mbfBuy 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.

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