Fantasy Baseball: Fun, Run Amok

April 19, 2015

I was thumbing through the April 13 issue of the New Yorker the other evening. I have a particular order with the New Yorker. First I read Tables for Two and Bar Tab. Always. Then I double back to Talk of the Town, hoping for a James Surowiecki column on an economics or behavior issue, or something by George Packer or Steve Coll. (My hopes are almost always met.) Only then do I read the articles.

So in the April 13 issue Dream Teams, about the rise of fantasy sports, caught my eye. I wrote briefly about my fantasy baseball experience in Stuff You Wonder About, and mentioned Daniel Okrent, the creator of the game, in Two-fer Talent. Dream Teams gave me a reason to revisit the topic.

I got close to fantasy baseball in the spring of 2004, I think. (No doubt about spring, but it might have been a year earlier.) I met with an attorney friend—now a law partner—and someone else, about a referral. The small talk was about their fantasy baseball league, getting started in the next week or so. “Can I get in?” “Full up,” one of them said, “but some of our guys are starting a new league.” Cool, I thought, until they said it was an American League production. (I grew up on the San Francisco Giants, just as my dad had been a New York Giants fan as a child.) “Tell them I’m in,” I declared, holding my thoughts about the second league!

I bought a bunch of magazines, studied the rules, and created spreadsheets. Off to the draft I went about a week later, so clueless that I couldn’t pronounce some players’ names. I got through the process, though, and was in first place two weeks later. I mentioned this fact to my stepbrother—long story; best descriptor—who wanted in, so I sold him half of the team. As partners we won the season, and were “in the money” for two more seasons. Seasons four and five were less kind, and then I pulled the plug.

We quit—well, I quit and that was it—because I was not getting pleasure commensurate with the effort. (Or, maybe, I was just a sore loser!) That said, the Dream Teams article resonated because the fantasy baseball experience left me with no interest at all in baseball, despite the immersive nature of owning a team. In having this sense I must have been channeling Mr. Okrent, who observed for the article that

In the first year or two you’re playing, you are much more engaged with baseball than you’ve been since you were seven years old. And then, by your fourth or fifth year, the actual game has lost meaning for you. You’re engaged in the numbers that the game spins out and engaged with millions of others in the same way. It has no relationship not just to the fan attachment that you may have had to a particular team but to the physical thing that’s taking place on the field.

Then, Mr. Okrent said:

When people say, ‘How do you feel, having invented this?’ I say, ‘I feel the way that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt having invented the atomic bomb.’ I really do. I mean, pretty terrible!

Ben McGrath, in Dream Teams, spends lots column inches on the development of fantasy sports. In particular, I was taken with “daily fantasy,” where players put together a one-day team. (Or, in one case, as many as 200 one-day teams, every day.) Nothing about that game suggests any interest in baseball. Simply, fantasy baseball has been taken over by corporations and gamblers, facilitated by the Internet, so that we have the equivalent of day trading on ballplayer performances. (For sure, there are still plenty of people who play like I did, and I find no fault with anyone who enjoys the experience.)

The fantasy baseball industry begs the question, “Is nothing sacred?” On the other hand, baseball teams are owned by billionaires, the players are millionaires, and attending a game requires a decent net worth. So it should not surprise anyone that a nice game, created by some friends to enhance their love for baseball, has become another business sector.

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