By John Helyar
It is easy to mistake Andrew Kaufmann for a normal grown-up. At 29, he is president of a family business that manufactures and imports marine survival equipment. He moved the company from New Jersey to Florida to gain a strategic advantage, and he has doubled its sales.

But Kaufmann also pours his energies into what some might term a secret life. When he comes home at night, his wife, Farah, dutifully inquires about work, but she knows what's really on his mind. "How's Tu La Man doing?" she always asks. That's the name of his fantasy baseball team.

Andrew Kaufmann is a normal grown-up, at least in the sense that he's one of 15 million Americans who play in fantasy leagues, many of the competitively crazed sort he has won two of the past three years. The big payoff isn't as much the modest cash ($2,700 last year) as the rich satisfaction of besting a league full of fanatics who also happen to be his best friends. Even selling a raft full of lifeboats pales beside that stealth deal for Johan Santana last Aug. 31, which Kaufmann waited until one minute before the league's trading deadline to announce. The sly move totally hosed his chief competitor, and great friend, Dave Kerpen. With no time for a countermove, Kerpen was reduced to a one-word concession on the league's message board one minute after the deadline: "Brilliant."

Kaufmann still cackles about that one, even as he works on strategizes for this season's trading deadline on Thursday. Hmmm, how to handle the Carlos Beltran Silent Auction? One of the also-rans has announced he'll take the best offer of "kick-ass" starter and decent reliever for the Mets outfielder that day. Tu La Man is running neck and neck for the league lead with a club called Freaks & K. It's owned by New York anesthesiologist Kevin Anannab, who for the moment has gone from being the best man at Kaufmann's wedding to Dr. Evil. Kaufmann will do anything to thwart his good friend Kev, including a recent blockbuster deal designed to be a Freaks-buster. Kaufmann traded Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and some throw-ins for Phillies bashers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Already the league leader in steals, Kaufmann wanted to upgrade his power. Also, he just can't help it -- the man's a compulsive trader. Only three of the 28 active players on Tu La Man's Opening Day roster remain on the team in August.

How does he balance his fantasy life and his busy real life? Kaufmann plays what you might call "small ball," plotting and making moves at odd times throughout each day. At 4 a.m., he heats up his infant son's bottle for a feeding and powers up his home computer to check the West Coast games. At 7:30 a.m., before leaving for work, he checks RotoWire.com for player injuries and other news. At 10 a.m., he goes to his league's Web site, to check the standings, see how Tu La Man is running in the 10 statistical categories, mull strategic adjustments and check his competitors' latest moves.

Each of the 12 teams has 28 active players and 12 reserves, with most owners operating rapidly revolving doors of players being activated and deactivated. Any player not on a roster is eligible to be claimed off the "waiver wire." Nobody in the league works that bargain bin with as much savvy or speed as Kaufmann — well, except for the day last month when his first child was born. "I missed out on Shin-Soo Choo," he says, referring to a hot Korean outfielder prospect the Indians acquired and elevated from the minors that day. "I got there an hour late." Sawyer's arrival, he hastens to add, more than made up for the Choo mishap.

By late afternoon, Kaufmann is checking the first Web site to post that evening's lineups. (Sorry, its identity is a trade secret.) He deactivates his players who aren't starting that night and pays a $2 "rush" fee to activate those who are. By that time of day, Kaufmann's e-mail inbox will be an odd mix of messages from customers and postings from the league message board, automatically forwarded to his account. He also will have traded any number of e-mails and calls with other owners, offering superbly crafted arguments on why trades with Tu La Man would be in their best interests. "He just keeps after you until you'll talk deal with him," Kerpen says.

Then Kaufmann heads home where, after breaking for dinner and giving the baby a bath, his artful multitasking continues. If Farah asks him to adjust the temperature, he sneaks a peak at his computer near the thermostat. The league Web site gives him real-time updates on how each Tu La Man player is doing. If Farah wants to watch a movie, he excuses himself with Sawyer and hopscotches around the video stream of games on mlb.com. "I feel this is his second job," Farah says, "only he doesn't get weekends off."

