for the final game. It was comical. Catcher Bert Heffernan, who usually batted mid-to-late in the lineup, was given the lead-off spot. Most of the players showed up hungover. A fun day, though not the most inspired playing. The team reserved that for the post-season.

LATE INNING CHANGES

That same year, Major League Baseball had tested out live online coverage of regular season games. It was before live video streaming, of course. They used a static cartoon-like graphic of a ball park with a line score below. After each play, the page would be updated with a text blurb that would describe what happened and provide a new version of the graphic — something like “Grissom singled to right”, and the graphic would indicate a player standing on first base. Knowing that out of town Lynx games weren’t broadcast on the radio, intrigued by scenes in the movie Bull Durham and inspired by MLB, I convinced the front office to try out online, text-based coverage of the out-of-town playoff games. I would get a call from the press box between each half inning and would update the site.

It was an idea that was ahead of its time. While the website was attracting 800-1500 hits each day, people weren’t (YET) conditioned to sit in front of their computers to consume near real-time content they couldn’t get anywhere else. Only the hard core baseball geeks like me would do that. According to my memory, that was 15 at best (including me, the person on the phone, transcribing the updates and publishing them to the site). It’s funny to consider how much has changed since that one series I put my friends on hold to be a sportscaster.

DOUBLE THREAT

Besides swimming in a sea of cool statistical information and helping promote my home team, the club gave the game-time job of “Ticker Boy” — making me a double threat in baseball parlance. My additional role was to monitor baseball scores coming off the dot matrix printer in the press box during home games and provide updates to the scoreboard operator and game announcer. For that, I was fed, paid to watch every home game with the front office staff and media, and had the added bonus of chatting with players and even getting to shag fly balls during batting practice.

I was known in the press box as the thin, geeky guy who knew all about the web. With the exception of the location, not much has changed.

CORKING THE WEB

Noone in the box, myself included, appreciated where the web was going and how our little website was part of a trend toward connecting what was then called COINS (Communities of Interest Networks) through digital channels. It was an experiment in doing things that are now basic functionality of the technology.

EPILOGUE

The Lynx won the Governor’s Cup on September 13. It was an exciting game made more-so by a lengthy mid-game rain delay. I updated the website to announce the win then joined the celebrations in the clubhouse. While there was beer and champagne flying everywhere, I didn’t drink anything that night. I grabbed a bat and carried it from player to player for autographs… Curtis Pride, Jim Buccheri, Bert Heffernan, Julian Yan, Ted Wood…

Word was F.P. Santangelo was driving to Ottawa after the Expos game to participate in the celebrations. By 2am he hadn’t arrived and players were dispersing to homes. I got in my car to head home and wondered what kind of reaction I’d get if stopped by the police reeking of alcohol and blowing a pass in the breathalyzer.

I arrived home to a voice mail message from Millie Lundgren, partner of iSTAR Internet where I’d been working on contract providing IT support for a few weeks. It was a job offer. My career was beginning.

I took our youngest daughter, Bayla to the ballpark on September 3, 2007. We’d been only a few times since the team had ended its affiliation with the Montreal Expos in 2002. However, this was the last game of the Ottawa Lynx, a team that couldn’t get fans in the seats, and I needed to be there for the goodbye. For the occasion, the team dusted of original mascot, Lenny, to share cheer leading duties with his successor, Skratch. After the 8-5 loss to Syracuse, the team opened the gates and allowed fans to run on the field. Bayla and I had a great time. When it came time to leave, we scooped some dirt from the third base line and brought it home in a container.

Baseball card created using MyTradingCards.com.