It’s no secret that hiring independent contractors has its pluses: You don’t have to shell out money for payroll taxes and you can skip the insurance benefits paperwork. But beware: If you directly hire someone as an independent contractor–whether it’s a freelance graphic artist to design your business brochures or a technology consultant to help you set up your Web site–your legal responsibilities aren’t completely lifted. You may be surprised to learn that hiring independent contractors can create liabilities for you.

Liability Loopholes

Sure, business owners who use independent contractors aren’t as liable for worker negligence as when they hire full-time employees. Let’s say you hire Eddie, a full-time employee who makes pickups and deliveries for your publishing business. One day, while Eddie is driving work to the printer, he hits a pedestrian who sues both of you. If Eddie is proven to be at fault during the course of his employment, then you’d be liable–without regard to fault–just for being his boss. Called vicarious liability, this situation is not usually covered by basic homeowner’s or auto insurance. On the other hand, if Eddie was hired as an independent contractor (meaning he operated a service and had several clients, among other factors), then this participating liability wouldn’t exist for you. But you’re not off the legal hook yet. You may be held liable if you.

Negligently hire an independent contractor.

Entrepreneurs can be held accountable for failing to exercise due care when selecting a competent contractor. If, for instance, it turned out that Eddie had a lousy driving record with a history of accidents, then you’d be on the line for not checking out his background (even if you wouldn’t have hired him had you known). When you hire independent contractors, it’s vital that you investigate all their references, qualifications, and background.

Hire a contractor who assaults someone.

You aren’t generally liable for such acts by independent contractors. But if you hire a security guard or bouncer for your bar, for example, you might be found liable when the assault could be considered related to your business, even if too much force isn’t used. Of course, you might be found not liable. But if you’re wrapped up in such a suit, the legal fees will still hurt you.

Happen to be in a business that’s inherently dangerous, such as repairing electrical wires or fumigating buildings.

In this case, independent contractors won’t insulate you from liabilities, so contact your insurance agent regarding liability coverage. In addition, insist that independent contractors sign a written contract (see the box, “Reduce Your Risk: Get It in Writing”), requiring them to carry their own coverage-especially when there’s risk of injury.

Create a hostile working environment.

Let’s say you hire Joe, an independent contractor, to help set up your Web site. When he drops by your office to install graphics on your PC, he downloads sexually explicit material that another one of your workers is exposed to. This is a sexual harassment suit in the making. Under current law, you’re responsible for not checking out Joe’s background, for not monitoring his online activities, and other potential legal arguments. One way to avoid this problem is to closely observe the activities of your contractors.

Injure a worker.

According to the law, you have a “right to contribution” for damages awarded due to your independent contractor’s negligence, but the flip side is that you’re also responsible if he or she is injured due to your negligence. Of course, an injury can also occur with full-time employees. But independent contractors aren’t covered under workers’ compensation insurance as employees are. Therefore, if you fail to warn, say, your new sales representative about the broken step leading to your office and she falls and injures herself, you can be liable for her injuries. Why? You failed to warn a business invitee about a known risk and were therefore negligent.

Are bound to a contract you can’t fulfill. Let’s say you hire Anne, an independent contractor, to work for your roof repair business. When you were out servicing clients, Anne picks up a call while in your office. It’s a homeowner with a leaky ceiling. Sympathetic to the caller’s cry for help, Anne says that you can fix the problem before the next rain. But when an unexpected storm ruins the client’s home before you arfive, you may be held liable for the damages under the doctrine of apparent authority. To remedy this situation, be clear in your instructions to contractors as to what they can do and cannot do at your office.

The bottom line: Although there’s less risk to your business assets when you hire independent contractors, you must still make an effort to avoid becoming another victim of our litigious society.

