THE GOODS : CYBURBIA : In Fantasy Ball, the Computer Is a Real Team Player


Like any baseball manager involved in the now ubiquitous fantasy leagues, Albany, N.Y., teen-ager Sean Sullivan was always on the lookout for any edge he could get to boost his team's standing. Six years ago when he was 15, he found what was then an almost secret weapon. He discovered on-line computer services.

"I found out that I could get information by talking to other baseball fans that was not available in my hometown newspaper or on the radio," says Sullivan, now a computer science undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Information is the lifeblood of fantasy baseball (also known, in its classic form, as Rotisserie baseball after the New York restaurant La Rotisserie Francaise where it was supposedly invented in 1980).

Each player is manager of his or her own team made up of real-life players from the major league rosters. Points are scored based on how your players perform on a day-to-day basis in hits, runs, home runs, stolen bases and other categories. Managers constantly make trades to strengthen their teams. That's where a computer on-line service, accessible over a telephone line, comes in handy.

"If you are on the East Coast, a West Coast night game might not even make it into the local newspaper the next day," Sullivan says. "But if you get on-line and talk to someone in the city where the game is being played, they might be able to give you details right then that you'll never get in the paper--how a player did that night, was there a possible injury."

It's the kind of information a manager craves.

"I found," says Sullivan, who now gets his information through the giant Internet network and last year won his league's championship with his team, the Orange Crush, "this would give me an edge over other players in Albany."

It is no longer much of a secret. Thousands of fantasy players now not only get information by chatting up other baseball fans on the Internet, CompuServe, Prodigy and other on-line networks, but also play the game over the computer.

"We have people calling in from all over the world--Caracas, London--to play," says Harry Conover, head of Sports Forum Fantasy, a Boston-based company that runs the league on CompuServe.

"They are always looking for information--reading the entrails, the tea leaves--only now it's by high-speed computer modems."

Conover says about 2,000 players subscribe to his company's services on CompuServe and thousands of others make liberal use of its message service. "We have capacity for 1,800 messages in the sports fantasy area," Conover says, "and it turns over completely every 27 hours." Prodigy officials declined to say how many fantasy players use their service, but it's also in the "thousands."

The Prodigy service costs subscribers less than CompuServe, but fantasy players pay extra fees to play the game on-line. All Prodigy subscribers can use the sports news areas (including complete box scores of games 30 minutes after play ends) and messaging services.

Fantasy baseball might be the new digital American pastime, but it's still an overwhelmingly male enterprise. "It's one of the things I was never able to figure out," Conover says. "I go to ballparks and there are thousands of women in the stands, enjoying the game.

"Then I was told by a woman, 'It's just that we have better things to do.' And you know, I think she's right."

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