A Legacy that will live on every August
I just heard the sad news about Dave Blackburn’s passing. Not much more info yet; I’ll write more, but just not now. I played against Dave when we were young, but it was Dave’s work as a pioneer in bringing streaming audio and video to the world of men’s fastpitch that led to a great friendship. Dave brought me along on some of his initial test broadcasts starting in 2001 and teaching me the tech behind it, leading to Ballpark Radio a couple years later. He had a huge impact on the growth of men’s fastpitch over more than a decade. His survival from a near-fatal car accident in 2010 is known to most in the fastpitch community. His recovery was nothing short of heroic. You’ll be missed by many, Dave, rest in peace.
Below is the YouTube video of Dave’s induction into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2010, including Paul Rubin’s poignant and heart warming introductory remarks and article written at the time of Dave’s induction into the ISC Hall of Fame in Midland, Michigan in 2010, “Dave Blackburn, Game Changer”.
Dave Blackburn – Game Changer
(By Jim Flanagan, appearing in Bob Otto’s book, “They Play It Fast”
At the close of the twentieth century, while media coverage of major sports proliferated with the advent of ESPN and cable sports, minor or niche sports like fastpitch found itself on the outside looking in. The smaller audience and attendance numbers for men’s fastpitch made print, radio and television coverage hard to come by, especially in larger media markets.
The internet changed all of that in the 1990’s, providing the sport with the ability to get news out on its own, without having to rely on legacy media companies. Email, websites, and blogs popped up everywhere. The national and international organizations established a presence on the web, as did local leagues and teams. Some private websites like Alsfastball.com developed a world-wide following, of fastpitch players and fans hungry for timely news and information on their favorite teams and players. The internet also offered hope to a sport largely ignored by radio and television, though development was slower to grow due to the complexity of the technology required, even among the major sports.
In 1995, Real Networks produced the first streaming audio major league baseball game between the Yankees and Seattle Mariners. A few years later, a relative unknown by the name of Mark Cuban spotted the potential for use of streaming media broadcasting in sports. He combined his love of college basketball and webcasting, establishing a company called Audionet. Three years later, his company became Broadcast.com, and took off, eventually making him a billionaire, and a household name in the sports world as the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
As good fortune would have it, men’s fastpitch had their own Mark Cuban, so to speak, in Dave Blackburn. Dave’s path in life would lead him to combine his passion for the game of fastpitch, and his knowledge of technology, to bring streaming audio and video broadcasts to thousands of people around the world. The process took more than a decade, and in a sense, a lifetime.
Dave grew up in the Midwest, in a fastpitch household, with his father Ernie, an Indiana ASA Hall of Fame pitcher. Dave was an avid fan of the game, and later a fine pitcher in his own right. He followed the ASA Major and ISC World Tournaments played in the Midwestern towns nearby. When he couldn’t get to the ballpark, he sometimes listened to games on small town broadcast radio stations, though the reach of the signal was sometimes barely the county line. But there was something magical about listening to the games, and being able to follow the teams and players he had come to know, and compete against. It wasn’t the Cubs or major league ball, but the game he played and loved even more, fastpitch.
That love of the listening to the game on radio had some amusing results. In the early 1980’s, he was studying engineering at the University of Illinois. The ASA Major tournament was going on in St Joseph, Missouri, and playing in the Championship game was a team that Dave had pitched against, the powerhouse Decatur, IL ADM ball club. Dave couldn’t get to the tournament to see the games, but learned that ADM’s tournament games would be broadcast live on Decatur radio station WSOY, though the signal was not strong enough to reach the 50 miles to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana.
A road trip with brother Jay provided the solution. Jay drove from Chicago to Champaign, and Dave hopped in Jay’s car, intent on getting close enough to Decatur to pick up the radio signal and listen to the ASA Major National championship game. They succeeded, but as the signal came and went, they finally navigated to a spot amidst the endless cornfields where the signal was clear enough to hear the game. Dave’s brother did wonder about the appearance of the two of them sitting alone in a car in the dark, smack in the middle of nowhere, but the point was not lost on Dave – he knew there were plenty of rabid fastpitch fans just like him, who would love the chance to hear the Championship games.