Consider the case of Mikasa v. Mikasa. One makes fine crystal and china. The other makes fine soccer balls and sports equipment. Although the two unrelated companies share a brand name and a geographic region, they’ve coexisted peacefully. After all, there’s little chance that a customer will mistakenly buy a soccer ball to place on the dinner table or accidentally kick a fine goblet past the outstretched arms of a goalie. But now, both companies want to be on the Internet as mikasa.com. And on the Internet the chance for confusion is high. It’s easy to conceive of a customer shopping electronically for porcelain and typing www.mikasa.com, only to be surprised by an offering of baggy shorts and odd spheroids. The reverse could happen too.

In a lawyer-free world, the logical compromise would be for one company to become www.mikasachina.com and the other, www.mikasasoccer.com. In the real world, however, the two companies sued each other and anyone else remotely connected to the dispute,

The Mikasa conflict is played out hundreds of times each month, as giant corporations, small businesses, home offices, and individuals vie for the rapidly dwindling supply of Internet domain names. The largest top-level domain, .com, which stands for commercial, has been picked over more thoroughly than a bargain table at www.filenesbasement.com. Who gets www.united.com? United Air Lines? United Van Lines? United Technologies? As it turns out, nobody gets it, because everyone’s fighting over it.

Even if you were smart and quick and staked out a clever domain name for your small business before anyone else could even think of that name, you’re vulnerable to reverse hijackings. One programmer, for example, named his tiny domain after his son, Ty. Later, when Ty Inc. (a big company that makes plush toys) discovered the Internet, it decided it wanted www.ty.com. So it hired a fancy law firm and sued, arguing that the programmer had infringed Ty Inc.’s trademark. Because the programmer had somehow neglected to trademark his son, he had to hire a lawyer just to keep from having his e-mail shut off. Visit www.ty.com today, and you’ll see a big red heart, a teddy bear, and a note from Ty Inc.’s lawyers threatening to sue anyone who even looks at the page the wrong way.

Not many small businesses have the time, money, or energy needed to fight the powerful law firms employed by the big corporations who weren’t smart enough to discover the Internet soon enough. Sure, you can sell the rights to your domain name, but what if you don’t want to? What if the corporations offer only a token payment, not enough to justify the time, effort, and expense of reprinting stationery and notifying the world of your new Web address?

Everyone agrees this is a major problem. In an attempt to fix it, the best brains of the Internet–in the form of the Internet International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC), a consortium of international organizations that set technical standards for the Internet–have proposed a solution.

The IAHC suggests going beyond the current batch of domains (.com, .org, .edu, .net, .gov, and .mil.) and adding seven new generic top-level domains: .firm (for businesses or firms), .store (for businesses offering retail goods), .web (for entities related to the World Wide Web), .arts (for cultural and entertainment entities), .rec (for recreation and entertainment entities), .info (for news and information services), and .nora (for just plain folks who want domains in their own names).

Eventually, the IAHC plans to add as many as 100 new top-level domains. One can imagine .rel for churches and religious groups, .law for lawyers, .fin for banks and brokerages, .tel for telephone companies, .food for restaurants and groceries, .porn for pornographers, and so forth.

But wait–there’s more! The IAHC recognizes that the Web is a global phenomenon, and that it’s unfair for all countries to have to apply to Virginia-based Network Solutions Inc., which now has a monopoly on granting .com domain names.

So the IAHC also proposes establishing as many as 28 domain name registrars around the world, four in each of seven global regions. Under this plan, these registrars would work cooperatively to build a planetwide directory of unique Internet addresses. This means that many businesses in the United States would have to add us to their addresses, to identify them as American. Most countries other than the United States already add a country identifier. The logical extension is that we will soon have regional identifiers, like us.ne (for northeast) or us.sw (for southwest), to separate acme.firm in Phoenix from acme.firm in Boston.

If the Internet community embraces the proposal, domain names will soon get much more complex in the name of simplicity. Consumers will have no more chance of intuitively guessing an Internet address than they have today. (Is that yourbiz.com? yourbiz.info? yourbiz.firm? yourbiz.firm.us?)