To Farah, who grew up in India, fantasy baseball is just another mystifying aspect of America. Although sports obsession knows no boundaries — her father and brother back home are absolute cricket freaks, staying up until all hours and paying lots of money to watch it on TV — she isn't aware of fantasy leagues there. Yet Farah is highly supportive of her husband, at least so far. For one thing, Kaufmann promises to give her half his winnings … and to care for Sawyer while she enjoys a shopping spree.

More than that, she has seen how important this is to him. Sure, it's annoying when they're out to dinner and Kerpen calls three times or when Anannab visits and the conversation is 95 percent baseball. But Farah has seen America's rootlessness. The couple is making a new life in a new city, Jacksonville, Fla. She knows it's not baseball alone that's Kaufmann's lifeblood but, perhaps more vitally, the company of his brothers in baseball. "You can forget yourself and forget your identity; I don't want him to quit," she says. That, and, "I want him to beat Kevin."

For once, it's really not about the money
Roto gurus have "expert leagues" that would dwarf the TK Fantasy League. Kaufmann's $2,700 is a pittance compared with the $100,000 paid out for the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (which Kaufmann and Kerpen took a shot at this year; more about that later). Everybody has heard stories about fantasy leagues destroyed by threats of lawsuits and maiming. Although the TK guys can get excitable at times, they have yet to indicate the need for soothing psychotropic medication.

No, the real reason for focusing on the TK Fantasy League is because this 10-year-old circuit is a splendid case study in why so many millions of Americans pour countless hours, dollars and infinite passion into fantasy leagues. "This is about the ubiquity and consumption of sports and how they facilitate men's relationships," says Don Levy, a sociologist whose doctoral dissertation analyzed baseball fantasy leagues, and who, in the name of research, joined 17 of them. According to the professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, the fantasy league phenomenon is about people who are white (94 percent), male (98 percent) and middle-class. Levy's survey of 1,200 fantasy leaguers found 73 percent had annual incomes of at least $50,000 a year, compared with the overall population's 42 percent.

Levy's respondents also reported averaging 87 minutes a day thinking about their fantasy teams, although their wives might have provided a different estimate. These men, average age 35, grew up at a time when sports soared into a national obsession and Elks lodges went into deep decline. Fantasy leagues are really ad hoc fraternal orders.

"For white, middle-class boys, being a big consumer of sports and knowing the language of sports is widely valued," Levy says. "Then, when these people grow up to be professional managers, a certain level of analytical and predictive ability is highly valued. A fantasy league marries the two and satisfies a man's constant quest to demonstrate he's smarter than the other guy. Out of all that kidding about who's got the best second baseman often comes a community."

For the owners of the TK Fantasy League, the name of the game is continuity. It began in a Boston University dorm room in 1997, when founders Tad Bruneau and Kevin Aeschlimann (the "T" and "K" in the league's moniker) invited four other undergrads to participate in their first draft. It was all so rudimentary that they took turns consulting and passing around the one fantasy magazine they collectively owned. After the first two years, Bruneau and Aeschlimann grew tired of dominating their league, recruited tougher competition and expanded it. Kerpen, Kaufmann and Anannab arrived for the second wave of development.

Right on schedule, league members graduated and scattered geographically. Aeschlimann moved to Los Angeles to work for Fox, where he became known as "Kev L.A.." Anannab became "Kev New York." The last fully face-to-face draft, complete with Wiffle Ball tournament and after-party, took place in 2001. Then this virtually became a virtual league. As careers and lives became serious, as league members began to transition from 20-somethings to 30-somethings, the odds were slim that a cyberspace competition between imaginary teams with silly names could survive. Yet despite their many competing obligations — or maybe because of them — the bonds and demands of the TK Fantasy League have only intensified.

"I'm a very competitive person and a risk taker," says Kerpen, who amply displayed both qualities as a contestant on one of the all-time cheesy Fox reality show, "Paradise Hotel." (For those "Paradise Hotel" aficionados keeping score at home, Kerpen got his allotted 15 minutes of fame, although, sadly, not a nickel of winnings. Not only that but also his Brooklyn Metropolitans plummeted from second to sixth place during his three-month stint on the show, after he'd placed them in a blind trust with a friend who wasn't particularly skilled.) "But now, I'm a father and an adult, and I've got to scale back," Kerpen says. "Fantasy baseball is an outlet without being a life-and-death proposition. It keeps me in touch and keeps me competing with my friends."