For the next couple of decades, Dave was actively involved as a pitcher, first in the Midwest, and then later, upon graduation in 1982, it was off to California, at the invitation of sponsor A. Deewayne “Doc” Jones, to pitch for his Camarillo Kings. The Kings had just captured the ISC World Tournament title the prior year. Dave went on to pitch for other teams including the Maccabi USA team, winning 4 Gold Medals in Israel, and for the Long Beach Painters. The friendships and relationships built with the Painters would prove instrumental in his later work in streaming media.
In 1998, Dave served both as pitcher and general manager of the ISC level Long Beach Painters, sponsored by Allan Ruegsegger and Al Savala. It was at this time that Dave attended the Internet World Conference and Trade Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and heard Mark Cuban speaking on a panel about sports and streaming media. That tech conference proved to be the spark that would put Dave on a decade long journey to bring streaming media to the sport he loved – men’s fastpitch.
Dave spoke with Greg Panos, a friend and technology guru, sharing the information learned from Cuban and further inquiries on the subject.
“It can be done”, Panos told him. “You can broadcast your games on the internet”.
After the following year, Allan Ruegsegger decided to shutter operations for his Long Beach Painters team, and step down as California’s commissioner to the International Softball Congress (ISC). Ruegsegger suggested Dave Blackburn to the ISC as his replacement. Blackburn accepted ISC Executive Director Milt Stark’s invitation, traveling to St. Joe Missouri for the ISC World tournament, and board meetings in 2000.
It was a new century in more ways than one. The birth of streaming media for men’s fastpitch started simply enough, with Blackburn posing a question at that ISC executive board meeting:
“Have you considered broadcasting your games on the internet?”
While not sure initially what he meant, Dave quickly found a receptive audience, particularly with soon-to-be ISC executive director, Ken Hackmeister.
During the off season, Blackburn’s idea grew. He met with his former team’s sponsor, Allan Ruegsegger, who agreed to underwrite the cost of the equipment needed and travel to Salt Lake City to the Pioneer Days tournament in July 2001 to test it.
Greg Panos assembled the equipment needed to broadcast audio on the internet, consisting of a laptop, headsets, mixer, and assortment of cables. “Internet connection” in those days meant “dial-up”, primitive by today’s high speed standards, but sufficient to broadcast audio.
Next up was finding a company that could provide the ISC with “streaming media services” distributing the digital signal from the broadcast crew to the internet for fans to hear. Dave’s research led him to John Onorato and his company, “Sportsjuice”, involved in streaming minor league baseball games at the time. The partnership with Sportjuice would continue for a decade and prove instrumental in success of the program.
Dave enlisted Ron Chambers to be the first play-by-play man for the ISC, having gotten to know Ron when he managed the Painters team in the mid-90’s, and having heard him do color commentary on the 1992 ISC World Championship Game cable TV broadcast. Hackmeister made things happen for Dave and company in Salt Lake City, even tapping his wife, Les to login and listen to the first test broadcast.
Dave and Ron flew to Salt Lake City for the big event. The Pioneer Days tournament was one of the premier tournaments of its day. Blackburn set up the gear, donned a headset to join Chambers in the booth, flipped the switch, and …a new era in men’s fastpitch had begun. At the other end of the phone, Ken Hackmeister’s wife Les, confirmed that she could hear Chambers and Blackburn loud and clear, through her computer speakers.
The legendary Peter Meredith of Larry Miller Toyota was pitching that day, as was a highly touted Canadian youngster named Paul Koert. But the games will not likely be remembered as much as the fact that Blackburn’s crew and their do-it-yourself-radio-station succeeded that day, proving that Panos was right — it could be done.
While the audience for that first test broadcast was small, the potential for a large, world-wide audience was quickly apparent to Blackburn. “Seeing my streaming live fastpitch games idea from concept through execution, was quite gratifying,” said Blackburn. “I always felt like a welcome member of the worldwide fastpitch family, so it felt great to make such a significant contribution to please other members of this unique sports family.”
No longer was the reach of the broadcasts the edge of that cornfield on the outskirts of town. Fastpitch could be broadcast to anywhere – across the state – across the country – all the way to those rabid fans in New Zealand and Australia. Anywhere in the world.