What’s more, every individual and company who didn’t get the .com domain he, she, or it wanted will be gunning for the ideal name under one of the new top-level domains. And everyone who was smart or lucky enough to get the .com domain he, she, or it wanted will be trying to protect it by registering for alternative domains in multiple registration regions.

The newly designated registrars are not going to do this for free, so you can expect to pay $100 or more each for names in multiple domains every two years. That’s chicken feed for a multinational corporation but a painful and perhaps prohibitive expense for a small business.

The goals of the new policy are to relieve congestion in the .com domain and to avoid trademark disputes. It appears the IAHC has found a solution that has the potential to be worse than the original problem. Honestly, I can’t think of a better solution that will be fair to everyone. But anything that unfairly allows big businesses to bully small businesses is antithetical to the spirit of the Internet and must be modified.

Like a growing cadre of industry experts, Connie Henry knows what it takes to get integrated services digital network (ISDN) hooked up in an office. Henry coordinates telephone companies’ installation of digital phone line service for Jetstream Communications’s customers. ISDN has become the high- speed Internet access of choice for business owners fed up with waiting hours to download graphics- heavy Web pages. It also allows products such as Jetstream’s Front Desk to provide the same top-quality telephone-handling features that you thought were only available to big business.

But getting an ISDN line up and running is not as easy as adding a second telephone line. The horror stories you’ve read and heard about the service are true. ISDN-speak includes an entirely new vocabulary, from switch type and version to NI-1 signaling and D-channel packets. You call to place an order for the service and phone company representatives don’t know how to spell ISDN. Worst of all is struggling to set up your ISDN terminal adapter, which is commonly known as a digital modem, and getting it to work with your new service.

“Telephone companies are learning about ISDN,” says Henry. “I’m learning about ISDN. It’s complicated. because of the programming involved at the teleph one company. One mistake and the line won’t work. Through trial and error we’re now having more success.”

And because customer service representatives are becoming more experienced, horror stories are starting to have happier endings. Henry says that GTE, Pacific Bell, and Bell Canada generally shine at hassle-free installations, though there are still trouble spots. But to ensure proper installation, we asked Henry and other experts for their secrets to getting ISDN up and working for you.

Secret #1 Microsoft, which has a vested interest in improving your Internet experience, created a Web site to make it easy to find out if ISDN is available in your area. When you visit www.microsoft.com/, you can follow a simple, step-by-step interview that tells you if you’re in luck and gives you pricing information for most major telephone companies’ service. The Microsoft Web site will also let you place the order, and it forwards a set of specifications to your phone company. Microsoft itself doesn’t get involved–it simply acts as an interpreter that translates your needs into specifications stated in a language that the phone company’s installation wizards can understand.

Secret #2 If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, buy Motorola’s BitSURFR Pro modem or an Express XRT model from Adtran. Our experts feel that Motorola’s user’s guide has extensive setup specifications for helping you place the right order. Its setup program makes the modem incredibly easy to initialize once your service is installed. Adtran’s user guide provides ordering codes and its technical support staff stands ready to help you solve problems.

Secret #3 Companies such as 3Com go beyond improving setup and manuals. 3Com also went beyond Microsoft’s self-guided Web page. The company offers its customers a special toll-free installation line. When you call the number, a 3Com representative takes your information and contacts your telephone company to guarantee that its 3ComImpactlQ External ISDN modem will work with your ISDN service. The company is so confident it even provides a money-back guarantee that you will be able to install and configure its modem in 15 minutes. Although you must still pay for installation of tile ISDN line and all subsequent charges, the 3Com service is free.

Secret #4 Your Internet service provider (ISP) can be an indispensable source of help. For example, Northwest Nexus, the local Puget Sound ISP , will put you in touch with its GTE or US West representatives. Nationwide ISP EarthLink has launched a new one-stop ISDN shopping service.

