May 21, 2016

Software Engineer from Boston Bats for Austin Baseball

Reporting Texas

It’s almost traitorous for people born in Boston to root for the rival New York Yankees over the hometown Red Sox. And that makes Boston native Alan Feldstein a bit of a Benedict Arnold.

After learning about the history of baseball from his grandmother, Feldstein ditched the hometown perennial losers to root for Major League Baseball’s most successful franchise. By the time Feldstein was born 53 years ago, the Yankees had won 20 World Series titles; Boston had only five, the last coming in 1918.

“What 7-year-old in the ’70s wanted to cheer for the Red Sox?” he said.

Now, almost 2,000 miles from home and without a local team to support, the engineer and owner of a microprocessor software design company is trying to develop a fan base for his beloved sport in Austin.

In 2009, Feldstein started Alan’s Austin MLB, a group of baseball fans who get together and watch games at sports bars around the city. The group has started picking up traction lately, and membership has grown 66 percent since July to 162 men and women; about a third of the fans are women.

Putting his software skills to use, Feldstein has devised a probabilistic program based on winning percentages to determine which of the 100-odd weekly games gets a watch party. Members are informed through Meetup, a social networking site that allows users to set up and share events with each other based on common interests.

Attendance is not always up to Feldstein’s expectations. The watch parties welcome fans of all teams, but it is mostly those who follow the teams playing that night who turn up.

“I cancel any meetup with less than five RSVPs,” Feldstein said.

Austin is the largest city in the country without a major league professional sports team, and it is often talked of as a future MLB destination, especially with its large millennial population. The nearby Round Rock Express, Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers, averaged more than 8,600 fans per game last season and ranked among the best in the minor leagues.

But Feldstein believes a lot of groundwork needs to be done before Austin can support a major league team. “How are we going to fill a stadium if we can’t even fill a sports bar?” he asked in a 2013 radio ad broadcast during the Round Rock Express games.

That has been his first goal: filling up sports bars on game days. On April 11, for instance, Feldstein organized a watch party at Little Woodrow’s on Burnet Road for the St. Louis Cardinals’ home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Despite an early 3:15 p.m. first pitch, six people sat around a table, drinking beer and eating pizza from the neighboring Brooklyn Pie Co. One of them was Laurel Butler, a St. Louis native who has lived in Texas since 1981 and has been a Cardinals fan all her life.

Butler spent the first few innings reminiscing about games she has seen, including a trip back to St. Louis last season to see a game at Busch Stadium with her daughter and son-in-law. She also talked with other fans about what it’s like to support a team with such high expectations: The Cardinals have two championships in the past decade and are expected to challenge for another one after coming off a 100-win season last year.

“Imagine being a Phillies fan!” Butler said of the Philadelphia franchise, which lost 358 games in the past four seasons.

She cheered along with the others each time a St. Louis player got a hit or scored a run, which was quite often that day. Brewer Taylor Jungmann, who was the college player of the year in 2011 at the University of Texas at Austin, allowed eight runs and eight hits in just two innings, rapidly turning the game into a blowout.

The fans were hardly glued to the flat screen TVs hanging on the walls. Introductions were made as more of them trickled in. Feldstein chatted with fellow Yankee fan and the group’s co-organizer, Gene Chavez, about their favorite players – Reggie Jackson for Feldstein, Mickey Mantle for Chavez. Feldstein and Chavez also argued over the recently changed slide rule. But it wasn’t only baseball talk: Chavez and Butler got into a debate about Bobby Darin’s best song.

By the fifth inning, the conversation had moved on to the future of Alan’s Austin MLB. Between sips of his second martini, Feldstein talked about his hopes for expanding the group. “It should start growing exponentially, not linearly,” he said.

Despite a hectic work schedule, Feldstein said he spends at least an hour every day promoting baseball in Austin. Setting up the watch parties alone involves posting information online about each matchup, calling ahead to bar managers and printing name tags on adhesive paper.

Besides using Meetup, Feldstein publicizes Alan’s Austin MLB through Facebook and by handing out business cards “to anyone wearing MLB apparel, with some team affiliation on his car, or when it comes up in conversation.” Alan’s Austin MLB also arranges watch parties in tandem with other local baseball Meetup groups to bring together as many fans as possible.

Adam Earnheardt, an associate professor at Ohio’s Youngstown State University who studies the psychology of sports fandom, said Meetup and other social media platforms have made it easier for groups like Alan’s Austin MLB to network, organize events and add members.

“It’s connecting like-minded fans who would never otherwise connect,” Earnheardt said. “People around the world who cheer on the Cowboys or Rangers, who would never otherwise meet, are in a sense face-to-face. They can share stats, stories and images with each other.”

As Feldstein’s group is independent and has no sponsors, it is not limited to one or two sports bars. Watch parties are held at a wide range of locations, from the Brooklyn Heights Pizzeria in Round Rock to the Midway Field House in the East Riverside area.

Most meetups, however, take place north of the Colorado River. Feldstein said he wants the events to spread to the south as that would help expand the city’s baseball fan base.

Bob Villhard, a patent lawyer who runs the St. Louis fan group, Austin Redbird Fans, shares this vision.

“We want to build up a fan base in south Austin,” Villhard said.

Between Villhard’s group and Feldstein’s, 12 people stopped by Little Woodrow’s on April 11 to catch the 10-1 Cardinals win. It was an average crowd, especially for a Monday afternoon.

Despite the recent spurt in his group’s membership, Feldstein is not satisfied.

“I’m trying to get to 10,000 members as fast as I can,” he said.

According to his calculations, that would translate to about 500 fans showing up at each watch party.

“That’s enough to overwhelm any sports bar,” Feldstein said. “And then we’re getting somewhere.”