The league also has forged strong ties among owners who didn't even know each other. Kerpen barely knew Kaufmann, a fellow Radio Disney ad salesman in Boston, before inviting him to join TK. Kaufmann had never met another Kerpen recruit, Kev New York, who would go on to become Kaufmann's housemate, confidant and best man. Kaufmann and Kev L.A. have met only three or four times, but they constantly exchange e-mails and consider each other good friends.

Tech geeks and baseball nerds can live in harmony
Some TK League owners seem equally tech geek and baseball nerd. To be competitive, they variously employ PDAs, e-mail alerts and fully loaded cell phones to make player moves and receive player news and real-time stats 24/7. There's an enormous amount of data to sift and decisions to make for an owner to be competitive. And being competitive is the primary prerequisite of continued membership in the league. "The one unforgivable sin, is not paying attention to your team," Kerpen says.

The TK League evolved by natural selection as it added new owners. Those with the requisite intensity stuck. That's how the level of sophistication and hypercaffeination steadily grew. Kerpen, a natural-born organizer and salesman (he set FleetCenter sales records while working his way through school as a Crunch 'n Munch! vendor), recruited a bunch of the keepers, including Kaufmann and Kev New York.

He didn't always score, however. Witness the tale of his one-time vendor colleague Billy Pop. That wasn't the fellow's real name, of course, but that's how everyone knew him and that's what he'll remain here to protect his good name as an officer of the court. Everybody liked Kerpen's friend, who had a Boston accent thick as clam chowder and would arrive at Saturday morning drafts bearing a six-pack. The problem was what happened after the draft — nothing. He'd let his team idly drift through the season, stirring only to make bonehead trades such as the one that's still a league legend: Jason Giambi and Jeff Kent, then their respective leagues' reigning MVPs, for a sub-.500 Kerry Wood. Pop went Billy, jettisoned from the league.

No, the way to go from suspect newbie to full-fledged player was to advance the state of the art. Develop an innovation others had to admire, even emulate. Kaufmann's reputation was made on the final day of his first season in 2001. He was tied with Kerpen for third place. Whoever prevailed would be "in the money," winning $600. Kaufmann had two starting pitchers going: Brad Radke in an early game, Brian Lawrence later. Radke pitched a gem. Kaufmann calculated that Radke's efforts would improve his team's WHIP and ERA enough to edge him past Kerpen in those categories. He believed Lawrence could only hurt his numbers, so he deactivated him. It was like shorting a stock, and it paid off. Lawrence was shelled; Tu La Man finished third and took the cash; Kerpen came away empty and howled. Nobody had ever done situational activations and deactivations. They would now.

Kev New York established himself as a player by pushing the envelope much further, as with his novel "no starters" strategy. In 2004, he loaded up with ace relievers, believing they'd be superior enough in WHIP and ERA to offset getting no wins or strikeouts from starters. Oh, his team had starting pitchers all right, but whenever one was scheduled to pitch, he'd be deactivated. This worked well enough to land Kev New York third place -- and to enjoin him, by a new league rule, from ever doing it again. But that, together with his penchant for opportunistically moving other players on and off the bench — Reserve catcher starting in Colorado tonight? Activate him! — stampeded most of the other owners into doing so, as well.

These were, after all, red-blooded, brimming-with-testosterone American males. They couldn't cede any competitive advantage, even a dubious one. As with stock market day traders, their moves' failure rate was high, as were their transaction costs. For an owner to make a player move costs $1 and requires a two-day wait to become effective. An owner making a same-day "rush move" must put $2 in the kitty. Thus did both the league's pace and stakes keep ratcheting up. In 2003, the winners' cash pool — comprising each team's $100 entry fee, plus transaction fees — was $3,500. This year, it's already more than $6,000.

Kev New York was still king of the rush move, racking up a record $662 in transaction fees last year. "They call me our George Steinbrenner," he says. "My feeling is that you should never let a finance charge stand in the way of a good decision." His legend was only burnished by how he often did TK League business between patient engagements during his anesthesiology residency.

