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Can't Find the Nats? Web Has It Covered

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page D11

The farther you get from the seats at RFK Stadium, the harder it is to see or hear a Washington Nationals game. Although the Nats now have plenty of games on broadcast TV, that's of no help in outer suburbs whose cable systems don't carry WDCA-20. And the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network that's supposed to show most other games has yet to find a home in any cable or satellite operator's channel lineup.

Radio coverage, in turn, is limited to WWZZ-FM-104.1 and the laughably underpowered WFED-1050.

So what's a fan to do? Turn on a computer and log onto the Internet, where you can get free, almost-live updates on the progress of games and, for a small price, live video and audio broadcasts too.

CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, Yahoo and Major League Baseball all offer game-tracking pages that use graphics and text to report each pitching, hitting and fielding play. Their constant, automatic updates make viewing these pages like hearing a game on the radio: All you have to do is imagine what things look like.

(These sites rely on the Macromedia Flash browser plug-in, which should already be loaded on most computers but can be downloaded for free at www.macromedia.comif it's not.)

But while all of these sites suffice to keep tabs on a game during a busy day at work, they're not equally useful for attentive viewing. Fox's GameTrax (msn.foxsports.com/mlb/scores) goes heavy on the ads but provides minimal info on pitching and fielding. Yahoo's GameChannel (sports.yahoo.com/mlb/scoreboard) looks much better but only delivers a little more data, omitting even a pitch count. If you're following multiple games, however, its detailed scoreboard sidebar can be handy.

ESPN's GameCast (sports.espn.go.com/mlb/scoreboard), redesigned for this season, now takes way too much space, requiring regular scrolling up and down between its at-bat report and its roster listings. And its badly outdated mugshots -- for instance, one showing Nats pitcher John Patterson in the Arizona cap he last wore in 2003 -- make the whole site look sloppy.

CBS SportsLine's GameCenter (www.sportsline.com/mlb/scoreboard) must have been designed by a former pitcher -- it displays the location, speed and even, in most cases, the type of each pitch. But in the field, it leaves out the contours and distance of ballparks and requires an extra click to see fielders' names and the locations of each hit. SportsLine's biggest weakness, however, is the lag time for each update.

Major League Baseball's own GameDay (www.mlb.com) is the best in this bunch. It provides almost as much detail on pitches as SportsLine while offering far more information about fielding, plus such useful tidbits as the weather forecast at the park. It does all this while fitting into one compact window that updates quickly and reliably.

All of these sites work better with a constant, fast Internet connection. The same goes for MLB's video service, which costs $14.95 a month or $79.95 a season. That buys you the ability to watch every Nationals game in streaming Web video -- for now, MLB isn't enforcing any blackout restrictions on Nats games shown online.

This subscription also affords access to most other games, plus archived copies of older contests.

The video streams are provided in Microsoft's Windows Media and RealNetworks' RealVideo (the latter only for live broadcasts) that can be played on any reasonably current Windows or Mac system. The picture quality appears fine when confined to a small window, but not when blown up to a half- or full-screen size.

The video feed can also suffer nagging dropouts or interruptions -- often at the worst times, such as when the picture fractured into blotchy bits just in time for Brian Schneider's game-winning double against the Braves on April 12. It wasn't a matter of lack of bandwidth; the digital-subscriber-line connection in use had two to three times as much as needed.

Lastly, MLB sells Web access to local radio stations' coverage for $14.95 per season. These take up far less bandwidth, at a dial-up friendly 12 kbps, and suffered only momentary dropouts, but also sound little better than AM. Two broadcasts sampled also lagged some 30 to 45 seconds behind reality.

Note that with all of these options, you're likely to see no, minimal or out-of-market ads between innings. That leaves you some idle time to fill up by looking up statistics, checking e-mail or sticking more pins into your Peter Angelos voodoo doll.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company