NEW YORK – As pro baseball players step up to the plate this season, legions of fantasy league players are working around the clock on their own virtual teams.
Fantasy sport leagues are a dedicated sect -- spending hours picking players, combing Web sites for stats, reading the papers and checking e-mail and pager alerts to stay on top of the sport 24-7.
"Beyond my family, which is obviously most important, this is the thing that I love," said Adam Berg, 35, a market research manager for a software company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
He has been playing fantasy baseball for 21 years and relishes in his routine: "During the season I spend about 40 minutes every morning checking stats online, then most of lunch time, then at night I watch Baseball Tonight, and go online to check stats and IM with friends in league," he said. "We trade players and talk trash."
The devotion to the diamond is relentless for some long-time fantasy baseball players, and that, according to one expert, can be as healthy as eating at the ballpark.
"Some people are wasting a huge amount of time doing this," said Dr. David Greenfield, a psychologist in West Hartford, Conn.
It's not playing fantasy baseball that is the issue, but how much time a player spends that needs to be looked at, said Greenfield, author of Virtual Addiction.
"If they are spending a couple minutes checking their team each day it's not a problem, but spending hours to exclusion of parenting, health, job and friends -- that's a problem."
Brian Kulok, 33, a league mate of Berg, said he is "extremely dedicated" to fantasy baseball and has been playing for 12 years.
"During my waking hours I either have a screen open with latest news, I have pager set up to get news like live scoring and player updates, I receive e-mail alerts, and I chat online with other people in league," he said.
The annual draft -- when league members choose which players they'll watch with baited breath all season -- is the most intense part of the process for many.
"When I'm preparing for the draft I spend a couple hours each night for weeks preparing," said John Halpin, 34, an interactive director in New York City. "The night before it's like I'm cramming for a final. I stay up 'til 3 a.m."
Kulok said that while his league is run online all the players meet in person for the draft. "We use our annual draft in March as an excuse to get together," he said. "We're all over the country now but we all make a point to get together no matter what."
Some players' actions speak louder than words to explain how far they go to stay in the game.
Kulok abandoned his then-fiancée during a shopping trip to attend the draft one year. Shopping -- for her engagement ring. "I told her I had to go because I had to go meet for the draft, so I left her at the jeweler, and she went home alone with her ring."
Fear of flying prompted a league mate of Berg's to go the extra mile to attend one draft. "He lives in D.C., and drove down to Florida and back just for the weekend," he said.
The line between having an interest and having an addiction can easily be crossed, warned Greenfield.
"The Internet gives you such instant feedback that it tends to be addictive," he said.
Halpin, a newlywed, hopes his wife will understand his fantasy love that's endured 16 years. "She's never lived with me while I prepare for the draft so she'll definitely think I'm weird. She's not a fan but we're working on it."
Berg spoke with confidence. "My wife knows I love this, I don't get insane with it," he said. "She knows this is my hobby and my daughter is too young to know."
This is classic male denial, Greenfield explained.
"I wouldn't automatically assume that your wife doesn't mind what you're doing because in many cases we don't ask them," he said. "Just because the spouse is silent doesn't mean they aren't bothered by it."
"We've created a new set of cyber widows," he said adding that not only are these fans watching sports a lot on the TV, many now are also online while in front of the tube.
"I'm always preoccupied with it, and my wife hates it," said Kulok. "Throughout the evening I’ll go back to the computer every hour for a check to see how my team is doing."
Greenfield advises spending less time with a virtual team and more with real people. "The quality in our lives in terms of joy we can get will not come from a computer," he said. "It will come from the time we spend with people we love."
But Kulok and others who've been in fantasy leagues for years say the game keeps them close and that's the best part of play.
"As I've gotten older, it's become more about the camaraderie with the guys," said Kulok. "It keeps us in touch. If it wasn't for fantasy baseball I probably wouldn't talk to half these guys anymore."