This year, the East Coast doctor has a West Coast partner who plays his fantasy ball out of a Buddhist retreat. That would be Danny Morgenbesser, one of the league's foremost characters. He once tried to make his Alvadore Freaks into an all-Venezuelan team. He has a weakness for players with funky names. (The Astros' Wandy Rodriguez is a current favorite.) Yet Morgenbesser also has been a formidable owner, with league-leading knowledge of the minors and an ability to pluck phenoms for his team just before their call-ups to The Show. He was league champion in 2002. He thought he'd have to drop out of the TK League when he moved to a Buddhist retreat in remote Northern California. It presented many logistical and spiritual difficulties. But Kev New York wouldn't hear of it. He made Morgenbesser a partner in his team, now called Freaks & K. This is a league that values owners who are not just players but characters, too.

A shared history that binds, like it or not
With each passing year, the league's accrued history binds its owners together as surely as the fiber-optic wires connecting them. Its greatest legends often involve dustups, like the Goldman brothers' great trade controversy of 2002. Tom and Rich were newcomers to the league, owning the Rolling MonkeyWards and the Rope-a-Dope, respectively. In July, Tom's team was running strong while Rich's was languishing in last. When Rich traded Ichiro Suzuki to his brother's team for two second-tier Red Sox players, the other owners sent up howls of "collusion." Rich Goldman's bleatings about being a big Sox fan and wanting more Boston players on the Rope-a-Dope did no good — if anything, the opposite. In serious fantasy leagues, you're supposed to be loyal to no team but your own. By league vote, the trade was voided. Tom Goldman temporarily altered his team logo to show his signature monkey giving the league the finger.

It thus mattered a whole lot more to him than it should have, come 2003, when the Rolling MonkeyWards came down the stretch neck-and-neck for first place with the Golden Hill Orioles. That was the team of Tad Bruneau, who was a good friend and who'd invited him into the league. Bruneau was, by now, also a mortal enemy — part of the TK establishment who looked down on newbies. On the last day of the 2003 season, the league's co-founder made a rookie mistake. Bruneau meant to activate Andy Benes, who was starting that day. Instead, he forgot and went to a San Diego Chargers game. With the benefit of Benes' five scoreless innings, he would have won the title. Without them, he lost to Goldman. On the league Web site, the TK Fantasy League champion fantasized a Rolling MonkeyWards' victory celebration: "I'm gonna get 3 hookers tonight!" shouted MVP Jeff Kent from atop a new Harley purchased with his championship incentive money.

Stories like Goldman's were another way the TK Leaguers would try to one-up one another — with humor. They would post fake news items about their teams and, since only one at a time could be posted, each new one knocked off the last. Gotcha! My ups! Each story is also subject to an informal yuk-o-meter: hilarious or lame? Conspiracy!!!! screamed the headline of the August 2004 dispatch from Kev L.A., bemoaning his pitching: There are many theories floating around the Los Angeles area among fans of the West Coast Mets. Theories such as "Who is that Alien that has taken over Mark Prior's body?" and "Only the work of the devil can continually tempt Kevin with Shawn Estes' 7-1 record at Coors with a 6.31 ERA." Conspiracy theorists got a major boost in their pleas yesterday when Tom Glavine was scratched from his Wednesday start after losing his front two teeth in an accident while riding in a cab. "I'd like to know who was driving that cab and who paid him and how much. I bet it was the [Filthies], dirty bunch of scheming scoundrels," said longtime West Coast Mets fan Dirk McGirt of Van Nuys.

The Filthy Sea-Dogs, are owned by Greg Ruby Jr., aka Rube, who has earned his spurs as both player (the 2004 league champ) and character (the bull in a china shop). The TK Leaguers are basically white-collar guys, including a doctor, an occupational therapist, a computer programmer and various kinds of entrepreneurs. Tom Goldman folded his Rolling MonkeyWards this year to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology.