Next, was the task of turning a Saturday night test broadcast into a complete broadcast program for the premier annual men’s fastpitch event in the world, the ISC World Tournament, to be held a month later, in Eau Claire Wisconsin. All of the logistics of the Salt Lake City trip had to be replicated in a month’s time, but on a much grander scale. Blackburn took a deep breath, realizing that to do so, would be to put his name and reputation on the line, if anything went wrong. But with great risk comes great reward, as Blackburn was soon to discover. .
He decided on one more practice run, a few weeks later, to take place at the Best of the West tournament in the California desert, in Palmdale, California. Dave invited me to join him. Dave and I had competed against each other for years, and shared a love of fastpitch and computers. I had recently started my website, “Fastpitchwest.com”, and was interested to see Dave’s cutting edge endeavor.
Blackburn was like a proud parent that day, going over each piece of equipment and explaining how it would all come together into radio broadcasts at the ISC World Tournament just a few weeks later. Once again, Peter Meredith was pitching on the broadcast, but the focus was less on his rise ball, and more on whether this still developing technology was going to work.
As we packed up at the end of the afternoon, Dave turned to me and said, “Hey, maybe we’ll be able to stream video like this someday.”
The conditions that day in Palmdale were primitive by today’s standards, the two of us sitting outdoors, at a picnic table, connected to the internet by a hundred foot telephone extension cord running back to the restroom building near the diamond. The broadcast was successful, but wind played havoc with the quality of the broadcast that day, and Blackburn fretted. Was “internet radio” ready for prime time? Less than a month later, after packing up his laptop, mixer and headsets, Blackburn was off for Eau Claire Wisconsin to prove that it was.
The first ISC World Tournament broadcast program was ambitious, broadcasting a couple dozen games over the ten day tournament. Ron Chambers anchored the broadcasts, with Blackburn sitting in to do color, along with a number of others, invited to help out with broadcasts.
Dave’s brother Jay was listening in to those first broadcasts, sending an email to him to confirm that the broadcasts were “on the air”. He also told Dave, “you should set up an email address, and take questions on the air”. A short time later, Blackburn was on-the-air giving out the email address to listeners, inviting them to send in questions and comments. A flood of email streamed in, providing Blackburn not only with material for the program, but more importantly, the assurance that there was an audience listening, and that they were enjoying the fruits of his labor. “The ISC World Tournament is on-the-air”, he said. It was the fulfillment of a dream. As he headed out of the booth that first day, he found himself smiling in the knowledge that fastpitch fans weren’t driving to the top of a hill in a cornfield to hear the game. They were sitting in their homes, or in their offices, able to follow the game live, pitch by pitch.
The seed planted by Blackburn’s pioneering work in streaming media inspired further expansion of broadcasts for men’s fastpitch. “BallparkRadio.com” was established as a broadcast portal devoted exclusively to men’s fastpitch. With the road paved by Blackburn, the ISC tabbed myself and Blair Setford to add audio broadcasts to the intermediate ISC II division. Dave Blackburn’s dream was contagious.
At the ISC World tournament in 2004, at Fargo, North Dakota, Blackburn collaborated with a local ABC Network affiliated TV crew, to help produce his first telecast of an ISC World Tournament game, by tying the audio feed from the streaming audio broadcast to the locally televised broadcast. It was another of those moments for Blackburn, realizing that he was on the verge of a big leap forward for fastpitch fans – the ability to stream video broadcasts of the ISC World Tournament to fans around the world. Sitting on an airplane heading home to Southern California, he began to plot the course to make it happen.
Fittingly, the 2005 ISC World Tournament was back in Eau Claire, where the first audio broadcasts had taken place. The plan was to do a full slate of audio broadcasts, testing the video equipment during the tournament, culminating with the streaming video telecast of the championship game. Blackburn worked with Todd McCabe and local tech people throughout the week. Initially disappointed by buffering problems that caused the signal to freeze or slow, Blackburn struggled to tweak the equipment for the best possible picture. Finally, the championship game arrived and the makeshift single camera video webcast system was cobbled together and put to the test.
In the offseason that year, Blackburn returned to tech guru and friend, Greg Panos, spending hundreds of hours researching the technology, and figuring out how to build a low cost system that the ISC would own, and could easily operate at any ballpark. The two had heard of New Tek, a company on the cutting edge of streaming video broadcasting, with their revolutionary “TriCaster”, described by some at the time as the “poor man’s TV truck”. It was a “television studio in a box”, small enough to put in a suitcase, but that would permit Blackburn to connect and control multiple cameras that would be set up at the field, like a major league baseball production though much smaller in scale.
