Technology - Circuits
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March 26, 1998

Net's a Natural for Fantasy Baseball


For baseball fans, spring is a season of seduction. The siren song of off-season trades and Grapefruit League statistics stirs irresistible hope for championship glory. And then there's the bandwidth drain.

As ballparks fill up for the opening of the Major League Baseball season Tuesday, a virtual sellout crowd of hundreds of thousands will begin to track player statistics on the Web.

Where the seventh-inning stretch means stepping away from the computer.

For the last month, they have been using Web-based baseball simulations to play virtual ball games that pit would-be general managers against one another in leagues where the major league stats are real, the money is phony and the real trophy is bragging rights around the water cooler (or these days, on the corporate intranet).

On Tuesday, the flag drops. Statistics will begin to flood the databases of Web sites like ESPN's Sportszone, CBS SportsLine and the free and increasingly popular Small World Sports.

Complex corporate computer networks and high-speed Net connections will be used to track the progress of "Jimbo's Bombers" and "The Amazin' Jakes" as executives sweat the decision to drop $11 million in funny money on Mark McGwire while leaving the bullpen to the likes of Turk Wendell.

Among fantasy sports players, Small World - a New York company founded by a trio of enthusiasts in their living room four years ago - has developed something of a cult following. While the ESPN and SportsLine games are high-end online versions of the popular Rotisserie-style fantasy leagues and cost $19.95 per team to play, Small World is free and uses a stock market system for assigning player values and a point system to reward home runs, wins, saves and the like.

Credit: George Ruhe for The New York Times

Dave Hall left his job as an investment portfolio manager and founded a Web site for gamers.

The mode of play is simple and players can draft a full team in about 30 minutes. The game has seen a huge increase is users. Last year, 26,000 players ran teams. This year, 150,000 Small World managers will check their stats on Opening Day. (Licensed versions of the game are also available at Cox New Media's, CNN/SI and Time Warner's Pathfinder).

Small World followers are so devoted that a group of them met at Yankee Stadium for a real game last season.

"Believe it or not, it helps you not to be myopic about baseball," said one of the Stadium day-trippers, Colin Samuel, 23, an engineering graduate student from Manhattan who describes himself as a Red Sox fan.

Few things move smoothly from the real world to cyberspace, but fantasy gaming is a notable success. A recent survey by Cyber Dialogue, a research firm, showed that 34 percent of adults who use the Net regularly play some type of game on line.

Web sites now use the real-world results of professional baseball, basketball, football, hockey and golf to generate fantasy results for Mitty-esque "owners" who draft and trade players, using digital funny money to pay their salaries.

Of course, Rotisserie-type leagues have been popular among hard-core sports fans for many years. But it seems that the Web has completed the evolution of card games like Strat-o-matic Baseball and in-person Rotisserie drafting contests, allowing more fans than ever the joys and heartbreak of fantasy team ownership.

The online games solve two major problems that kept more casual fans away: they keep stats and allow players access from anywhere. "I hear from guys with teams from Israel, England, Taiwan, Japan," said Hall, an intensely active Web game player.

Those who scoff at the notion that a Web baseball game might be a drain on corporate productivity should consider the case of Dave Hall. A successful investment portfolio manager from West Hartford, Conn., he drafted his first Small World team on the Web last season.

Hall, 44, quit his job to follow fantasy sports full time, founded a Web site devoted to advice for Web gamers and may pursue his own gaming company. "I realized," he said, "that I was spending more time thinking about my next baseball strategy than my next investment strategy."

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