Rube, on the other hand, is a gruff ex-Marine who joined the league early because he knew fellow Maine native Bruneau. He's cut from a far rougher cloth than the others. His creatively spelled and punctuated message board entries are known as "Rubephonics." He regularly berates other owners for rejecting lowball trade offers and accuses them of conspiracies. There was the time Kerpen released Damian Easley and Kerpen's brother Phil claimed the second baseman 15 minutes later. Rube, who was competing with Phil's Washington Expos team in the standings and purportedly coveted Easley, went crazy. Nobody's sure whether that's where his lively, long-running feud with Phil started or whether it's their profound stylistic differences: one a Maine electrician, the other a buttoned-down Washington economic analyst. But it's another one of those elements that keeps things lively.

"The wonderful thing isn't just the competition but the variety of characters," Dave Kerpen says. "As crazy and annoying as the league can be, it's really magical."

Kerpen said that in March at the draft of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Flush with their winnings from a one-two finish in the TK League in 2005, he and Andy Kaufmann had decided to also play the high-stakes circuit this year. The NFBC is composed of 330 players divided into 22 leagues of 15 teams. A participant antes up $1,250 — more than 10 times the TK League's entry fee — in hopes of winning his league and $5,000. There's also an Ultra-level league, which costs $5,000 to enter and pays off $40,000. Then there's the grand prize for the player with the most points in all the NFBC leagues: $100,000. Kerpen and Kaufmann were just cocky enough to have pooled $6,250 to enter both the regular and Ultra leagues.

The NFBC tells you a lot about how the fantasy league phenomenon has evolved. It's put on by Krause Publishing, a producer of fantasy magazines. That segment has become so crowded that it now takes a $100,000 jackpot gimmick to stand out. It's a magnet not only for ambitious fantasy players but also for assorted commercial interests .

At the Tampa hotel where Kaufmann and Kerpen were drafting, a Roto guru presented a two-day, $179-a-head draft seminar before the NFBC. The ballroom draft site was draped with banners for MVP Sportsbook, an online gambling site and NFBC sponsor. Roto sites backed some entrants, hoping to parlay high finishes into marketing points. The NFBC isn't an exercise in fantasy but a reflection of stark reality. This is a $1 billion industry that includes leagues like TK and thousands of Internet-hosted circuits with anonymous, unconnected competitors.

The NFBC is a sort of Woodstock for the fantasy fanatic who is usually isolated in cyberspace, maintains Greg Ambrosius, editor of Krause's Fantasy Sports magazine. "I wanted to get people together and look each other in the eyes," he says. "I think some great friendships have been formed in the three years we've been doing this."

To a first-time observer, the NFBC draft appeared to be an assemblage of total strangers sitting around three horseshoe-shaped tables, picking their teams and sharing little in common besides the means to pony up $1,250. This ballroom seemed more like a Las Vegas casino — which, as it happens, is where the biggest of the four NFBC draft sites was located.

Kerpen and Kaufmann were noticeable because they seemed to be the only ones having a marvelous time. They preceded their third-round pick of Colorado outfielder Matt Holliday by belting out the old Madonna song "Holiday." They preceded their 21st-round pick with the following exchange: "So?" said Kerpen. "So?" said Kaufmann. And then together: "Seo!" Not exactly Abbott and Costello, but still pretty sprightly for the selection of pitcher Jae Seo.

The next day's Ultra draft was conducted by conference call, patching in other participants in their 15-team league from three other NFBC locales. Kerpen and Kaufmann were in a hotel conference room with the one other Tampa entrant, a Texan with whom they didn't get really well acquainted. He had a cell phone to his ear all afternoon, chatting with a distant partner who was consulting with an all-knowing computer about his picks.

The TK Leaguers, meanwhile, drafted to their own idiosyncratic rhythms. They ran counter to conventional Roto wisdom by loading up on pitching early — Santana and Pedro Martinez in the first and fourth rounds. And they ruffled the feathers of some other drafters by continuing to whoop it up. Before picking any Mets players, these inveterate Mets fans grabbed a David Wright replica bat, assumed a stance and made a theatrical announcement: Come on down, Cliff Floyd! Over the speakerphone, from another city, a grumpy voice advised them at one point to pipe down. "For $5,000, we're going to have fun," Kaufmann retorted. "We'll chatter $5,000 worth."

