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Date: 11/08/07

Struck Out

I love baseball.

This is not an easy thing to do when you live on this side of the Atlantic. After all, the game at its topmost level is played in the Americas, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. So there's little if anything about the sport in our wonderfully self-centred media.

So, how did I get into it in the first place?

Back in the early 1980s, when I was at university, I acquired a pen-friend called Susan, who lived in Minneapolis. We corresponded for a year or so, then lost contact with each other.

At about the same time, Channel 4 opened up. Part of the scheduling of the new station was weekly highlights from the National Football League. I suppose it was the novelty value of it which led me to watch every Sunday evening. What's more, once I'd graduated from University to a life of unemployment, I used to listen late into Sunday and Monday nights to the US Armed Forced Network (AFN), broadcasting on medium wave out of what was then West Germany, who would relay live broadcasts of the games.

The NFL season in those days was a bit shorter than it is now, and once the Superbowl was done and dusted in January there was nothing to listen to. I didn't find listening to (ice) hockey on the radio very interesting, and I found basketball completely boring (something about too many people in too small a space, I think), although I did have an amusing moment with it once. I was tuning along the medium wave band late one night, desperate for entertainment, when suddenly I heard a male American voice exclaiming excitedly:

"Robinson penetrating; he puts it up and in!"

My eyebrows levitated for a moment before realising that this was the NBA I was listening to.

Anyway, I was tuning around again one late night in July 1987, when I came across what was clearly another sport entirely.

What is was, was baseball.

I'd seen baseball before. ITV's World Of Sport programme used to show highly-condensed highlights of the World Series every year, although never without that sort of smug condescension which they also used for monster trucks and tractor racing, i.e. "These Yanks, eh? This is what they call sport, is it?". But I'd never heard baseball before, and I sat there in a form of bemusement, hearing all this strange terminology coming out of the mouths of the commentators. Having nothing better to do, I listened on in the same sort of drifting way one might listen to a piece of experimental music; certainly, it made about as much sense to me as some of Stockhausen's wilder works.

What became apparent as the night wore on, however, was that I had somehow picked up more knowledge than I knew I had. OK, much of the technical language was opaque to me (what was a 'bunt'? what did it mean when the guy behind the microphone said that the defense 'had a shift on'? Were they all wearing it?), but knowing the basic shape of the playing area, terms like 'left field' and 'first base' were familiar enough, and I could understand enough to listen on.

Have you ever had one of those life experiences which felt like a door opening? Well, my curiousity well and truly aroused, I listened again the next night, and every night I reasonably could bearing in mind the 5-8 hour time difference.

This was halfway through the 1987 season, and I soon realised that in order to make it really interesting, I'd have to choose a team to follow. Although I had long since lost contact with Susan by this time, I had supported the Minnesota Vikings when I'd been interested in the NFL, so it made sense for a number of reasons to transfer my loyalty to the state's Major League Baseball team, the Twins.

This turned out to be a good move in more than one sense. That year, the Twins reached the World Series for the first time in 22 years, and it proved to be a real see-saw affair against St Louis, with every game going with home-field advantage. As it was the American League team's turn to host four of the seven games, this was enough to give the Twins the series.

I don't remember much about that series, although I'm pretty sure I listened to every game, or as much of it as I could when propagation conditions meant that either the signal from AFN faded in and out at the most annoyingly inconvenient moments, or the signal was simply unlistenable.

Three mediocre years of Twins baseball followed, although I listened to a lot of games on AFN and picked up not only an adequate working knowledge of the game, but something akin to a passion for it, having by now all but left the meat-heads of the NFL behind.

1991 was a season in which little was expected of the Twins, especially as they had finished with the worst record in the American League the year before. Somehow, however, they got it all together and reached the World Series again. This time I know that I listened to every game, right up to that remarkable seventh one (the series having gone with home-field advantage yet again), when Jack Morris pitched a game for the ages to shut out a potent Atlanta line-up. It was about 4:30am here when I sat upright in my bed in the darkness of an October morning with tears in my eyes as Gene Larkin's single in the bottom of the tenth inning brought Dan Gladden in for the only run of the game. Days of glory!

Following the game then started to become difficult. I was now in full-time work, so late nights were at a premium (I'd taken a few days off to listen to the World Series). Moreover, with the fall of the Soviet bloc, AFN reduced the power of its transmissions from Germany, meaning that its signal had a constant battle with a high-power station in Spain. It usually lost.

