ARLINGTON, Texas -- Even before showering after a recent game, Rangers reliever C.J. Wilson -- a.k.a. str8edgeracer -- grabbed his phone, flipped up to the keyboard and tweeted a brief message for the masses.
Wilson's fingers were fast and furious as they did the talking for him. He couldn't drone on. Twitter won't let him. He gets just 140 characters. But that's enough space to say he was frustrated by a loss, pleased with a win or happy to eat some homemade food at a friend's house on the road.
"I try to enjoy myself, and if people want to follow me, cool, if not, cool," said Wilson, who has more than 6,000 followers and a popular Facebook page that he uses mainly to promote charity events. "In the information culture we have now, people are curious. They want to know what Marlon Byrd had for lunch and what video game Josh Hamilton plays. It's normal stuff. It lets everyone know that stars are just like us."
Social media sites are still in their infancy. But they've gone from an uncertain novelty where anyone can post a picture or quickly write a few words to a popular conversation tool among athletes, teams and fans. That transformation has taken only a few months.
The sites have allowed athletes and leagues to bypass the media and communicate directly with fans.
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love broke the news on Twitter in June that Kevin McHale would not be back as coach.
Lance Armstrong told his group of more than 1.2 million followers across the globe that his son Max had been born and that girlfriend Anna Hansen and baby were doing well. He even posted pictures online.
Shaquille O'Neal, a Twitter juggernaut with more than 1.5 million followers, shared his thoughts about heading to Cleveland in a blockbuster NBA trade last month. He even answered some direct questions by his followers. O'Neal has become a must-read for many Twitter participants.
Leagues jump in
The leagues realize the marketing possibilities and have launched team Facebook and Twitter pages. The goal is simple: Attract more fans, get them more interested in the game and hope they come out to a park, arena or stadium and spend money.
"These are just intermediary steps towards more in-depth interpersonal and intergroup communications," said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a prolific tweeter himself, via e-mail. "Creative people will come up with new software to host new creative ideas that redefine what social networks are . . .
"It's just the reality of digital evolution. The concept that Twitter or Facebook, as they are today, will be the platform for communications in 2020 is laughable."
But they are already a significant platform, and that has the leagues attempting to use the medium as best they can. The Stars tweeted each pick in last month's NHL draft 30 seconds or so before the pick was even announced, giving followers the scoop.
A handful of NFL teams did the same thing at April's draft. The NBA used social networking sites during the draft, taking fans behind the scenes. The NBA asked teams not to tweet their picks before the selections were announced on TV.
Major League Baseball, which had some draftees on Twitter sharing their experiences in real time with fans, supports club Facebook pages that allow fans to interact and talk about their favorite teams.
Most NASCAR teams and drivers also have Facebook and Twitter accounts. It's one more way to add value to sponsorships.
Texas Motor Speedway has a corporate and fan page on Facebook, and someone is assigned to tweet from the track. Those tweets increase dramatically during race weeks.
"We want to reach fans where they are, so that's what makes these sites so important," said Mike Dilorenzo, the NHL's director of corporate communications. "We tried some things this year with it, and we feel it's working to give our fans a fun experience."
Dilorenzo said he's moving into a newly created position next season of overseeing the social networking site for the league.
Measuring the effectiveness of these sites isn't easy in terms of dollars. But Rob Scichili, head of communications for the Stars, said seeing the number of followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook climb each week and receiving e-mails from fans who like it mean it is getting the Stars name out in the public eye.
But leagues and players also have to be aware of the potential dangers of giving the fans a closer look at the lives of athletes.
"We have our security meetings, and that comes up," said Rangers reliever Doug Mathis, who has the same Facebook page he started in college. "They say to watch what you put on there and watch who you are friends with because there are a lot of people that you never know what their motive is for doing that."
Imposters lurk online, as well. Last month, someone posing as DeMarcus Ware said he was close to a contract extension with the Cowboys. Ware doesn't have a Twitter account and spoke to the Cowboys' security staff about it.
Rich Dalrymple, a spokesman for the Cowboys, said the team spends time monitoring the social media sites, "discovering the positives and negatives," and share whatever concerns they have with players.
"It is a more direct means of communication between public figures and their followers," Dalyrmple said in an e-mail. "We don't encourage them to enter into new forms of fan interaction, but it is our obligation to provide assistance for those who choose to do so."
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter in May after someone posing as him posted comments that La Russa felt hurt his reputation. In an effort to crack down on imposters, Twitter created a way for accounts to be verified so that users could contact the company and added a badge to their bios to designate they are legitimate.
A search of Mike Modano on Facebook brings up a dozen or more sites. But none of them are Modano's.
"I'll see people out and they'll say, 'Hey, are you going to be on Facebook later?"' said Modano, who used to have a MySpace page. "They are surprised when I tell them I don't have a page."
Steve Ott, who said Facebook gives him a chance to keep track of his family and friends while away from home during hockey season, is careful to allow only people he knows as his "friends" on the site. And he stays away from Twitter.
"You have to be careful because it's just that one person that could mess up a lot of things in your life," Ott said.
Ott, known for his ability to get under the skin of opponents with gritty play and creative language, joked that he could call a few people out on Twitter. Maybe it could become a new form of trash talking?
"I don't think I'd do that," Ott said. "It could lead to trouble."
But for fans, the social networking sites do give them a glimpse inside the life -- both the boring and the exciting -- of a professional athlete. And for the leagues, it's an online opportunity to expand the fan base.
"I do it for the fans that care and are entertained and my friends back home," Wilson said. "It's the easiest way for me to stay in touch with people. It's fun. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't."