“EarthLink provides our customers with a single point of contact,” according to Julie Mantis, vice president of sales for the EarthLink Network. The company’s representatives handle everything “from ordering the line, setting up the order with the phone company, and providing ISDN modems, all the way through to explaining how to use high-speed Internet access.” EarthLink also sells equipment tested and certified by its ISDN Compatibility Labs so that you can be assured it all works properly with EarthLink’s service.

Secret #5 Even if you live in the land of easy installation, which includes California and Canada, follow your phone company’s directions and offerings explicitly. Pacific Bell offers the $329 Home Pack, which includes the 3ComImpact IQ external ISDN modem, a training video and CD-ROM, a user’s guide, a copy of Netscape Navigator, and the ISDN service. Like EarthLink, the Baby Bell has tested the products to ensure they work with its service.

Use these secrets to ensure that ISDN gets up and running, and you’ll add lightning speed to much of your daily work.

This is the story of a story that’s been rewritten so often, I should’ve used disappearing ink. In an effort to capture the online investment juggernaut on paper, the editors of this magazine gave me $70,000 (virtual money, of course) and told me to have fun. That was almost two years ago, and the original assignment involved comparing the investment options available on AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe. But halfway through the project, my research became outdated when Internet investing took off. Then, when the online services changed their offerings and pricings, my work was rendered further irrelevant. Months later, I was sent back to square one again as new companies launched and old ones merged or moved their offerings. This brings me to a key caveat: The online investing world changes really fast.

Lesson 1: Know what you want before you log on.

Head over to Yahoo!, key in “mutual fund” and you’ll find 58 entries; 1,789 listings for “stocks”; 1,136 for “money”; and 410 for “invest.” And that doesn’t count the newsgroups, chat rooms, forums, and so on dedicated to the art of separating would-be investors from their funds. You’ll discover places to download quotes, sites that will track your portfolio, corporate news, buy/sell signals, online brokers, and scores of “onetime-only opportunities to nab now.”

It’s overwhelming, enticing, intoxicating–and it’s all nothing but noise unless you already have a good idea of what you’re looking for. A buy-and-hold investor, for instance, can be easily seduced into trading on foolhardy tips, just because something’s there and it sounds so good. Before dedicating your life to cybertrading, spend time researching the basic theories of investing. Ask yourself: Do I prefer mutual funds or individual securities? Do I want to pick a few good funds and then leave them on autopilot? Do I want to research my own stocks, then trade regularly and rapidly? Am I using my nest egg–or just some fun money? Am I investing enough money to justify the cost of top-flight reporting services? How do I pick investments? Am I a fundamental investor who regularly checks company news and earnings? Do I chart price moves and buy with momentum?

Regardless of how you respond to these questions, there are sites for you online–but where you go is not the same for everyone. That’s why it’s vital for you to mull over your answers before you fire up your modem, money in hand.

I spent October 1995 in an investment information paralysis, which is ridiculous when you realize I was using play money. I’d jump from Wall Street Journal stories about what the pension funds were buying to Prodigy’s Stock Hunter, which picks stocks based on different theoretical models, to recommendations pushed by AOL’ s Motley Fool investment area. With no idea how to narrow my choices, i frantically surfed without buying a single share.

Lesson 2: You don’t have to do any of this.

Ironically, as more data is made available on the Web, more financial experts advocate adopting a passive approach to investing. Assuming that you’re a passive investor, it’s best to set aside a percentage of your portfolio for investing in stocks, and use it to buy an index fund. These funds hold broad baskets of stocks and are aimed at matching broad stock market indexes, such as Standard & Poor’s 500. Better yet, if you’re just hunting for an inexpensive index fund, you don’t need hourly market reports, timing recommendations, fundamental stock charts, and hundreds of hours of online research.

I finally bought an index fund by going to Morningstar, through AOL, and keying in “index.” There were 61funds to pick from. I called up Vanguard Index 500 Portfolio Trust, because Vanguard is known for low-cost funds. I also looked at Vanguard’s International Equity Emerging Markets Portfolio, on the theory that some of your money should be in foreign stocks. After reviewing its reports and learning the firm stuck close to its indexes–and didn’t charge marketing or high management fees–I clicked “add to portfolio” for both. I bought 1,000 shares of the international index at $10.41 a share and400 shares of the stock index fund at $54.32, for a total investment of $32,138.

