For years, the only way Stephan Boll could keep track of Major League Baseball was by buying day-old issues of the International Herald Tribune.
"The scores were already three days old – but that was the best I could get," the 29-year-old Frenchman said from his hometown of Mulhouse, in eastern France.
The sales manager discovered baseball at age 16 and went on to become a weekend player and umpire. "But it was tough keeping track of my favorite team, the Houston Astros. Baseball is still completely unknown in France," Boll said. There are only about 15,000 registered baseball players in the whole country.
The Internet changed everything.
Every morning, Boll, who got a regular Internet connection in 1996 and upgraded to cable in 1998, checks the latest Astros scores and reads game recaps online. He makes a point of listening to at least one streaming audio broadcast of his beloved Astros game – preferably afternoon games, given the time difference.
"Sometimes, when I can't go to sleep, I even listen to West Coast games at the wee hours of the morning," Boll said.
The Internet explosion marked a new era where fans gained access to teams, statistics and, perhaps most importantly, other fans of the game – no matter the location.
Fantasy or rotisserie games once limited to small circles of friends now allow participants to compete from anywhere in the world. According to Carl Foster, of the Fantasy Sports Players Association, 70 percent of the 30 million fantasy sports players participate through the Internet.
"When I moved to Tokyo, I was happy that I would be able to follow the Yankees on the Internet, and even listen to their games if I was awake," R. Tyler Shaw said. The 24-year-old fan, who moved from New York to Japan several months ago, also uses the Internet to keep in touch with his fantasy baseball buddies.
"I only got into the fantasy thing last year, when I realized how easily I could get my fix," he said.
The same thing happened to Gaetan Gaumer, a 27-year-old French Ph.D. student who discovered baseball four years ago. He got hooked on fantasy baseball through a Yahoo-operated fantasy league last year.
"Most of my knowledge of Major League Baseball comes from poring over statistics every morning on the Internet," Gaumer said. His fantasy team includes such sterling picks as Vladimir Guerrero and Roger Clemens, but "most of the time, I don't even know what those players look like," Gaumer added.
Playing in an alternate reality is not the only lure. What drives most fans to the myriad sports chat rooms and bulletin boards is the possibility of sharing their fierce loyalty to their teams and often-harsh criticism of individual players and staff.
Set firmly apart from the teams' official sites, those independent outlets usually provide better insight – and entertainment value – than their corporate brethren do.
Take Houston-based Astrosconnection.com. The site, founded in late 1997 by two fans, is the virtual gathering place of Astros fans from all over the country. Its co-founder, Kevin Calbert, said the site gets 100,000 hits every week.
"The site began just as an outlet for us to rant and rave about Astros baseball and eventually grew into this virtual sports bar," Calbert said. "We didn't plan it that way, it just happened, and now it seems to have a life of its own. Opposing team fans that managed to get hooked on the site have actually converted."
While Astrosconnection.com offers a slew of well-informed and opinionated columns, its most notable feature is the Game Zone, which provides a live "play-by-play" description of a game in progress for those fans who do not get their Astros game on television. Fans often mix objective – and impressively accurate – description of the plays with their own trenchant observations, making it a much superior read than, say, ESPN.com's play-by-play coverage.
"It's fast-paced, informative, humorous and easy to use," said Holly Sommer, an Astrosconnection regular.
"The fan-operated atmosphere is much more conducive to fan interaction than the official MLB sites," David Waldo, a regular columnist for the site, told FOXNews.com.
Waldo credits much of Astrosconnection's success to its founders' dedication. "If the visitors see so many people pumped up about the Astros, they get pumped up too."
From his French town, Boll participates in another Astros discussion forum hosted by Ezboard.com, which boasts more than 400 bulletin boards dedicated to baseball. Most importantly, Boll's interest in baseball has led to numerous real-life friendships and a better knowledge of the United States.
"I make sure my vacations are timed with the baseball season," Boll said. Despite his reliance on the Internet, he says, "nothing's better than watching a real game in a real stadium."