There is a danger in becoming too worshipful of athletes, of turning them into secular saints. When I was 10, my favorite athletes were Kirby Puckett, Magic Johnson, and anyone who played football for the Cornhuskers. Well, it turns out all of them could be, to some degree, lousy people. By 2003, when Kirby Puckett’s troubling history with women came to light, I was too old to be shocked. I had long since learned that athletes are human beings, just as capable of terrible (and wonderful!) things as the rest of us.
But there is a danger in going the opposite way, too, of becoming so cold and cynical that you dehumanize them, that you see them as avatars for whatever you’re working through in your own life. Or that you see them as a gambler does, as means to a financial end.
Which brings me to fantasy baseball.
Sometime toward the end of elementary school, a friend of my father’s taught me about something called rotisserie baseball.* It was a wild concept, where you “drafted” a “team” of real-life players, and whoever’s team had the best statistics won the season. (Wonder if it ever caught on…?) What’s now more commonly called fantasy baseball was born in a rotisserie chicken joint, invented by the writer Daniel Okrent and some similarly nerdy friends. (I would later work at the Times while Okrent was the public editor; regrettably, I never dropped him a line asking him to help manage my team. Maybe it’s better I didn’t, since he later said he “feels like J. Oppenheimer, having invented the atomic bomb.”)
*--At some point in the future, when I was still a kid, I repaid the favor by telling his daughter about Jeffrey Dahmer, apparently giving her nightmares for a week. Her dad, and therefore my dad, wasn’t real thrilled when he found that out.
I convinced my friends to play, which I suppose wasn’t that hard since we were already baseball nerds. We kept score manually. Every Wednesday—and once a year on Thursday, after the All-Star Break—we would go to the local convenience store (conveniently named Convenient) to buy sodas and the late, great Baseball Weekly, which included the magical stat WHIP that wasn’t in the Omaha World-Herald. (I think I manually calculated that before discovering BW.) It was a great time suck.
It proved harder to keep up the hobby during high school, when it had to compete with homework, extracurriculars, having a job, learning to talk to girls, cultivating and projecting an image of cool, that sort of thing. I followed baseball less and less, and by the time I graduated college, I was hardly keeping up with baseball at all.
And that’s when my friend Rick read Moneyball.
We had moved to New York City, in pursuit of what I still don’t know. Unlike Omaha, where I grew up, or Columbia, Missouri, where I went to school, New York is a baseball town. Even people who couldn’t tell you how many balls are in a walk know how the Yankees are doing. Deep down, every New Yorker loves the Mets because they’re like the Yankees’ ne’er-do-well kid brother, except they occasionally do well and it’s the most wonderful thing. Back then, you could go to Shea and catch a game for 5 bucks, sit in the upper deck with fans who would scream “Jose” (as in Reyes) to the tune of “Ole.” (Shea back then was home to some dogshit teams, but the stadium would still be rocking when Reyes came to the plate.) It was easy to get swept up in it.
And then Rick read Moneyball, which meant that I would read Moneyball. It appealed to my sensibilities because it wasn’t so much about the game of baseball, but the game of the game of baseball. As everyone knows now, it was about finding market inefficiencies, sure, but it was also about the little guy, the underdog, about David defeating Goliath not with a slingshot but with a spreadsheet. It didn’t hurt that in those years, Goliath was the Yankees. And everyone with a soul hates the Yankees.
So we started following baseball again and someone, I think Rick, had the brilliant idea that we should start a fantasy league. And by 2004, nothing could’ve been easier than starting a fantasy league. We pooled together our friends, and thanks in part to my state of semi-employment, I dominated. It was addictive, and I’ve played every year since, going from that casual redraft league to a more intense, deep-roster keeper league. I’ve spent a ton of time and energy crunching my own spreadsheets, obsessively tracking big league roster moves, reading the Baseball Prospectus annual front-to-back in hopes of discovering the next great prospect, or a player who has somehow gone undervalued. I have kept my calendar open in March every year so I can prep for the draft. I have traveled just for the sake of attending a draft. I’ve been on vacation, sitting in the immaculate Piazza del Popolo in Rome, and opened my phone to check in on my fantasy team. I’ve got up early, stayed up late, spent mornings at a coffee shop instead of at home with my kid, all to try and win at a game that fundamentally is out of my control*. Over 12 years, I think the fruit of all that effort is a net gain from the countless hours of effort is maybe 200 bucks. (Hey, at least I didn’t have to track the stats by hand.)
*-At least it’s not fantasy football, which I played for a few seasons, and which seems completely random to me. Going from the daily grind of fantasy baseball schedule to the weekly slog of fantasy football was like going from playing Texas Hold-’em to playing War, from three-dimensional chess to checkers.
But I’m not in it for the money. And my own low hourly wage isn’t the only reason I’ve considered quitting. For one, there’s the classic issue of who to root for when, say, my beloved Twins are facing off against a pitcher for my fantasy team. (I ultimately root for the Twins to win a low scoring game, ideally with unearned runs.) And then there’s something Chuck Klosterman wrote in a Grantland piece a few years ago: It’s pretty damn dehumanizing.
Think about it. Every year, I attend an “auction,” where I “bid” on human beings I will then “own” (and potentially “trade”). I scout based on my own “prospectus,” where I chart what the players are worth. We look for “studs.” It’s the lexicon of a cattle auction, or worse, a slave auction. It’s troubling, and every fantasy leaguer runs the risk of dehumanizing the players who fuel our game, thinking of them as numbers on a spreadsheet rather than real-life flesh and blood.
So why do I ultimately play? Well, there’s the camaraderie, of course, the chance to bullshit with my fellow nerds. There’s the incentive to watch teams I wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and to watch games that wouldn’t otherwise matter. Fantasy baseball deeply appeals to my competitive nature, especially since it’s something I can do all by myself. (Related: I was pretty much raised as an only child.) And more than anything, it’s deepened my love of the game itself. I’ve learned the difference between a two-seamer and a four-seamer, learned why certain prospects are more prized than others, learned to watch the game and appreciate it on a truer level. I’ve come to a point where I love baseball first, and love fantasy baseball second, which is the way it should be.