This is how I remember it: Baseball HQ’s 20th Anniversary
The following article appears concurrently at BaseballHQ.com. This week celebrates the 20th anniversary of the site’s launch and I was asked to contribute some memories.
Once upon a time, there was no internet.
It was a period of great struggle for fantasy leaguers looking for an edge. We had to rely on ancient forms of information, primarily books, magazines and newspapers. If an East Coaster needed to find out whether the Padres planned to put Shane Mack on the DL, we’d have to phone a distant relative or long lost classmate on the other side of the country, who then had to dig out yesterday’s paper from the trash bin that was already at the curb. There was no such thing as electronic or digital anything. There was ink. There was paper. And I think there were dinosaurs.
It was a time when starting a business in this new cottage industry was no mean feat. The financial barriers to entry were steep. You needed cash for print advertising and direct mail. You had to budget for expensive distribution channels like the US Postal Service and the newly divested Bell System. You had to rely on their deliverability, which meant dealing with incessant phone messages that often started off with, “Hey Shandler, you #$@! It’s Christmas Eve. Where the f#$@! is my book?” I’d respond, “Please be patient, Mom.”
But I muddled through, writing the Baseball Forecaster book every year. I was also publishing a monthly newsletter, a 24-pager filled with stats, strategies and miscellaneous musings, all neatly packaged behind a goldenrod cover sheet.
The fantasy baseball information industry was a cruel place back in the early 1990s. A 30something, newly dadified, corporate wonk had to work hard to avoid being lured into the dark underbelly of baseball analysis publishing. Competition was brutal. There were the aspiring plagiarists who would repackage and resell your work in dark alleys for a quick buck. There was John Benson, a highly intelligent analyst, but whose minions doubled as flame war provocateurs and innocent bystanders. And then there was Rick Wilton.
Rick’s company offered several products, including the Fantasy Baseball Journal newsletter. FBJ was slick. It was offset printed; mine was photocopied. The binding was saddle stitched; mine was corner-stapled. He had a staff of contributors; I had a staff of me. He had cash flow coming from a business partner. My cash flow relied on the leftovers from my corporate paycheck. And worst of all, his telephone voice sounded like George Clooney.
I hated Rick.
He had nailed the business model and was doing it better than me. He was coming out with new, leading edge products. The fact that he probably also looked like George Clooney was really, really annoying.
The only saving grace was that my business continued to grow each year.
In early August 1994, I left my final corporate job as marketing director for a Boston-area publishing company. I was fully confident that this burgeoning baseball enterprise could support my family. I was equally confident in the absurdity that baseball players would actually go out on strike. It was my worst forecast ever. Even worse than Brad Fullmer.
So the baseball players went on strike. Then my wife showed me the credit card bill. So I said to myself, “Self, you need to find a way to salvage this. You’ve got hungry moths to feed.”
Um, mouths. Sorry.
The baseball strike swallowed up dozens of companies. I sweated it out, continuing to publish the book and newsletter all winter long. The delayed opening of the 1995 season forced many companies to open shop without having done their annual pre-season advertising blitz, which thinned the herd even more. I was lucky that I had an already-established customer base, built up over eight years of Forecaster publishing. Those companies more recent to the industry did not have the base to fall back on. And so it was, that among the casualties later that spring was Rick and FBJ.
Rick had actually approached me earlier to invest in his business for a cut, a ballsy move for a struggling competitor to do. I had agreed, mostly because our meeting revealed that he thankfully did not look like George Clooney. So I already had a small stake when it became apparent that his company was not going to make it. But as the final bell tolled, I knew there were two products he offered that I could not allow to die.
The first was a fantasy baseball conference in tandem with the Arizona Fall League. The second was a fax service called the Hot Sheet. In the summer of 1995, I brought Rick on board and those two products became part of the Baseball Forecaster line.
With the Hot Sheet, Rick had assembled a network of fans in nearly every Major League city who fed him fantasy-relevant tidbits from their respective local newspapers. He compiled all their notes several times each week and faxed out a page-wide sea of grey text in 6-point type. This was the forerunner of the Rotowire-style news services that would come several years later. In those pre-internet days, it was fantasy catnip.
I loved the Hot Sheet. Loved, loved, loved. I’d gnaw at it, bounce it around between my paws… um, sorry, no. On those hotly anticipated fax days, I’d idle by my fax machine, waiting for the phone to ring. Then I’d wait impatiently for the single grey page to slowly spit out on thermal paper. As the final lines of text appeared, a quick tear set me up for an hour of fantasy analysis. Nobody could disturb me during that time, as I scanned the document with my ruler, magnifying glass and yellow highlighter pen.
You had to be there.
I was tickled pink to be able to take over distribution of the Hot Sheet. As the Ron-Rick partnership began to grow, our individual works began migrating into each other’s products. Rick wrote a regular column for my newsletter and I dabbled in weekly fax and email distribution of some of my content. As the 1996 season began, I decided it was time to offer all of our works together via a monthly email.