Chasing $100,000 can be overrated
Five months later, it hasn't been much fun. Their team, Tu La Daddies, has done OK, ranking as high as 12th among the 330 entrants in the chase for the $100,000 jackpot and currently running first in the lower-ante league. But the NFBC prohibits trades and allows just weekly roster moves and as for the league message board … there's barely a pulse. Kerpen and Kaufmann are contemplating returning at the lower-ante level because a $5,000 payoff on a $1,250 investment ain't bad in any league. But forget the Ultra, Kerpen says: "It feels too much like gambling."

It has been another memorable season in the TK League, including a splendid controversy involving a trade between Rube and Dave Kerpen. (Rube's sweet deal for Todd Helton soured when he belatedly learned the first baseman was on the DL.) This inevitably deteriorated into vitriolic name-calling between Rube and Phil Kerpen, who jumped into the message board fray on his brother's behalf.

An impact newcomer named Sean Fleischman has shown a proclivity for player moves that makes even Kev New York seem like a piker. His Connecticut Yankees have already doubled the old season record for transactions of $662. The charge for rush activations is now known as the "Sean fee." The surest sign the rook has been accepted as a player: being mocked by a fake news story. It was an account of a post-game rant by Mets pitcher Pedro Feliciano, purportedly insulted at being the one reliever not claimed this year by the Connecticut Yankees. "That [guy] has signed about 35 relievers and rushed them all. I have a 2.03 ERA, and this guy will sign anyone but me. What's he got against me?"

Kaufmann brought in Fleischman, a customer of his company, and worries he has created a monster. Fleischman isn't yet challenging Tu La Man in the standings, but he's challenging the new father's ability to keep up with the brisker pace being set. Recently, Kaufmann even proposed the league cut back to weekly waiver-wire transactions — but was voted down. He even has talked of retiring from the league after this season. But judging by the six-player deal he pulled off during Sawyer's 4 a.m. feeding earlier this week, he still hasn't really lost a step. In any event, nobody in the league believes he'll actually hang it up.

One other event helped make for a memorable 2006 season: Kerpen's July 8 wedding. The ceremony followed a Brooklyn Cyclones game and came off with a lot more dignity than you'd expect from nuptials at a ballpark near Coney Island. The groomsmen wore tuxedos and stood along the third-base line. Half of them were members of the TK League: Kev New York, Bruneau, Morgenbesser, Phil Kerpen. Kaufmann would have been there, too, except for his baby's arrival two days before. They were happy for Dave and gleeful for this rare in-person reunion.

The wedding was but a brief respite from talking trade, talking trash, talking baseball, talking of the legends of their league. They had a feeling a new one was in the making when Kerpen uttered his most solemn promise: "I vow to treat you with as much attention during the baseball season as the offseason." Nobody believed that one, either.

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at jhelyar@gmail.com.

Gary Bogdon for ESPN.com
Farah Kaufmann, who grew up in India, is highly supportive of her husband's fantasy league obsession -- so far.

Gary Bogdon for ESPN.com
Andrew Kaufmann often checks on his fantasy league at 4 a.m. when he gets up to feed his son.

Gary Bogdon for ESPN.com
The TK Fantasy League began in a Boston University dorm room in 1997, when founders Tad Bruneau and Kevin Aeschlimann (the "T" and "K" in the league's moniker) invited four other undergrads to participate.

Mike Ehrmann for ESPN.com
Dave Kerpen allowed a friend to run his team while he appeared on the Fox reality show "Paradise Hotel."

Mark Peterson/Redux
What better way to relax before your baseball-themed wedding than at a game? Danny Morgenbesser (left), Tad Bruneau, Dave Kerpen and brother Phil Kerpen relax.

Mark Peterson/Redux
TK Fantasy League, members Greg Ruby Jr. (left), Tad Bruneau, Phil Kerpen, Danny Morgenbesser and Kevin Aeschlimann enjoy a rare in-person gathering in the bleachers of Keyspan Park in Brooklyn. Trade talk and trash talk ensued.

Mark Peterson/Redux
Groomsmen Danny Morgenbesser (left), Kevin Anannab, Tad Bruneau and Phil Kerpen warm up for the wedding.

Mark Peterson/Redux
Dave Kerpen and bride Carrie Fisher are flanked by an honor guard of Brooklyn Cyclones.