A tick after midnight last Thursday, DeAngelo Mack led off for the South Carolina Gamecocks to begin the seventh inning at Regions Park.
Jesse Chambers and I were each two cups deep into a pot of Maxwell House, at least four bags deep into an endless landscape of Golden Flake snack foods and in silent denial that one second ago we were covering opening night of the SEC Baseball Tournament, and now we were at the start of day number two.
All of it was my fault, really. In the post-mortem of our successful run covering Alabama’s intrasquad scrimmage in April, whereupon we fiddled and fumbled with the new doodads our website now has to offer, I desperately wanted to keep the momentum rolling by blowing out another high-profile event. This time, Alt-Weekly award-winning reporter Kyle Whitmire (that’s how we address him in the office) suggested we try a piece of web-based software called “Cover It Live” to more effectively live-blog the event.
So, the search was on for the perfect “Cover It Live” occasion. I considered the Region’s Charity Classic, but kiboshed the idea after determining that a golf tournament was simply too sprawling, too devoid of a central point of activity in proximity to the field of play, to be a live-bloggable event.
The following week’s SEC Baseball Tournament, on the other hand, was tailor-made for the technology. At the time, the possibility existed that both Alabama and Auburn would make the eight-team tourney, which would entice readers from all over the state to follow along as we gave them pitch-by-pitch updates and exclusive information. Baseball also tends to move slower than most sports, affording us ample opportunities to provide more updates and information than if we were covering a football or basketball game.
So I coerced Jesse to put five days on hold in the middle of May and reserved our spots in the Regions Park press box. As it turned out, Auburn would falter their way out of a competitive logjam vying for the last couple of tournament spots and fail to make the Hoover scene. That left us with just one in-state school – Alabama – to follow for the weekend.
Our plan was to live-blog each Alabama game — there would be at least two, considering it’s a double elimination tournament — as well as the SEC Championship game on Sunday. All we needed was for the Tide to win its final regular season series of the season, against Auburn no less, to secure one of the top two or three seeds of the tournament, giving us primo web traffic start times for their first two games.
Of course, Auburn took two out of three in the series, bumping the Tide down to a four seed, meaning that the first game we were going to cover would be the late game of opening day, the worst time of day to stage an Internet-based event. First pitch for Alabama and South Carolina was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday night.
Under the guise of beating traffic, but no doubt indicative of our eagerness to get our next big web event underway, we each showed up at the ballpark an hour-and-a-half in advance of our game’s scheduled start time. The early evening game, LSU and Vanderbilt, which had been scheduled to get underway at 5 p.m., was still in its infancy as we approached 7 p.m., our first warning.
Our second warning came as we were reminded that Alabama was playing in the late game on opening night for the second time in as many seasons. Last year, Alabama and Kentucky, originally scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m., didn’t start playing until 10:45 p.m. It ended just before 2 a.m., with the Wildcats claiming a 9-3 victory.
Looking around the room at the Alabama beat writers, most of the same crew that survived last year’s opening night/day marathon, one could sense a palpable dread. We were heading for a sleepless night. And, to make matters worse, the loser of this game was slated for a 1:30 p.m. game tomorrow, not much turnaround time for players, coaches, fans or reporters. All we could do was sit, drink, munch and hope.
At 7:37 p.m., as the Commodores and the Tigers meandered through the bottom of the fifth inning, we went ahead and began blogging. An hour and a half later, Vandy pulled out a 4-1 victory. Immediately over the internal public address system in the press box, the media was informed that there was going to be a 45-minute break between games to prepare the field and allow for both South Carolina and Alabama to effectively warm up. The new scheduled start time: 9:55 p.m.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Even though this year’s game was going to be well over an hour behind schedule, it wasn’t going to be well over two hours behind schedule like last year.
Sure enough, we were underway at five minutes before 10 p.m. The game’s first pitch, a strike off the arm of Tide hurler Del Howell, was etched onto our “Cover It Live” console, signifying a new era of coverage for our paper and another step forward into the oft-foreboding plane of new media technology.
How many people were following along? Not a lot. Forty people joined us that night, 25 stuck around for longer than one minute. There were 22 comments submitted by the public, a few less than the 410 we threw back at them. (It should be noted that the next day’s action – that is, the second game we blogged — pulled in 362 readers, 174 for more than one minute and 274 public comments).
The first 200 or so updates we provided were straightforward enough. Balls and strikes, hits, outs, errors… pretty standard stuff. We were passing my laptop between us throughout the evening. I’d take an inning and then Jesse would take an inning, and that’s how we operated. But as the night wore on, we began to wear down. Our defenses weakened. We drifted in and out of a professional state of mind. We got kind of loopy.
Just before midnight, roughly four hours into our first live-blog experiment and just ahead of Mack’s leadoff at bat in the seventh inning, Jesse’s mind wandered into Gonzo territory.
“SC's 5 runs has, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, sprayed a real ‘shit mist’ over this largely pro-Bama crowd.”
This belies an important point. Jesse and I, for all that we have in common as writers and friends, are separated in age by 20 or so years. When his mind wonders, it stumbles into classic 20th century political satire. When my mind wonders, I recite scenes from Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Fortunately, due to the miracle of Internet technology, there’s a permanent time stamp on the exact moment that I began to lose a grip on my ability to think, write and watch baseball: 12:59 a.m. That’s when we posted, “Daddy? Next door, Jackass”, which is the opening sequence of lines recited at the beginning of the “Ezekiel” episode of ATHF.
Things only got worse as time wore on. At one point, I glanced over to my screen as Jesse was working the top half of some inning just in time to see him update the readers that “the count is full” against a Carolina batter. The problem was he had inadvertently left off the “o” in “count,” thereby setting up a pitch-perfect double-entendre that could possibly have registered an 11 on the unintentional comedy scale while also resulting in our immediate expulsion from the premises. Fortunately, he caught his error before it reached an audience greater than two.
We stumbled through the ninth inning, which to our chagrin wasn’t enough time to settle a 5-5 tie. There would be two more innings of baseball to go. And after references and metaphors ranging from boxcars to the works of Joseph Conrad, Carolina finally broke through the ceiling, scoring four runs in the 11th and staving off a Tide rally in the bottom of the inning to register a 9-5 victory. Our last post, a note of appreciation for our readers and a directive for them to accumulate some sack time, came at 1:55 a.m., the exact same time that last year’s Alabama/Kentucky game wrapped up.
We sighed, rubbed our tingling eyes and pulled the plug on our first live-blog. Despite the fact that today was now tomorrow and we had each pulled a 13-hour work day, we left knowing that the technology we had tested that night would forever change the way our paper covers live events. Such knowledge was just enough to power us home that morning and back again later, after the sun came up, for game number two.