What a great idea! We’d save so much money by eliminating the costs of postage and faxing. I’d just have to attach a bunch of files – text docs, spreadsheet files, etc. – to an email and send it out to thousands of subscribers. It was genius!
“The step between genius and insanity is very short.” – Albert Einstein
What could go wrong? My modem kept dropping the line. My internet provider kept sending me nasty messages. Many customers did not receive the email. Of those who did, some couldn’t figure out how to open the files. Of those who managed to open the files, some were not adept enough to manipulate the data. My phone was inundated with customer services calls, which further tied up the lines. The messages would typically started off with, “Hey Shandler, you #$@! Where the f#$@! is my fax?” I’d respond, “Enough already, Mom.”
The project lasted one month. But I knew that electronic distribution was the only way to grow the product line and remain profitable.
It was time for a web site.
I had no idea how to create a web site.
But a colleague of mine at the time, Jim Johnston of Centerfield Software, had a website. He offered to put us up on his server so we could get our feet wet. I spent two months that summer learning html, and Baseball Forecaster Online went live as http://www.cfld.com/bb4caster in mid-August of 1996. Don’t bother clicking the link; the site no longer exists.
(Okay, who clicked the link anyway? Fess up. I know you did.)
The core site structure was not all that different from what you see now. There were four main sections:
NEWS: This is where Rick’s Hot Sheet resided.
STATS: This is where I wrote my columns on statistical analysis.
MINORS: This is where Terry Linhart and Deric McKamey wrote about the minors.
STRATEGY: This is where I wrote articles about Rotisserie strategy.
After about a month, I realized that we needed more of a robust presence and a home of our own.
I put together a mock-up of what a full-fledged website would look like. It was pages and pages of deep content covering every aspect of baseball analysis and fantasy baseball. There was a research library, an advice column and downloadable stat files. We’d be unshackled by the constraints of 24 pages meeting postal weight limits, so we could write looooong articles, giving deeper topics their just due. As I modeled out the incredible possibilities, I felt like Andy Dufresne.
When it came to deciding what to call the site, I had just two criteria. First, it had to be a short name, because even http://www.BaseballForecaster.com required too many keystrokes. Second, it should not contain any specific reference to fantasy or Rotisserie, because I wanted to attract a broader audience and saw the content as general baseball analysis. It had to be quick, easy and memorable.
So, at the top of the mock-up that I sent to Rick for his input, in big bold type, I finally presented my proposed moniker for this new entity:
Rick, who was a few years older than I (and still is) and a U.S. Navy veteran, responded quickly: “Um, which of us gets to be Mussolini?”
So, that pretty much scuttled the name. We bounced around a few ideas after that and Rick was the one who suggested Baseball HQ. I built out the enhanced site in September and the full BaseballHQ.com World Wide Web site launched in October 1996.
Here is the advertisement in the October issue of the newsletter that announced the new website.
Not to brag (okay, maybe a little), but BaseballHQ.com was an immediate success. HQ’s paid subscribership exceeded my peak newsletter circulation within nine months, and just kept going and going. I tried to keep the print products alive, but by the end of 1998 they were no longer cost-effective to keep, except for the Forecaster book.
There is a marketing case study that I will write up one day to go into more detail about how we transitioned our readers from print to electronic distribution, specifically related to pricing, promotions and the like. For me, the whole thing was intended solely to maintain a business that would be able to pay my mortgage, nothing more. But apparently, what I did was a big deal. In 1998, I was invited to make a presentation to the Newsletter Publishers Association, a national trade association, to discuss my experience. To my astonishment, my talk drew a standing-room-only audience. I had unwittingly stumbled into something important.
So I guess that’s why this little website project thingy took off. Strategies like the LIMA Plan helped to break things open early. We had our share of challenges, from the rise of free services, to industry consolidations, to the volatile evolution of the hobby itself. There is a whole book in there. I might even write it one day.
But BaseballHQ.com is still here. That’s a tribute to its loyal audience, many of whom have been on this ride from the beginning. I’m grateful to Rick, who I no longer hate (he’s actually become a true life-long friend) as well as to Ray and Brent, who’ve taken over the reins with aplomb. I also want to give a special shout-out to an under-appreciated group of contributors. They weathered my ridiculous screening process and are the only current contributors who can say that they’ve worked for BaseballHQ.com in two different centuries. My 1999 hires: Patrick Davitt, Doug Dennis, Frank Noto, Mike Shears, Rod Truesdell, and Ray and Brent. Amazing.
HQ breeds loyalty. I suppose that’s the strongest statement about my legacy that I could write.
I feel like a parent who helped nurture his child until she turned 18 and it was time for her to go off into the real world. I now watch from afar with tremendous pride. (And since this empty-nester was lonely, I started RonShandler.com, which is like getting a pet ferret.)
But it’s not about me. It’s about a virtual business that has survived for 20 years. That’s pretty amazing these days. Here’s to the next 20!