Chad Durbin tweets. Not often and not with the flair of the Big Twitterer, Shaquille O'Neal, but he is there, a Philadelphia athlete on the social networking Web site that seems as if it is taking over the world.
New Yankee Stadium tonight. Curious and excited, I liked the old place, Durbin tweeted May 22, just before the Phillies played the New York Yankees.
"A middle reliever doing it is like a beat reporter, but I'm not necessarily giving you insider information," said Durbin, who recently tweeted about North Korea and Star Trek. "I'm not Chase Utley or Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels or Brad Lidge, but I am a guy on the team that can report in."
Launched in 2006, and based in San Francisco, Twitter has exploded in popularity in recent months, with more than 30 million users posting 140-character tweets - or text-message-size micro-blog updates. The original idea was for users to answer the basic question, "What are you doing?" so their "followers" could be kept in the loop.
On the heels of the popular sites MySpace and Facebook, however, Twitter has created a monster following, particularly with athletes and celebrities who use the site to craft their own unfiltered messages.
In April, Ashton Kutcher became the first person with more than a million followers, or people who signed up to receive his Twitter stream. His wife, Demi Moore - known to the Twitter-sphere as @mrskutcher - topped 1 million shortly thereafter. The loquacious O'Neal (@THE_REAL_SHAQ) became the first athlete to hit the million mark, and more than 170 athletes and coaches, a small but growing number, have joined O'Neal, according to the Web site athletetweets.com that launched nearly seven weeks ago and tracks athletes who are on Twitter.
While many athletes (like most people) don't totally understand Twitter - "I used to think it's just the young kids doing it," Durbin said - others have embraced it. They include Lance Armstrong (@lancearmstrong), Dwight Howard (@dwighthoward), John Daly (@PGA_JohnDaly), and Southern Cal football coach Pete Carroll (@PeteCarroll).
The playful O'Neal has left tickets at the will-call window for his Twitter fans. He's tweeted about his philosophy on life, the playoffs, and his diet while building a following the size of a modest American city.
On Sunday, after Yahoo Sports did a less-than-flattering piece on him, O'Neal responded via Twitter, saying: "O my yahoo sports wrote a bad article abt me, I'm gonna cry, yea rt, wanna kno the real its comn frm my shaqberry I'm da reporter now"
So much for grammar and punctuation. Anything goes on Twitter.
Carroll has used his account to try to lure comedian Will Ferrell to Twitter. Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari (@ukcoachcalipari) posts multiple times a day, including recently when he said his daughter, Erin, had become "overzealous" defending his honor. Drew Rosenhaus (@RosenhausSports) uses Twitter to announce contract signings and promote his clients. LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens told Bloomberg News that she would encourage players to use Twitter during tournament rounds to help promote the sport. Armstrong even used Twitter last week to announce the birth of his son.
"I'm mesmerized by it," said David Katz, the 37-year-old founder of athletetweets.com and a 1994 Penn graduate who played basketball for one season under Fran Dunphy. "As a fan of sports and players trying to find out what's going on, [Twitter] is the best reality show not on TV. It is the ultimate reality show for sports fans."
Katz said his Web site tracks 174 athletes and coaches who use Twitter and vets the accounts to make sure that the athletes are legitimate. While he admits the process is "not 100 percent foolproof," Katz said "we've gotten pretty good at it."
There are plenty of fake Twitter accounts, including ones that have claimed to be Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Asante Samuel, and Trent Cole. It's simple to pretend to be an athlete - all you need is a valid e-mail address to sign up for a Twitter account. Impersonating someone is a violation of the Twitter Terms of Service, but that doesn't appear to be much of a deterrent.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa last week settled a lawsuit with Twitter after he claimed an unauthorized page that used his name caused him emotional distress by poking fun at his DUI charge and two Cardinals pitchers who died. Twitter agreed to pay La Russa's legal fees and make a donation to his Animal Rescue Foundation.
Twitter has burst on the scene so quickly that none of the four major pro sports leagues has rules prohibiting athletes from participating. But the NFL is concerned about Twitter's reach and scope.
After the April draft, league security personnel made their annual presentation to the players on all 32 teams. Last year, the topic was protecting against home invasions. This year, it was about online impersonations through social-networking sites, including Twitter, and online gambling.
In a 12-minute video that was part of the hourlong presentation, the league warned against cyberstalking and used former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins as an example. Dawkins had a problem with someone impersonating him on MySpace, and he contacted the site to have the fake pages taken down.
"Our biggest No. 1 problem, without a doubt, right now is computers," said Butch Buchanico, the Eagles' director of team security. "Blackberries, e-mail, texting, MySpace, your space. Years ago you had to leave your house to get in trouble. Now, you don't even have to leave your room."
The rapid dissemination of information, including false information, could have problematic consequences once the NFL season begins. Imagine if a player tweeted about an injury. It could alter the betting line on a game.
"Here you've turned the power of communication over to the athletes," Katz said. "It'll be interesting to see whether football players are using it or not, and if they are, what they're saying and what they're allowed to say."
The Eagles, according to multiple players, have set no rules regarding Twitter, but the only player with a confirmed account is rookie cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris.
"Obviously our approach under Andy [Reid] is that we're an in-house team," said backup quarterback A.J. Feeley, who does not have a Twitter account but does have a Facebook page that he limits to friends and family.
"The issues, we keep in house. That's our philosophy. So without even saying anything about not doing something, Andy treats us like adults. We all know where our boundaries are, what's expected on the team. You know that. So, if you're doing something like [Twitter], you're keeping in mind the principles and philosophies of the organization."
That's Durbin's approach, so he did not tweet after he allowed a walk-off home run to the Dodgers on Saturday. He said he started using Twitter as a way to promote his fledgling Internet business, ShowcaseU.com, which tries to match prep athletes with colleges and universities, but started posting innocuous comments about the Phillies to help drive traffic.
He said that he had had to endure some ribbing from fans after poor outings, but that that was "not any different than when you put on a uniform and walk in front of a crowd."
His teammates don't understand Twitter, Durbin said, and make fun of him for using it. But it's only a matter of time before someone else on the team tries it. Just don't expect that someone to be J-Roll.
"I can't imagine with everything he has going on that he would do that," Durbin said.