In the 13 months I held these funds, without doing any research or trading, my money grew to $42,517. That represented a 33 percent gain for the domestic stock fund and a 29 percent gain on the international index. This turned out to be better than the returns for most of my subsequent picks. No fuss, no commissions, no hours spent tracking choices. Not a bad option if you just want to dabble in investing.

Lesson 3: Fast doesn’t mean timely.

Financial firms have raced to get online, but all haven’t been so quick about updating their data. Even some of the best reports, such as Strategic Investor on Prodigy and Morningstar on AOL, can be months out-of-date. In fact, you may get more timely information by pulling Value Line off the library shelf than by playing hide and seek online for hours. What’s more, be aware that free quoting services suffer from 15-minute or longer delays. If you’re a daily trader, get realtime quotes.

Remember those Vanguard reports I looked up? They were dated June 30, and I was hunting on October 25. Not good/

It’s October 27, 1995, and I’m scouting for current info. Again on AOL, I check the most active list on Nasdaq and come up with Pyxis (PYXS), a company I never heard of. It’s down $5 a share to 11 3/4 and has traded 13 million shares, which seems like a lot. What’s the story?

Click, click, and I’m in the company research window. l find a slew of stats and an article that tells me Pyxis makes automated drug-dispensing systems for hospitals. Sounds good. Back to Pyxis; its earnings report showed third-quarter results dropping from 23 cents a share last year to 22 cents now. Analysts were expecting 28 cents. And the CEO has quit. Dean Witter cut its rating from “accumulate” to “neutral.” No wonder it’s tanking.

But that news story notes that company earnings are down because it’s reinvesting in new installations. And cofounder Ronald Taylor is being talked out of semi-retirement to run the firm. Maybe it’s ripe for a takeover/By the time I get to the portfolio section, the share price has bumped up to 12 3/4. I hurry and buy 400 shares, for a total investment of $5,100.

Turns out, PYXS is a steady climber. By February 7, 1996, Cardinal Health Inc. bids to buy it. In May I receive .406557 shares of Cardinal for every PYXS share, and my holdings are worth $10,225. Nine months later, with Cardinal still climbing, my money has nearly tripled to $14,127. It’s the best investment I made; it proves that if you’ve got the time, the dime, and the willingness to act fast, you can find winners online.

Lesson 4: Don’t get a broker who’ll break you.

According to news reports, online trading may be the fastest-growing area on the Net with some 1.5 million accounts already established. As a result, there are dozens of brokers that allow direct online investing and that give discounts to customers willing to process their own trades. Although most brokers are already on the Web, some such as Charles Schwab & Co. and Fidelity Investments have their own networks and require their own software. To select the best broker, compare commission schedules for the kinds of trades you’re likely to make; ask about additional services and fees (such as charges for receiving your stock certificates or duplicate statements). Then go to the sites and scan the portfolio reports to find the one you like best. For ratings of online discount brokers, log on to The National Council of Individual Investors (com.primenet.com/ncii/) or the American Association of Individual Investors (www.aaii.org). (For more, see “Looking for a Discount Broker?”)

When I invested online for the story, I didn’t actually take my “money” to a real broker. Instead, l used AOL’s portfolio tracking feature to avoid the costs of trading. There are similar portfolio trackers available all over the Web, but they have limitations: Most only update prices, not dividends or, in the case of mutual funds, capital gain distributions that give you more shares throughout the year. lf you have an actual account with an online broker, however, your statement should reveal those distributions and give you an easy way to chart your performance against major stock indexes.

Lesson 5: A rumor Is a rumor is a rumor.

Lesson 6: Beware sleaze.

