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Jim Bouton got to the essence of baseball's appeal 32 years ago in Ball Four: It's a round ball, a round bat, and you've got to hit it square. In other words, baseball's pretty simple. On summer nights, in the upper boxes at Baltimore's Camden Yards--where I have a 13-game ticket plan--all I need is a breeze, a hot dog, my girl, and a game to make me happy.
So, naturally, someone had to invent fantasy sports to make baseball hopelessly complicated, and then put it on the Internet. Fantasy sports have become big business for sports sites such as ESPN.com and CNNSI.com because the Web gives fantasy freaks a place to find each other. But CNNSI and ESPN haven't built fantasy sites that make newbies like me want to join the fun.
The basics should be relatively simple. You sign up. At CNNSI this is free, while ESPN charges $29.95 for the first team but offers bulk discounts. You join a league of 8 to 12 teams, then you and your fellow "owners" put together rosters by drafting active major-leaguers. During the season, you choose which players to put in the lineup, each week at CNNSI or as often as daily at ESPN. The Web sites track each player's statistics and score you based on how your players do. You make trades or pick up undrafted players at midseason, just as the pros do. At the end of the season, someone is the champion of each league. Players with the best overall scores among the league champs win prizes like a laptop computer.
The problem is, it took me hours to figure out from either of these sites how the games work, partly because of confusing site design and partly because most of their content is written for the already-committed fantasy nut. Example: ESPN's FLB 101 page (for Fantasy League Baseball) alludes to 35 different ways to play the game--in the first paragraph. Yikes! And that's presuming you could even find the basic introduction. I needed three links to find the FLB 101 page. At CNNSI, you have to look in a "help" menu. If I weren't being paid to figure it out, I wouldn't have bothered. The solution: bigger, bolder links on home pages that direct newbies to basic explanations and rules.
Once you get past the initial confusion, CNNSI is probably a better place to start, but ESPN is a more finished product. First of all, CNNSI is free. For a beginner unsure whether the many hours per week that aggressive fantasy players pour into stats to plot lineup changes will bore you or thrill you, free is a real good price. But ESPN gives your inner know-it-all more room to roam, letting you make daily lineup changes instead of weekly.
ESPN also offers better-written stories and analysis to support your personnel and managing decisions. ESPN puts at least occasional pieces by big writers like Peter Gammons on fantasy pages. But most CNNSI fantasy coverage comes from partner site Commissioner.com, which is merely O.K. And there's a big difference between Gammons and Commissioner.com's farm-team guys. Both sites, for the stats-happy players, have tons of data.
Fantasy baseball online is simple enough--if you spend hours learning how it works. But do you really want to? I mean, I'm a fan: One of my dogs is named Camden. So I'll try it, and maybe I'll like it. But I'll need to be convinced. When it's baseball season, just give me my hot dog, my night air, my girl, and a game. By Timothy J. Mullaney