Living in a fantasy world isn't a bad thing

The Baltimore Sun

As I sat in my basement Monday afternoon, flipping through the year's first wave of real baseball offerings, a wonderful thought hit me.

I finally own enough fantasy teams that I have a player to root for at virtually any moment baseball is being played in this country.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays rookie Elijah Dukes launches a drive over the center-field wall at Yankee Stadium? No problem. He's the fifth outfielder on my new American League team.

Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez puts up four hits, four runs and two steals in his first four at-bats? Yippee. He's the best keeper on my long-standing National League franchise.

Curt Schilling can't contain the woeful Kansas City Royals? Yuck. He starts for my mixed league club.

From the surprising to the sublime to the ghastly, I felt I had a fantasy hand in virtually every one of Monday's 13 games. And for a degenerate baseball fan such as myself, that pretty much rules.

As you've probably gleaned by now, I don't have much constructive material to offer this week. After all those chunky preview columns, I feel like kicking back and letting the Opening Day euphoria continue.

My fantasy weekend started in less than spectacular fashion. I was supposed to drive to New York City on Friday to hang with my buddies before our big 40 Acres league auction the next morning. But an ear-throat infection relegated me to a doctor's visit instead. By the time I reached New York at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, I was so doped up on antibiotics and painkillers that I had no idea if I'd be able to parlay an excellent keeper list into another contending team.

Fortunately, I discovered that fantasy bidding is about as hardwired in my brain as my home address. When I'm losing my mind in 50 years, I think it's entirely possible that I'll have forgotten my wife's maiden name but will still know that I don't want to go more than $9 on Colorado's rookie catcher.

I mean I had to focus hard just to sign my name on the balls we distribute as prizes to previous league winners.

But I followed my draft plan pretty much to the letter, avoiding the temptation to pay insane prices for big bats such as Carlos Beltran, Miguel Cabrera and Jason Bay, and sticking to middle-class buys. My keepers - Ramirez, Rafael Furcal, Brian McCann, Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins - remained the brightest stars on my roster by the end of the day. But I surrounded them with solid starters at nearly every position, including favorite targets such as San Diego Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta and Florida outfielder Josh Willingham.

Post-draft projections pegged my offense as the winner in home runs, runs and RBIs, which is great, because power is often the hardest trait to bolster by working a thin waiver wire.

One thing that's been clear in all my auctions is that third base may be a deeper position than first. Many owners avoid the top stars at first with the understanding that cheap but effective alternatives are plentiful. But for those who haven't auctioned yet, I recommend either jumping on a first baseman early or filling your corner spot with a solid third baseman. You don't want to be left looking for two strong-hitting first basemen late in the bidding. There just aren't enough of them.

I may be short on starters, with only Derek Lowe, Anthony Reyes, Tom Glavine and Jeff Francis in place, but I can always trade for another one or rotate waiver pickups throughout the year. And I bought Roger Clemens in the reserve auction, so if he returns to the Houston Astros, he could bail out my staff for a second straight season. Pitching is so generally unpredictable that you can figure out some solution on the fly.

This league has been going for 15 years, so we're always debating ways to keep it fresh. Next year, we'll expand the rosters to a major league-equivalent 25 players and include a flex spot that could be used for an offensive player or a pitcher.

I'm not suggesting that to anyone else. But if there's something you don't like about your league - from statistical categories to roster composition to budget - just change it. Dealing with new strategic elements is fun. We even dreamed up an off-the-wall new league in which an owner could be a mini-George Steinbrenner, spending without a cap to win but paying for it with reduced profits.

Anyway, by the time the auction wrapped up after eight hours, I felt like tiny dwarves resided inside my right ear, pounding it with iron hammers. As my impossibly gracious spouse chauffeured me home, I took enough medication to fade into a drooling stupor. But I had gotten my auction in, by God. And come Monday, as the pain abated, I began to enjoy its fruits.

I really do love this game.

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