The financial market thrives on gossip, and avid cyber-traders can make junior-high-school students seem downright taciturn. Besides chat rooms, forums, and e-mail news lists, there are thousands of stock, bond, fund, and hot platinum-mine opportunities being touted at any given time.

The question is, how good (or bad) is gossip? Pretty bad, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, which issued this warning: Don’t assume your online provider polices its investment bulletin boards; don’t buy thinly traded stocks on the basis of online hype; don’t act on the advice of a person who hides his identity; don’t be suckered by claims made about inside information; and don’t assume that because someone says they have checked something out that they have.

When you weed out the fishy leads and the cyber-hype, however, there’s still plenty of good information left. If you have the time, you may learn more about the mechanics of investing or get a feel for how others make their buying decisions. For instance, the scuttlebutt on CompuServe tends to draw more investment professionals; but on Prodigy and AOL, it’s easier to follow specific firms because messages are organized by company name. And on the Internet, the list servers are so voluminous that unless you’re careful, your e-mailbox may be clogged for months.

On January 23, 1996, Kestral Energy Inc. (KEST), an oil-well driller being pushed on AOL, catches my eye. “The corner is being turned; the price is right; the time is right” is the sum total of one message. So I flip to the news pages, where I find a PR Newswire story about KEST. (Warning: PR Newswire is not an independent news service. Its stories are written by the companies themselves.) I read about two great wells in Australia that should come online by March. I spend $15,000 buying in at $3 a share. Five months later, the price is up to 4 1/4 and my holdings are worth $21,250. If l were an active trader and online gossip hound, maybe I would’ve sold. But no, I’m still holding KEST in the fall of 1996. The price is 1 11/16 and I’m down $6,562.

lesson 7: Look for what you really want.

One benefit of using computers to invest is the ability to screen a list of stocks or funds that fit your financial needs. On the Web, you’ll find services that screen for as many as 300 criteria; the commercial services are more limited. In Prodigy’s Strategic Investor, you can hunt for earnings growth, dividend yields, and industry- and price-earnings rarios. Or you can use its preset screens that advise different methods of stock selection: There’s the Peter Lynch low-debt, high cash flow companies, the Graham and Dodd bargain-priced companies, and the William O’Neil fastest-growing companies. AOL, on the other hand, has the most limited screens (you can 0nly read preselected ones from the American Association at Individual Investors). CompuServe, which offers the most screens for sorting on your own terms, is my favorite tool of choice.

It’s late fall 1995; and I decide to sort and search for stocks in retail industries. With the holidays upon us, this is when retailers make money, right? In Prodigy I ask for re- ports on retail companies with fast-growing earnings per share, and I mark 11 reports that I want to download. I hit my first Mac user snag: Prodigy wants me to specify a DOS path. I get the reports anyway and discover a mixed bag of stocks. One, Caldor, shows good earnings but it’s in bankruptcy. Another, Crowley, Milner & Co., claims earnings are up 88 percent on 3 percent growth in sales. Sounds weird. I compare the 11 reports further and come up with the discounter Dollar Tree Stores. Its sales growth has been near the top of its class (at 45 percent annually for five years). Dollar’s price, at $27 a share, is well below its 52-week high of $36. I buy 400 shares and spend $10,800. Then, as another test, I go to Fidelity Investments and select one of its specialized funds that invests in a basket of retailing stocks. I buy 200 shares at $27.60.

In June 1996, when all the holiday data has been digested, I’m up 35 percent on Dollar Tree Stores. I sell. On the fund, I’m up 22 percent. I hom it. Sometimes it pays to pick stocks.

Lesson 8: Love is blind to investment data.

Cyberspace will give you more than enough trading information rope to hang yourself–so stick with your initial investment strategies. If, for example, you’ve decided to only buy stocks with strong earnings momentum, then don’t be swayed by sweetheart stories about stocks that don’t fit your profile.

