Stuffing ballot box for players now part of the All-Star Game routine

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Pittsburghers were indignant when team owners in San Diego and Washington, D.C., put in schemes to keep Steelers and Penguins fans from buying tickets.

The Chargers forced Steelers fans who wanted seats to a Monday night game last fall to buy tickets to two other games as well. The Washington Capitals, in 2001, went so far as to change the software on their Web site to block playoff ticket buyers with 412 and 724 area codes.

The moves are not illegal, but they don't seem classy or in good taste. They're the mark of a loser.

So is it really so much different when fans of the cellar-dwelling Pirates, aided by a massive marketing campaign, stuff All-Star ballots to make Jason Bay one of three National League starting outfielders at the July 11 game at PNC Park?

The good news is, yes, it is different, and the practice is accepted across Major League Baseball. The ballot-stuffing drive for the Pirates left fielder is just nourishing the competitive drive, and -- bruised pride -- of Pirates fans desperate for some kind of win.

The get-out-the-vote drive for Bay (and other Pirates, including shortstop Jack Wilson and write-in third baseman Freddy Sanchez) is backed by the Pittsburgh Ad Federation, the Pirates, the team's radio and TV play-by-play announcers and a campaign of e-mails by regular fans.

With four days of voting left, Bay was clinging to the last starting spot. Just three weeks ago, he was far back in the pack.

In addition to the marketing campaign, the Pirates give voters at their Web site get a chance to win two to four tickets to a game. It might seem like a lot of effort, but it is not, relatively: All 30 major league clubs have similar links at their sites exhorting their fans to vote, and many are offering prizes.

Voters for Twins catcher Joe Mauer can win free tickets and an autographed baseball and bat. Winning Dodgers fans get to mingle with players. Indians fans can win tickets to a luxury box.

The latest National League vote totals will be released tomorrow. With Bay leading perennial All-Star outfielders such as Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr., who were running fourth and fifth last week, expect their fans to give the Pirates left fielder a run for his money.

And if Bay loses ground, expect Pittsburgh's competitive spirit to hit back. Michael Romano, 27, of the South Side, is one of those who has voted for the Pirate his allotted 25 times on the Web and has exhorted his girlfriend and his friends to do the same.

"Honestly, we're struggling, but we've got good guys on the team and we want to show everyone else that, hey, we've got people who can play also, even though we haven't won in 14 years," he said last week.

Another voter, Bill Van Wie, 37, said: "The city should promote it. No matter how many people vote for him, it's fine."

Major League Baseball loves that kind of talk. It wants people to vote a lot -- the online slogan for All-Star balloting is "Vote Early Vote Often" -- for a very simple reason. Fan interest equals good business.

All-Star voting "generates interest in what is always a fun game," said spokesman Jim Gallagher of MLB.com.

"It brings fans to the site. And while on the site, while they're doing something else, reading about their team's performance, watching a video clip or, better yet, a subscriber watching a live game, maybe they'll take time to go and do other things. Check stats. Vote for All-Stars. Maybe buy a cap," Mr. Gallagher said.

Some old-school baseball types, such as former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, are not so excited by the fan drives.

"I'm not in favor of fan voting," he said. "I think the players and the coaches and the managers, the people who are on the field on a daily basis, have a much better gauge of who's having an All-Star-caliber year. And it might not be a guy that the fans would notice."

MLB.com makes it easy for fans to vote repeatedly by saving vote preferences and e-mail addresses. The only speed bumps -- back to the business side of voting -- are pitches with every vote for marketing e-mails from MLB and its voting sponsor Monster.com.

To curtail cheating, the voting site generates a random four-digit authorization code which fans have to enter with every vote. Every time one votes, a new code has to be entered.

Like many Pirates fans, Mr. Romano said he was thinking of getting around the 25-vote limit by using a different e-mail addresses to pad Bay's totals with another 25 votes.

Getting around the rules has long been a big part of All-Star voting.

In 1957, Cincinnati fans, with the help of pre-marked ballots printed in The Cincinnati Enquirer, so enthusiastically stuffed the box that seven Reds were elected starters.

In 1982, an administrative assistant with the Richmond Braves, Atlanta's Class AAA affiliate, felt the Braves weren't receiving enough support, so he used a computer to submit as many as 20,000 votes for Atlanta players, according to The New York Times. The computer program that counted the votes for Major League Baseball detected the subterfuge and didn't count them.

In 1999, Chris Nandor, a Red Sox fan and computer programmer from Carver, Mass., attempted to push tens of thousands of votes for Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra through the system. The plan failed.

Such attempts continue, Mr. Gallagher said, though not very often.

"Whenever you challenge somebody not to beat the system is when the high schoolers come out, trying to do their best," he said.

Multiple e-mail addresses, or even fake ones from real domain names, can beat the current system, but voters still have to go through the time-consuming process of typing authorization codes with every vote.

It is possible to write software to beat the MLB.com system, just as Mr. Nandor did to pad votes for his Red Sox shortstop in 1999. How do we know? We asked him.

"I could probably write software to reliably defeat it in a week or two," Mr. Nandor, 32, said via e-mail last week from his new home outside Seattle. "As I have a family and job and life, that's not going to happen, though."

It's not so easy for the managers. Sports, C-1


Staff writer Paul Meyer contributed to this report. Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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