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MLB cracks down on fan Web sites

Posted: Sunday September 01, 2002 4:16 PM

NEW YORK (AP) -- Back in 1996, 14-year-old Bryan Hoch launched a Web site devoted to his beloved New York Mets. Four years later, die-hard Yankees fan Jim Frasch did the same for his Bronx Bombers.

This summer, one might have assumed that Major League Baseball would have been completely distracted by the just-resolved labor dispute. But Hoch and Frasch were stunned when baseball officials tried to bench their sites -- and those run by at least two other fans.

Each of the four men received cease-and-desist letters from Major League Baseball, leaving the superfans with a mixture of bemusement and bitterness.

Bob Andelman, whose Tampa Bay Devil Rays site came under scrutiny in recent weeks, responded by posting a disclaimer:

"As you might guess, this Web site is not endorsed, enlightened or encouraged by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, its owners, management, players, or even Mac, the dancing groundskeeper."

Hoch became the Patrick Henry of cyberspace fan sites, opting for the death of his creation when baseball's proposed changes threatened his perceived liberty of content.

Baseball officials said the legal brushback was just business, nothing personal. They moved against the four Web sites because, baseball claims, they used team logos or trademarks to draw site traffic or turn a profit.

"We encourage fans to speak about baseball, and to produce Web sites," said Ethan Orlinsky, senior vice president and general counsel for Major League Baseball Properties. "We're simply asking they do it within the confines of the law."

The recipients of the letters, dispatched in July and August, have a different view: They say it was like Roger Clemens firing fastballs at kids from the Harlem Little League team.

Ray Kerby of www.astrosdaily.com said Major League Baseball Properties was upset by a display of vintage Astros logos in a history section of the site. He first decided to fold his site, but a flood of supportive phone calls changed his mind.

A deal was cut, although Kerby wasn't appeased.

"At a time when Major League Baseball needs to be reaching out to their fans, they don't even know what their attorneys are doing to undermine that," Kerby said.

Hoch said his popular site would still be alive if it weren't for the letter he received.

Andelman, who opened his Devil Rays site before the 2001 season, was admonished because his site (www.emailtherays.com) did not fulfill its tongue-in-cheek promise to forward fans' e-mails to the team management and players.

At issue are trademarks and copyrights. Major League Baseball Properties says it simply is protecting itself from exploitation, but the fans think baseball went too far.

Although Frasch sells advertising on his site, he said it's not enough to cover the cost of operating the site. And Hoch said he sold just $16 worth of merchandise on metsonline.net -- including $12 spent by his girlfriend.

Both cases miss the point, Orlinsky said.

"The defense of 'our site did not turn a profit' does not address the issue of commercialization," he said. "We're not sending letters out willy-nilly."

The Web site policy varies from sport to sport. The NFL takes a less aggressive approach.

"To the extent that it's purely a non-commercial site devoted to commentary about the team, we're supportive and happy that fans are excited about our sport," says Paula Guibault, NFL senior counsel. "It's not an issue for us."

Eric Kennedy, who debuted his New York Giants fan site in 1995, said he's had no problems.

Frasch, whose site draws roughly 35,000 hits a day, still hopes to work out a deal with baseball to keep his site. Major league baseball is insisting he surrender his domain name (www.bronx-bombers.com), perhaps for something like bronxbaseball.com.

"I don't know," Frasch says of the proposed change. "What is this, the Rolando Paulino Little League?"

 
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