My case in point: “Apple is history.” What person who still claims to be a card-carrying member of the I-Love-My-Macintosh cult could resist such a thread? Certainly not me. So in January, when I caught a CompuServe thread dedicated to the end of Apple, I chose to meet the gloom and doom with a buy order. Despite the online reports of company losses, of corporate heads rolling, and of long-term customers switching, it’s a “buying opportunity!” I told myself–proving once again that love is blind. I bought 100 shares at 36 5/8. As I write this, it’s selling at 24 5/8, and I’m out $1,200. I should’ve bought a new computer instead.

Lesson 9: Good information isn’t free, so only buy what you really need.

Once you’ve paid the price of admission to the Net or a commercial service, you can find such free information as lists of stocks and news. But you’re probably going to pay somewhere along the line. It’ll cost you, for instance, for detailed company reports, real-time quotes, and top-of-the-line screening. And once you can easily run off a charge card online, you’ll be nickel-and-dimed for a whole lot more information. So decide what you need, find an interface you like, and set an online expenses budget that’s in line with the amount of money you’re investing.

My cyber-experiment proved that when you’re willing to do your own research, a little money can go a long way. If you’re serious about stock picking, I think Prodigy’s Strategic Investor is a great deal at $14.95 a month. And if you pay a little more for commissions, a discount broker’s services can garner you much useful data. Besides, it’s still cheaper than what you’d pay a full-service broker to do your research.

Lesson 10: Bull markets don’t last forever, and neither do Web sites.

This piece of news may also be outdated by the time you read this article: All of the research I did for this report was in the context of the greatest bull market in the history of America. And for future investment articles, maybe it’ll be easier to find top sites–they will be those left standing after the bear.

After turnig an OK profit of $16,409 in a year, I can’t claim my modem helped me beat the market. But I have learned some things along the way, including this: Although your online tools will change with the marketplace, your investment philosophy shouldn’t.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Please. Give me something to bring the magic back to baseball. Because by the time the season actually starts, I am a frazzled, strung-out mess. I’m in a rotisserie baseball league, you see, and I’m online. It’s a nasty combination.’ Last year I spent the entire preseason on the Internet, creating my own scouting reports, analyzing statistics, forecasting performances, and examining injury updates with the zeal of a first-year medical student. I ignored my wife and kids.

I missed meals. I didn’t sleep. But this year, it’ll be different. This year, I’m going to win it all.

Rotisserie baseball is a consuming passion. And as such, it’s hard to define. Most players stutter and mumble when they try to explain the phenomenon to the uninitiated. Glen Waggoner, one of the cofounders of the original rotisserie league and the editor of Rotisserie League Baseball (Little, Brown), has been honing his definition for years: “It’s a game where you can own your own major league baseball team without having to come up with $150 million. Ten baseball fanatics gather in a dark room, each with a set amount of money to spend, to acquire 23 major league players–14 offensive players and nine pitchers. Once you acquire a team, you monitor its progress over the course of a. year in four pitching and four offensive categories. The team with the best cumulative statistical results wins.”

Sounds simple, fight? In the early days, it was. But then technology reared its vulgar head: People started using spreadsheets to organize stats, faxes and modems to disseminate data, e-mail to conduct drafts, and chat rooms to discuss trades. Eventually, Net fantasy leagues evolved, allowing complete strangers to compete against one another without leaving home. The game would never be the same. Finding the Right League In the early days, the biggest roadblock to playing rotisserie baseball was gathering the requisite 10 or so people needed to start a league. Thanks to the advent of Internet leagues, this is no longer a problem. If you want to play fantasy baseball and you have a computer, modem, and some cash, you’re in. The league you choose will find opponents for you, ‘lead you through a draft, send you weekly reports, and distribute prizes at the end of the season.

Alpha Sim Baseball Links and John Skilton’s Baseball Links are great places to begin. These one-stop shopping sites have links to dozens of Internet leagues, ranging from highly sophisticated corporate endeavors such as ESPNET Fantasy Baseball (espnet. to tiny, informal operations such as Uncle Sidley’s Major League. Although all of these leagues are built on the same model, they’re not identical.

