Casting a Shadow Over Baseball's Tech Wizardry

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The first potential deal breaker has cropped up in my plan to cut the cable to cable. My Cardinals are in the baseball playoffs, at least for now. But ESPN has rights to broadcast many of the games, and it's only available on cable or satellite. That might mean that Cards uniforms, the beloved "Birds on a Bat," won't grace the sets of cheap antenna ants like me.

Ah, but the high-tech wizards at Major League Baseball are way ahead of their competitors and broadcast every playoff game over the Web, not to mention every regular season game. So I happily waved $20 at mlb.com back in September, which is a partial-season discount off the $80 full-season pass (or $10 for just post-season broadcasts).

But when the playoffs rolled around, I discovered that the national deal with ESPN (and another with Fox) would black out live Internet streams. Ouch.

It isn't just in the playoffs, says Jim Gallagher, a baseball spokesman. Many regular-season streams are also blacked out in favor of TV deals.

"It's really a product for the displaced baseball fan," he explains, meaning someone who's away from home and wants to watch games over the Internet.

In the case of the nationally broadcast playoffs, I'd have to be displaced to a foreign country – but not Canada, Korea, or Japan, where blackouts still apply. The good news? Gallagher assures me any customer can get a refund, as long as he hasn't been watching archived video of games, another benefit of the service. I have sampled the archives, just to check the quality of the broadcasts, which is typical Internet streaming video– not terrible on a 17-inch monitor, but not a robust threat to ESPN.

Better news? Turns out a St. Louis station has rights to rebroadcast this season's ESPN games. Crisis averted. As to next year? Maybe they'll do the same thing, or maybe baseball and its broadcasters will realize it's shortsighted to shortchange the Internet, or–gasp–maybe the Cards won't make the playoffs.