Having a Ball

Yankees, shmankees. My fantasy baseball team, the Capitol Punishers, finished in first place for the second straight year. You wanna talk dynasty?

December 1999By Comments

SIGH. The Yankees won another World Series, an outcome that until recently would have ruined the baseball season for me, as it has ruined so many in the past. Not anymore. My favorite team, you see, had a great year too, with Craig Biggio leading them to a championship. Please don’t bother to write and remind me that the Houston Astros flopped in the playoffs and that Biggio, in particular, stunk. I’m not talking about the Astros. I don’t even care about the Astros—or the Yankees. The only team that matters to me is the mighty Capitol Punishers, two-time champs of the Ro-Tex-Erie Fantasy Baseball League.

Fantasy baseball is for serious baseball fans only. You join a league, either with friends or on the Internet, select a roster of players from the ranks of Major League Baseball (or, in the case of the Ro-Tex-Erie FBL, the National League only), and accumulate points based upon their regular-season performance in real life. Fantasy baseball is what real baseball would be like if every player suddenly became a free agent and every team had to assemble its 25-man roster from scratch by bidding for players. To make the process fair to all, every team’s payroll has to stay within a predetermined league salary cap. Hey, George Steinbrenner, you think you know something about baseball? Let’s see you prove it: Join the Ro-Tex-Erie League, where your zillions won’t do you any good.

“Ro-Tex-Erie” is a play on “Rotisserie,” which was the name of the original fantasy league—a reference to a now-defunct New York restaurant where a group of friends met regularly to talk about baseball back in 1979. The idea for fantasy ball came to one of the group, Dan Okrent, now an editor-at-large at Time, Inc., but then the president of Texas Monthly Press, during a flight to Austin. He typed up the basic rules that night, and they haven’t changed much since. “Rotisserie baseball in 1999 is a lot closer to Rotisserie baseball in 1980 than baseball in 1999 is to baseball in 1980,” says Okrent, who no longer plays in a fantasy league.

Except that today, thanks to the Web, fantasy baseball is played by uncounted millions. A friend of mine joined an Internet league on the CNN/SI Web site that had 300,000 competitors. He finished in the top 1,600, roughly the top one-half of one percent—pretty impressive, but who can celebrate finishing in 1,584th place? Major League Baseball itself has an Internet fantasy league on its Web site. So do USAToday and ESPN. An offshoot of all this popularity has been the creation of a fantasy baseball industry. Although most Internet leagues cost less than $30 to join and some are free, many participants pay a premium for draft advice and statistical analysis. Every spring the sports sections of bookstores swell with paperbacks and magazines aimed at fantasy league owners, which are crammed with obscure statistical information, projections of player performance, and suggested draft value. These are not very useful; I seldom buy, uh, more than two or three.

The fundamental appeal of fantasy baseball is that it brings participants closer to the game they love. I have followed the sport since I was seven years old, and not since I collected baseball cards have I known so much about so many players. If you’re going to be competitive, you have to know not only the difference between first basemen Mark McGwire and Ryan McGuire—that one is easy—but also the difference between middle relievers Carlos Reyes, Dennys Reyes, and Al Reyes (if you have to pick one, you want Dennys). Baseball fans have always pored over statistics and used them to argue the relative merits of their favorite players: Williams or DiMaggio, Mantle or Mays, McGwire or Sosa. Fantasy baseball provides a scoreboard for your judgment.

The crucial question for fantasy leaguers is not “How good is Mark McGwire?” but “How much is Mark McGwire worth?” The less you have to pay for a good player, the more you have left to spend on other good players. Last year, one team in our league, the Jackalopes, won the bidding for both McGwire, who went on to hit seventy home runs, and Greg Maddux, a pitcher who is a future Hall of Famer. Yet the Jackalopes finished near the bottom of the standings. They paid so dearly for the two stars ($45 for Maddux and $41 for McGwire out of a $280 payroll) that they didn’t have enough money to assemble a good supporting cast. Good players are known quantities; the precious commodity in fantasy baseball is the marginal player who suddenly blossoms into a good one. One reason the Capitol Punishers finished first in 1998 is we were able to win a fading slugger named Greg Vaughn with a bid of just $10. He bounced back to hit fifty home runs.