For instance, Stats Inc. (800-63-STATS) is one of the most complicated leagues around–it tracks 31 statistical categories rather then the usual 10 and provides exhaustive weekly reports. It’s also one of the more expensive leagues. The $89 enrollment fee is fairly steep on its own, but you also pay $1 for every player transaction. This includes trades with other teams, free-agent signings, and placing a player on the disabled list. It can quickly add up to an additional $50 to $75, or worse, discourage you from making the moves you need to enjoy the game. ESPNET, on the other hand, charges a one-time fee of $49.95, which includes unlimited transactions. If you subscribe to ESPNET’s online service, the fee is reduced to $29.95.

When choosing a league to join, what you can win is a major consideration. Some leagues offer substantial cash prizes; others will send you a certificate or T-shirt. If cash incentives are important to you, look for a small, privately run league with low overhead. These might not provide the best statistical updates. Brand-name leagues, on the other hand, are more likely to have round-the-clock maintenance and a proven track record, but they’re likely to offer just T-shirts.

Scouting the Talent You’ve found the league that suits your needs. Now you must create your team. Doing the research is where the obsessive ecstasy begins. Anybody can draft Ken Grifrey Jr. or Barry Bonds in the first round, but it’s the person who snatches Mark Grudzielanek or Ricky Bottalico in the 19th round who winds up victorious. Knowing everything about everyone in baseball is how rotisserie dynasties are built. It’s also a good way to rack up some serious hours online.

John Hunt, fantasy baseball columnist for USA Today Baseball Weekly and a 12-year veteran of the rotisserie baseball wars, believes the Web has forever changed the face of fantasy baseball research. “There’s no question the Internet has leveled the playing field,” he says. “Information has always been king. And it used to be if somebody went to the trouble of looking at out-of-town newspapers and that kind of thing, he would have a distinct advantage. But now, everything is available to anyone [with a modem].” Perhaps too available. A recent WebCrawler search for “fantasy + baseball” returned 1,203 hits. “There’s so much information out there,” Hunt says, “and a lot of it is regurgitated, opinionated stuff.”

Thankfully, there are a few baseball diamonds in the rough. Ron Shandler’s Baseball HQ Home Page is one of the best. Designed exclusively for fantasy baseball fanatics, this comprehensive site provides both raw data and informed predictions. At $99 per season, it gives you a wealth of material to analyze. SportsLine USA’s (www.sportsline.com) Personal SportsPage is another option. As part of SportsLine USA’s $4.95 monthly fee, you gain access to chat rooms and can create your own personalized sports page.

There are numerous free sites to explore as well. Most newspapers in major league cities have daily editions on the Web. The Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com) and The San Diego Union-Tribune (www.uniontrib.com), for example, have first-rate sites, and others are catching up. USA Today’s Baseball Weekly (www.usatoday.com/bbwfront.htm) is another priceless free resource. But avoid the “official” team sites, which are more likely to steer you toward season ticket mini-plans and team logo oven mitts.

Keeping Tabs on Your Team Once you’ve drafted your team, keeping track of your players’ daily performance will become the centerpiece of your existence. You could read about yesterday’s game when the morning paper arrives, but why wait so long? America Online subscribers can monitor every game as it progresses, thanks to Stats Inc.’s living box scores (keyword: stats baseball). Updated pitch by pitch, these constantly changing box scores reduce each game to a collection of names, numbers, facts, and figures–a fantasy baseball devotee’s dream come true. Sports Illustrated’s SI/Online offers a similar box-score feature.

Also of note, Fastball offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future. Along with the de rigueur statistics and schedules, this catch-all site offers RealAudio broadcasts of the Associated Press’s hourly radio reports. This feature doesn’t do much for rotisserie junkies who have access to ESPN2 and Headline News. But with technology like this in place, how long can it be before we’re watching simultaneous, real-time broadcasts of every game? It’s almost enough to make a grizzled Internet warrior get a little misty about the possibilities.