Then, just in time for the 1997 season, Channel Five (as it was then called) opened up and started showing live games late on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Once again, I could follow the game properly, instead of just keeping an eye out for the Twins' scores in The Guardian and wondering where they were in the standings.

The time difference was still a problem, of course, so I ended up taping Channel Five's output and watching it the following evening.

Then, in 2001, I got online and it became easier still to follow the game day by day. I also found the Usenet group for the Twins and one of the regulars there, who goes by the name of 'AnnE Austin', was able by one of those wonders of modern communication to put me back in touch with Susan after a gap of twenty years.

The internet meant I could actually watch baseball on a daily basis as well, through Major League Baseball's own site. I started watching its Daily Rewind highlights package every day in order to keep up with what was going on. Especially useful since I junked my television set last year.

This is where you find out exactly why this piece is on the Rants page, folks!

Last Tuesday morning, before going to work, I saw the headline on the BBC News site which said that Barry Bonds had finally broken the all-time home run record. So I went straight to mlb.com and watched the video of it, intending to catch the rest of the coverage when I got home from work.

So, that evening, after my tea and a much-needed nap, I fired up the PC and went back to mlb.com to catch all the news surrounding the record, and to watch The Daily Rewind as usual...

...only to find that I couldn't anymore.

Without any advance warning or notice, during Tuesday MLB replaced the Windows Media streams I had previously watched with a different video format. This meant that I would have to download something called Microsoft Silverlight in order to watch anything.

Except that Silverlight won't run on Windows 98. It won't run on Windows Me either. Nor on Windows 2000 or Windows 2003 Server - at least not yet. It'll only run on the very latest version of the MacOS; and if you're running any version of Linux, forget it. And they have the nerve to promote Silverlight as a 'cross-platform plugin'!

This means that I have been completely shut out of MLB's videos.

(I accidentally typed "shit out of" there at first - as in 'luck'. Appropriate enough, all things considered).

I sent a snotty e-mail off to them, but haven't received any kind of reply five days later. I've no doubt that, were they to deign to answer my request for the restoration of the Windows Media streams, they would use all sorts of bollocks-speak about "enhancing the viewing experience" and "delivering expanded and interactive coverage", or some such, so perhaps it's just as well that I've had nothing back from them. Homicidal rages can be dangerous in a man of middle age whose health is not so much 'rude' as 'somewhat impolite'.

"So what?", you might say. "Technology moves on, doesn't it?". Yep, it sure does, but that's not the whole of what's happening here.

Certainly this is another manifestation of fashionable neophilia. I mean, Silverlight isn't even the finished article yet: it's a Release Candidate program. Of course, the web gurus and self-appointed arbiters of what the Web should be absolutely adore it. Blog after blog endorses this mighty leap forward in online media provision, without a single word or thought about those of us who are excluded by the change.

And yet, despite its incomplete state, organisations such as MLB have rushed into using it already, hurtling up Bill Gates' arse with the speed of a Randy Johnson fast ball. Why?

Well, it seems that it makes it easier for 'rights-holders' to hang on to their 'content' for one thing. The techniques for ripping and saving Windows Media streams are well enough known to enough people to cause night-sweats and soiled linen to corporate lawyers and accountants. So, let's have a brand new program which makes it more difficult to do that, and to hell with whoever else it may inconvenience!

Again, you might say, "So what? Why don't you upgrade to XP, or even Vista?"

Well, for one thing, although I could afford a new system - and have been giving serious thought to getting one for some time, if only to act as a backup to my current setup - I deeply resent being forced into doing so by some corporation's consideration solely of its own well-being. When someone tries to push me, I become determined not to be pushed, and I get stubborn as well as resentful. My current PC still works wonderfully well after six years, and I see replacing it before its expiry as wasteful. It's the way I was brought up, which is why the avarice and deliberate conspicuous consumption of recent years makes me want to puke.

(Besides which, I certainly wouldn't get a machine with Vista on it; have you seen the End User License Agreement? It allows Macroshaft to cripple your PC if one of their robots thinks you're not running kosher software.)

I haven't asked mlb.com to remove Silverlight; just asked it to continue to run the Windows Media streams in parallel for those of us who are not running, cannot run or will not run the operating systems required for using it. Given the amount of money made in and by Major League Baseball nowadays, I don't think it's a lot to ask.

It won't happen, of course. For all their yap about 'choice' and 'customer service', we'll get what the corporations want us to have.

So, it looks like my baseball-watching days are over for now. Gee, thanks MLB! You've just struck out!