June 21, 2007


We Don’t Need No Stinking Baseball (BRYAN CURTIS, 6/03/07, NY Times Play)

The man most responsible is, of course, Daniel Okrent, a writer, editor and former public editor of The New York Times and, despite those vocations, one of the saner guys you’ll ever meet. In 1980, Okrent and 10 friends founded Rotisserie League Baseball, a game that allowed amateur general managers to draft a team of major league regulars and compete in eight statistical categories. (The categories have, of course, caused all sorts of controversy among statheads.) At season’s end, all but a few players — the so-called “keepers” — were released back into the pool for the next year’s draft, so that fantasy delivered what baseball never really did: a fresh start. Several of Rotisserie’s founding partners were media people, and during the 1981 players’ strike, sportswriters in desperate need of material began spreading the gospel of fantasy baseball. Okrent became a kind of yogi to the fantasy set. One afternoon, he spotted a mysterious stranger tailing him in the concourse at Yankee Stadium. “He followed me right into the restroom,” Okrent told me recently. “And then he started telling me about his team, about the trade he didn’t make.”

He was a prophet, that discombobulated stranger. Because what Okrent and his comrades could not foresee was how their creation would smack up against the zeitgeist like a Roger Clemens fastball thwacking a batter’s helmet. Fantasy baseball took hold just as baseball was entering a particularly gloomy period: two labor stoppages and a canceled World Series; rumors of juiced balls and steroids; a competitive imbalance between the large- and small-market teams; a continuous slippage in popularity versus professional football; and frequent intrusions by pariahs like Pete Rose, Marge Schott and Barry Bonds. Being a fan meant opening the morning newspaper to the latest bad news, a dreary buffet that The New Yorker’s Roger Angell once compared to “a dog’s breakfast.”

Had it appeared in happier times, fantasy baseball might have been mere entertainment like Strat-O-Matic Baseball. But over three decades, it has evolved to become a kind of psychological alternative to baseball, a full-fledged fantasy realm. In fantasy baseball, no one is held hostage by the whims and follies of the Lords of Baseball, as the sportswriter Dick Young used to call them, or the indiscretions of the players. You have the feeling of Steinbrenner-like control over the lineups, the rules, even the personnel of the league. If the pose of baseball fans has long been the helpless crouch, the alternate universe of fantasy baseball offers fans an illusory sense of empowerment.

Indeed, part of what makes fantasy so pleasurable is that it has taken the reptilian behavior of the owners and the commissioner and transferred it to the fan. If knucklehead owners like the Florida Marlins’ Jeffrey Loria want to offload key players every season, then the fantasy owner will do them one better, shedding all but a few keepers. If Major League Baseball maintains a caste system between the rich and poor teams, then fantasy players will simply pluck the best players from both. Bud Selig’s rueful ignorance of the human growth hormone coursing through the game is exceeded only by the fantasy player’s. In fantasy baseball, even Barry Bonds becomes an uncomplicated slugger, because in fantasy there is no such thing as a tainted record.

But what you see in the fantasy class is not blissful ignorance so much as a new hardheadedness, a sense that baseball is something to manipulate rather than be manipulated by. In 2004, Donald Levy, an intrepid sociologist at West Virginia Wesleyan College, went spelunking into the subconscious of nearly 1,200 fantasy baseball players. He found that they resembled the BlackBerry warriors in the box seats: 98 percent male, 94 percent white and 69 percent college-educated, with an average income of $90,000 per year. “The people in the fantasy world have been fighting this perception that they’re some geek in their parents’ basement still wearing a Little League uniform,” Levy told me. “This isn’t true. The most ardent fantasy participant is a professional.” These white-collar types, Levy said, preferred the label “owners,” to signify the control they had come to enjoy over the game.

Fantasy owners who packed their lineups with beloved favorites (I love you, Manny!) were deemed ineffectual, even effeminate. “A poor fantasy owner will be described in gendered terms,” Levy said. “He played like a woman, he let his emotions control him. He allowed his inner fan to make the decisions.”

...it's easy to make him your [prison-wife].

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2007 12:00 AM
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