WARNING: This column is about obsession. It is also about using the personal computer to pursue a late-night hobby so addictive (and so stupid, some would say) that thousands of otherwise normal people are willing to risk friendships, jobs and even marriages to pursue it.
The hobby is fantasy baseball on the Prodigy computer network.
In its most benign manifestation, Prodigy Baseball Manager is an opportunity for armchair managers to assemble and manipulate a dream team of major-league athletes for a summer of fun.
Would-be managers from across the continental United States can pit their teams against others in a computer-network league that uses real-life statistics, from the previous night's Major League Baseball games, to determine the outcome of their fantasy contests.
For example, Roberto Kelly, a star outfielder for the New York Yankees, is scheduled to play tomorrow night against the Seattle Mariners. But he also will be playing for the Silicon Gulch Rattlesnakes of the Bayville League, one of more than 200 Prodigy leagues.
If Mr. Kelly hits a home run for the Yankees, the ball will also sail over the fence and into the cornfields of the "Field of D-RAMs," the imaginary home park of the Rattlesnakes.
Each night, after the real major-league games have been played, statistics are gathered and new games are "played" in Prodigy's mainframe and personal computers in White Plains, N.Y. The computers keep track of hundreds of leagues, thousands of teams and tens of thousands of statistics each night.
When the Rattlesnakes' manager connects his computer to the Prodigy network Wednesday morning, a mock newspaper might fill his computer screen with the news: "Kelly's Slam Powers Snakes Past Dirty Sox, 7-0."
Some managers may prefer to sit back and let the computer manage their team.
Other managers may prefer to tinker with lineups and pitching rotations, pursue free agents and trades, scour the box scores and injury reports each morning and send scurrilous notes to other fantasy managers throughout the country.
That's Prodigy Baseball Manager at its best. At its worst, Prodigy baseball can cause an obsessed manager to blurt out to complete strangers: "I just paid $1.62 million for Ozzie Guillen and now he's out for the rest of the season. Waaaaaahh."
It's true. I am that man. I apologize to the woman in the post office the other morning who simply asked "How are you?"
Like their counterparts in the broader Rotisserie League network of baseball gamers, the Prodigy Baseball Managers are a distinct subset of American culture.
According to the newspaper Baseball Weekly, more than two million Americans play Rotisserie League baseball. Ninety-nine percent are male. Most of the players depend on computer services to keep track of the statistics that a full season of fantasy baseball games can generate.
Prodigy Baseball Manager differs from Rotisserie in several ways, including a relatively high share of women and young managers. Gambling and profanity are not allowed.
A personal computer equipped with a modem is an integral part of the game; you cannot play without one. Leagues are formed,
teams are named, players are scouted, budgets are set (everybody starts with an imaginary budget of $18 million), players are drafted, lineups are formed, results are checked, trades are offered and insults are exchanged via electronic mail, all from the computer keyboard.
In contrast to the $100 million or so it can take to buy a controlling interest in a major-league team, a Prodigy Baseball Manager team can be had for $119.95, for as many as 162 games, or $59.95, for a shortened 54-game "lightning" season.
The Baseball Manager fee is in addition to the regular cost of a Prodigy membership. Unlike other computer network services, which charge by the minute, Prodigy costs a flat annual fee of $119.40 a year for unlimited access, or $12.95 a month if paid monthly.
Prodigy has local access numbers in hundreds of cities, which means there are few long-distance toll charges. The regular Prodigy membership provides separate identification numbers for as many as six household members.
One of the most fanatical managers turns out to be the rock star Meat Loaf, who managed seven teams last year by long-distance telephone from Australia, where he was on tour. He is managing eight teams this year. Some major-league players are said to be managers as well.
The biggest drawback of the Prodigy is its speed, or lack thereof. People accustomed to using other online information services, like Compuserve or Dow Jones,will be frustrated by the long delays as Prodigy moves from screen to screen.
Another drawback is the 25-cent fee assessed for each E-mail message beyond 25 each month. On the bright side, the long delays provide an opportunity to scan the morning's box scores and ponder possible trades.
By the way, does anyone have a spare shortstop who bats left-handed?
Prodigy Services Co. of White Plains, N.Y., a joint venture of IBM and Sears, Roebuck & Co., can be reached by phoning (800) 776-0840.