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They are the modern version of the office pool. Fantasy sports leagues are a way for the average fan to connect with teams and players in a competitive format. Drafting your "own team" of players and competing against friends or co-workers based on your athletes' performances makes you feel like a real general manager.

Winning that league takes a little luck. Your players have to play well and stay healthy and you've got to have the right lineup in place.
However, the real work takes place long before the season opener.

Never underestimate the importance of preparing for the draft. You can make trades and add players once the draft is over, but your team's core will come from your original picks. Whether it's baseball, basketball, football, racing or golf, it's important to know who the good fantasy performers are and who's GOING to be good.

Start by grabbing a reputable pre-season magazine off the bookstore shelf. Hopefully one that hasn't been sitting there since January. Check to see which ones are the latest published because they'll have the most up-to-date information. Don't think of them as the ultimate source of information, though. They'll just offer you a nice overview.

More importantly for baseball fantasy players, pick up the fantasy baseball guide published by Baseball Weekly late in March. It'll be an insert in their regular issue and gives you a good idea of which players will play where, have all of the spring training information available and even provide a guide to the best players at each position, ranked by value.

After that, you can do your research on the internet or via the local newspaper. It will provide the very latest info on which players seem to be "hot". Spring training doesn't mean a lot, but usually a player experts claim is due for a "breakout" year will show his stuff in spring training. Look for the leaders in Florida and Arizona and add that to your draft day strategy.

You should always have a ranking of your own on draft day, with an overall top 25 and the top 10 or 20 players at each position ranked so you'll be ready. Grab the "best available" player in the first couple of rounds, then start drafting some of the players who play positions where only a few players are solid performers. In baseball, catcher and second fit the bill. Try to grab one of the top 2 or 3 players at those positions. In football, wide receivers are usually plentiful. Quarterbacks and especially running backs, are not. In basketball, centers are at a premium.

After the draft, try not to panic early in the season. If your players aren't performing up to task in the first 3 weeks, hang in there if you feel you've got a good team. The season is long and slumps can come in April just as easily as in June. Football players sometimes take a week or two to click, but remember, it's a shorter season, so don't be afraid to scour the free agent list for talent if an unknown star or two emerges.

Information is vital throughout the season. Check the internet daily for player news. Injuries can decimate a fantasy team just as they can a real team. Check the big-time sites but also check the home newspapers for the teams your players represent. They'll have the best, most updated info available. If you're serious about contending you'll have to be armed with the same knowledge the general managers who are making trades for a living will have!