Panos came up with a key ingredient, wireless video / audio transmitters and receivers, to permit the placement of cameras at great distance from the TriCaster’s home base, yet send their signal back for streaming, without the need to string up cables to connect cameras to the TriCaster. The TriCaster screen enabled Blackburn to sit in the press box and click any camera to send its signal out over the internet, as if he was Roone Arledge sitting in the production truck for Monday Night football.
Portable streaming video technology had arrived. But before he could bring streaming video broadcasts to fastball fans around the world, he had to find a way to cover the price tag of the system, something on the order of $15,000. Ken Hackmeister saw the great potential for the broadcasts, and bolstered by Blackburn’s success to date, he assisted Blackburn in making his case to the executive board of the ISC, which approved the purchase of the TriCaster, cameras and other equipment, and authorized Blackburn to take his ISC World Tournament broadcast program to the next level.
Unlike the simple set-up for audio broadcasting, the technology, manpower and know-how for streaming video was much more complex than for audio. The range of the wireless transmitters was three hundred feet under perfect conditions, and finicky. Blackburn relived that feeling in his stomach – worrying and wondering if the technology that he and Panos had assembled would actually function at the ballpark like they hoped.
At the 2006 ISC World Tournament in Kitchener, Ontario Canada, Blackburn and his volunteer crew of cameramen and assistants pulled it off – the first ISC produced streaming video telecast to a worldwide audience. The emails were primarily encouraging, although the messages shared some of the buffering, and other issues that people encounter with a developing technology. Most importantly, many listeners expressed their delight at being able to watch games taking place across the country, or in some cases, around the world on their computers. The hundreds of hours of work had paid off. Blackburn thought back to that summer of 2001, when he shared his dream of streaming fastpitch video someday. “Someday” had arrived. Streaming video broadcasts of the ISC World Tournament had become a reality.
Over the next few years, internet speeds increased dramatically, improving the quality of the streaming video telecasts along with it. The popularity of websites like “YouTube” exploded, for the same reason. The herky-jerky images of the early days of video streaming were replaced by images much like broadcast television.
In 2009, the ISC merged its divisions of play, as well as the broadcast program, bringing Dave, Blair and I together under one roof, with Dave heading up the show as Executive Producer. More than once, we have reflected on those test broadcasts on that windy day in Palmdale, remembering Dave’s prescient comment about televised ISC broadcasts.
2010 in Midland Michigan marked Blackburn’s tenth year of producing streaming broadcasts of the ISC World Tournament. During that tournament, it was announced by the ISC that Dave Blackburn would be inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame the following year, in 2011, in recognition of his service to the organization and the game of men’s fastpitch, for his pioneering work in streaming media.
But Blackburn’s opportunity to bask in the glow of the Hall of Fame announcement was short lived, as a couple of weeks later, he was involved in a near fatal car crash breaking nearly every bone in his body, and in a coma for months, and in a recovery and rehabilitation program that continues today.
If the decade of work on streaming media revealed Blackburn’s creative genius, the past year has revealed his strength of character, enduring surgery after surgery, and painful days of rehabilitation while in a wheelchair. Throughout it all, he remained resolute and determined that he would be in Quad Cities for his ISC Hall of Fame induction. The trip to the podium was no doubt an emotional one for Blackburn, but one supported by the thousands of fastpitch fans who have listened and watched the ISC broadcasts over the past decade, thanks to his work. Those fans continue to email Dave with words of encouragement, much as they have over the many years of ISC broadcasts, and many tuned in to witness the induction in live streaming video.
“Being inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame is the biggest honor bestowed on the sport of Men’s fastpitch softball”, said Dave Blackburn.
“To be included with the all-time giants in the history of the sport is beyond words. I just wish my parents were both still alive to share this special moment in my life.”
Broadcasting of men’s fastpitch games took a big leap forward in the early 2000’s, thanks to the work of streaming media pioneer, Dave Blackburn.
He worked on the cutting edge of technology since the early days of the internet, saw the potential for application of internet broadcasting for men’s fastpitch, and teamed with tech guru Greg Panos to make the broadcasts a reality.
A game changer, in the truest sense of the word.
Here is the video from Dave’s induction into the ISC Hall of Fame, August 14, 2011.