Once you have put together a team, you score points in batting and pitching. (Defense doesn’t count.) In the Ro-Tex-Erie League, your team’s totals in five hitting categories—home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, stolen bases, and batting average—are compared with your rivals’, and you get a point for each team you beat. The same is true for pitching, in which the categories are wins, strikeouts, saves, base runners allowed per inning, and earned run average. The more statistical categories a player excels in, the more valuable he is. Thus, the most valuable National League slugger in fantasy baseball is neither McGwire nor Sosa but Jeff Bagwell of the Astros, who scores more runs, steals far more bases, and hits for a higher average than the one-dimensional sluggers. (In fantasy ball, first place in stolen bases earns just as many points as first place in home runs.)

Every night of the season, the Capitol Punishers take the field on my computer screen. Several Web sites carry pitch-by-pitch reports on all eight National League games; I prefer the America Online version because it provides the simplest way to follow all the games at once. Click, click, click: I wear out mice during the season the way ballplayers wear out shoes. In the heat of a pennant race—in the Ro-Tex-Erie league, that is—I disappear into my study at 6:05 p.m., the starting time for East Coast games, and remain there until the last pitch from the West Coast, after midnight. Then, not willing to wait until the statistics are posted on the Internet the next morning, I calculate them myself. Late in the season, I even update the stats for the Punishers’ opponents.

Over the two years I have been involved in fantasy baseball, a strange thing has happened to me: I no longer care about the outcome of real baseball games. They exist only to provide the Capitol Punishers with players and statistics. If Randy Johnson, the mainstay of our pitching staff, is hurling against the Astros, the ideal outcome is for Randy to win, 3—2, with Biggio hitting two home runs and every other Astro striking out. I went to a Houston—San Diego game in 1998 and cheered loudly when Biggio did indeed hit two home runs for the Astros—and just as loudly when Greg Vaughn, Biggio’s opponent on the field but his teammate on the Punishers, belted two for the Padres. The people sitting near me did not understand.

One problem with being a fantasy baseball addict is that it is hard to find someone with whom to share your interest. When I started to tell Okrent about the Punishers’ spectacular success, he cut me off. “The reason I stopped playing,” he said, “is that people thought that because I invented the game, I’d want to hear about their team. Nothing is more interesting than my own team, and nothing is more boring than hearing about someone else’s.” (Thus did he save you from reading a detailed account of the Punishers’ last two seasons—but if you really want to know about this unstoppable team, you can find the Ro-Tex-Erie League standings on the Internet at www.usastats.com, league name and password “rotex.”) Fortunately, there’s at least one person who has to listen to me: Austin attorney Jeff Hart, who recruited me to join the Punishers as a co-owner—Oh, did I forget to mention that someone else might have something to do with the team’s success? Jeff and I share the $280 entry fee and the decision of which players to draft, drop, or trade. Our fee goes into a pot that is used to pay USAStats for keeping track of our league standings. Whatever money is left pays for parties in July and October and prizes for the top finishers.

You may think that I’m too serious about this, but many people are much more involved than I am. I know people who are in as many as five Internet leagues. And some people can’t separate real baseball from fantasy baseball. On May 6, 1998, Texas Rangers official scorer Kurt Iverson changed a call from an error to a hit. For most of the 130 years that professional baseball has been played, the scoring change would have passed unnoticed by all except the ballplayers. But Iverson’s revision meant that the six runs the Rangers went on to score in the third inning were earned instead of unearned—and all of them were charged against the opposing pitcher, David Wells of the Yankees, whose earned run average, a key statistic in fantasy baseball, soared. The next day, the Rangers public relations office was deluged with calls from irate fantasy leaguers who owned Wells. They wanted to talk to Iverson personally. Very personally.

I consider such behavior boorish and futile. I would never hector someone like Iverson, who is just doing a job. However, if you happen to have the private phone number of Florida Marlins manager John Boles—who makes the Capitol Punishers’ catcher Mike Redmond sit on the bench while teammates who can’t come within a hundred points of his batting average get to catch in his stead—please send it to me. I’d be mighty grateful.

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