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Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The flights of fantasy baseball

Seattle Times staff reporter

I'm standing in front of Jake Peavy in the San Diego Padres clubhouse, and I have questions.

I want to ask Peavy how a guy who had a 2.88 earned-run average last year is at 4.58. I want to find out why his WHIP has risen to 1.29 after a 1.04 season in 2005. I want to know how he justifies being a second-round pick.

I forgo those questions, of course, ignoring all the pain Peavy has caused my fantasy baseball team, and ask him if players hear from fans who play the game.

"Yeah, you hear it a lot," says Peavy. "I've heard some people say, 'You helped me win the league,' and give me a high-five."

These days, Peavy hears things like:

"Peavy, you're killin' me."

Or: "Peavy, your back OK from luggin' that ERA around?"

The ballplayer's set of onlookers has expanded in recent years, taking on the segment of fantasy-playing owners who are either (a) enthralled or (b) horrified by his performance. They often let him know.

"They'll yell stuff," says Mariners first baseman Richie Sexson. "Mostly, it's people behind the dugout.

"You mostly get it when you're going bad. They'd rather tell you when you're going bad than going good. It's just the nature of the fan."

Like ex-Mariners flourishing on other major-league teams, fantasy baseball seems to be everywhere.

Or maybe it's just the passion of the participants, which can be something approaching that of soccer fans.

Charlie Weigert, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, says there are an estimated 3.5 million to 4.5 million fantasy baseball players, second to the NFL's 9 million to 10 million. He puts the number of fantasy baseball leagues as high as half a million.

Football spawned the phenomenon more than three decades ago, but baseball, like Peavy this year, tends to be a more high-maintenance endeavor. A 2003 study by Weigert's organization found that fantasy baseball owners spend more time — about three hours a week — on their teams than those in other sports, spend more money on them, and are more likely to see a game in person.

In fact, it maintains the average fantasy baseball owner wastes, uh, invests 32 minutes a day thinking about his or her roster. Some of that, surely, is bound up in the pursuit of barking at Adrian Beltre for somehow going all the way to July 23 before he had a three-RBI day.

"Oh yeah, it'll be like, 'You're 0 for 3, I'm going to have to take you out of my lineup,' " says Ty Wigginton of Tampa Bay. "You don't know if they're being for-real or just saying that to try to get into your head."

"In my situation, they always say, 'I need a stolen base from you,' " says Devil Rays speedster Carl Crawford. "I hear it mostly when I'm running into the outfield, or when I'm standing on deck."

And how does he take that?

"I need it, too," Crawford says, laughing. "I'm like y'all."

Followers of America's pastime have been swelled by the ranks of fantasy geeks. Some people may be cheering for the Red Sox or Tigers or Mariners, but there are others more in tune with Manny Ramirez, Jeremy Bonderman or Raul Ibanez.

"I think fantasy baseball has been really good for the game," says Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "It's just brought people into the game that probably didn't pay attention before.

"I think people who always had a team still have a team, but I think people who maybe didn't follow the sport as much do more now than they did before."

So they get it — the encouragement, the ragging. They can get it anywhere.

"You get it all the time," says Royals outfielder Joey Gathright. "You get it on the street sometimes, same thing that you get in the stadium."

Gathright, whose fantasy value is primarily in steals, even hears urging to play defense.

" 'Rob somebody,' " Gathright says, echoing one cry he has heard. " 'Somebody big.' "

Players don't seem to mind the idea that it's their on-base percentage, saves or strikeouts that allow fantasy players to cash in.

"It doesn't bother me at all," says Peavy. "Hopefully, it's a good thing for baseball."

Sexson reacts similarly, even when, in a season in which his average and on-base numbers have lagged, he might hear a derisive "Thanks for this week."

"It's a joke," he shrugs. "It's not life or death. I've got more to worry about than somebody's fantasy team, unfortunately."

Other Mariners? Ichiro says nobody dogs him. Felix Hernandez, even at 20 figured for bigger numbers by fantasy mavens, says he doesn't hear anything (he will). Same for J.J. Putz, the closer with the bust-out numbers.

Now mention fantasy football, and Putz lights up. He's one of a considerable number of major-leaguers who take part in the fall-sport fantasy.

He'll tell you he was commissioner of a league in which eight Mariners took part last year ("I think we'll have about 12 this year," he says), that he's in three or four leagues total, and that he won the Mariners league a year ago. He can click off his roster as briskly as he recalled his pitch sequence when he struck out Barry Bonds to end a game in June.

"My team was good," Putz says. "I had Drew Brees, Torry Holt, Santana Moss, Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, the Seattle kicker [Josh Brown] and the Bears defense."

Says Baltimore's Roberts: "We have a league on our team. I didn't used to follow NFL football that much. Now I follow it quite a bit."

Winner of Baltimore's league last year? Why, Jason Grimsley, the pitcher whose revelation of steroid use rocked baseball this spring.

Peavy says "more than half" the Padres play fantasy football. Most of his colleagues say the once-a-week, offseason pace suits them, and that they're unaware of the mechanics of fantasy baseball.

That includes Sexson. As he spoke in the Mariners' clubhouse, Putz and pitcher Jarrod Washburn slid a couple of fantasy-football magazines across the carpet toward his cubicle.

"Football is the best one to do," Sexson said. "I don't know how they do baseball, as many games as you play. That's gotta be hard to do."

Sometimes, he has no idea how hard.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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