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It's a Whole New Ballgame 

by Joel Smith

Fantasy baseball has ruined me. I used to be a maniac for this game - a purist, a fanatic, the type of person who invested in the baseball diamond the kind of high faith and devotion that Catholics invest in their cathedrals. Warm blue skies, the smell of freshly mowed grass, the crack of the bat, all of that. I read David James Duncan's The Brothers K every summer. As a kid, I idolized Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, and Ken Griffey Jr. I played second base on my perennial loser of a Little League team; though I was terrified of being hit by a pitch, there was nothing like backhanding a blistering ground ball and wheeling around to make the throw to first. I lived for the violet dusk of the seventh inning, the encouraging murmurs of the infielders, the crooked angles and odd numbers of the scorecard.

But I'm sitting here tonight at the home opener for the Spokane Indians, here in the cheap seats with the families and the eager, be-gloved boys, and the stadium's packed and it's 80 degrees out and they're singing the national anthem, and here come the Indians charging out onto the field. I've got my scorecard on my knee. I'm close enough to hear the pop of the opening pitch against the catcher's glove.

And all I can think about is how Randy Johnson must be doing against the Mets right now.

I thought joining Yahoo's fantasy baseball league would be a natural extension of my love for the game, a way to get even more involved. And for a while it was. As a manager, I got to draft major league players onto my own team, trade them, shuffle them around in my roster, then cross my fingers and wait for their numbers - produced out on the real diamonds, on the real grass - to register for my online fantasy team. Every day last year, I checked the Web site to analyze my stats, examine who was slumping and who was surging. I watched as Miguel Tejada and Adrian Beltre powered my team up through the standings, leaving my competitors (my brother and his friends) far behind until I, the rookie manager, won the league championship.

It sounds like a baseball fan's dream come true, but there's a catch, because the fantasy manager's world is limited to what's on a computer screen. That is: to numbers. There's no grass, no blue sky, no barrel-chested beer vendor. It's all numbers, digital scribblings that are supposed to represent real sweat and swings and lunges, sore arms and dirt-streaked trousers. A baseball player's love life is meaningless; his fears and aspirations are irrelevant to your pursuit of a win. The fantasy manager resembles, more than any rowdy loud-mouthed super-fan, a Wall Street stockbroker, watching wild-eyed as his precious numbers trickle in and pile up.

And so, when Terry Blunt lifted a triple off of Everett's pitcher to drive in three runs in the fourth inning, it brought me to my feet. But who's this Terry Blunt, anyway? That triple, that roar of the crowd, that runner's beating heart, didn't score me a single statistic. What mattered was Randy Johnson, my team's starting pitcher, standing on a mound in far-off New York, throwing delicious Ks into my fantasy world.

I left Avista Stadium at the end of the fifth with the kind of soreness only the cheap seats can give you and raced home to my computer. Randy didn't get the win. The Indians did.

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