Respond to this Article May 2006

Fake Diamonds

How fantasy baseball is ruining the real game.

By Amy Sullivan

Just one week after we started dating, my boyfriend sat me down and told me he had a confession to make. It's safe to say these are not normally words one wants to hear early in a relationship. In my past, they have been followed by bombshells like, "I have another girlfriend--do you mind?" or "I'm married," or "I'm a Republican." With ghosts of boyfriends past whirling through my brain, I braced myself for the worst. "I'm in a fantasy baseball league," he told me.

If you are a fantasy baseball neophyte, as I was then, you'll understand that I was relieved to learn that this--fantasy baseball?--was his deep dark secret of shame. It seemed endearingly geeky, making my whip-smart boyfriend a little more human. I was charmed. And although he seemed to believe that the news should upset me--a fact to which I should have paid more attention--I thought of fantasy baseball as simply an extended version of the NCAA tournament brackets I filled out every spring. You pick a few players, you root for them to do well, what's the harm?

Oh, foolish young love. If you are one of the roughly eight million men who play fantasy baseball each year (or are one of the women married to them), you may already be shaking your head at my naiveté. And you won't be one bit surprised to hear that as I was assuring my boyfriend that our relationship would survive this revelation, he interrupted me to ask if he could use my computer to check his scores.

Some baseball fans celebrate the start of the season by oiling up their gloves; others make sure their favorite baseball cap is broken in. And then there are the truly demented, those who prepare for opening day by firing up their laptops and consulting their spreadsheets to figure out whether Brian Roberts can produce enough fantasy points on steals this year to make him worth acquiring in the seventh round of their draft. Their numbers are growing, but they must be stopped before they ruin the sport for the rest of us.

The rules and structure of fantasy baseball can differ from league to league, but the basic idea remains the same: Members of each league create "teams" comprised of real baseball players whose statistics are converted into points that yield a total score for the team. For instance, in my boyfriend's league, a single is worth five points, a double 10 points, a solo homerun 30 points, and so on. Points are subtracted for making an out or striking out. So each night, you can add up the statistics of your fantasy players and translate those into a point total. It's something like being a stock picker instead of an actual businessman. The businessman, like the baseball player, has real products and manages a business; the stock picker just selects companies whose price he hopes will go up and score a lot of points for him.

I prefer to distinguish between the two simply by referring to "real" baseball and to fantasy, both of which gear up in March. Most years, members of my boyfriend's league travel south to Florida to catch a weekend of spring training games. The eight guys (who shall remain anonymous to protect their identities, pride, and jobs) live in four different cities, so the trip gives them a chance to reconnect. But it's mostly about scouting their prospects and conducting the marathon draft to assemble the year's teams. Before the draft takes place, of course, the commissioner of the league conducts an owners' meeting to discuss rule changes--and don't think for a moment that I wasn't sorely tempted to put quotation marks around each of those. I like to imagine that while this takes place, the guys are all wearing pork pie hats and smoking stogies and talking like Boss Hogg, but never having attended a draft myself, I can't say for sure.

Each of these busy men--a handful of current and former Supreme Court clerks, some lawyers, my journalist boyfriend--comes to the draft having spent an alarming amount of time over the preceding days and weeks scouring Street & Smith's Baseball Yearbook and Sporting News magazines, surfing fantasy websites for inside information, and feeding numbers into their computers. Almost as soon as the last player is chosen, the machinations begin: trades to offload that catcher they didn't really want, agonizing about the pitcher who threw out his shoulder in the opening week, life-and-death decisions about who should go in the line-up. From now until September, every day--with the exception, thank goodness, of most Mondays--is organized around opportunities to check scores, calculate points, and gather intelligence from every available baseball source.

Last year, three of the league members got married during the season, which presented a number of quandaries: Is it possible to make it through the ceremony and the reception without calling in for scores? (No, it turns out.) Is it kosher to negotiate trades at the wedding? (Yes, but for god's sake, man, at least wait until dinner has been served.) How do you manage your fantasy team while on your honeymoon? (You don't if you still want to be married by the time you return.)

The intensity of the competition is enough to transform my very mellow boyfriend into a jittery fiend who spends gorgeous summer weekends perched in front of his computer, obsessively refreshing the screen to watch his point totals fluctuate. His wonderfully even mood becomes tied to the fortunes of his players--he is despondent when Curt Schilling pitches a marvelous game while sitting on the fantasy bench, jubilant to find that Albert Pujols is exactly the monster hitter he'd hoped for, and riven with remorse after the recently traded Bobby Abreu hits eight homeruns in his next nine games.

But it's at actual baseball games that the pathologies become clearest. One player spends the game rooting against the home team because his star fantasy pitcher is starting for the visitors. Another worriedly scans the scoreboards in the outfield, becoming increasingly agitated as the scores indicate that one of his pitchers is getting rocked in Atlanta. They all sympathize when my boyfriend's center fielder (who was more commonly known for his work as center fielder for the Washington Nationals) makes a diving catch. Defensive stats aren't counted at all in this league, so while Brad Wilkerson might have been pleased with himself for making the final out, he could have injured himself and screwed up any number of fantasy lineups around the country. The nerve!

By the time September rolls around, the guys in this league are more conversant about the possible point combinations needed to get individual teams into their fantasy playoff than about the actual standings and playoff race in Major League Baseball. The division championships and World Series are almost after-thoughts; the fantasy league is long over by that point, with a new winner crowned and dined.

"Let it drop"

As absurd as this world of small-time fantasy baseball can be, my real nightmare is a proliferation of Sam Walkers. Walker, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, decided to try his hand at fantasy baseball after writing a column about fantasy sports and getting a flood of responses. "While I was consumed by steroids and ballpark financing," Walker writes in his highly entertaining book Fantasyland, "whatever punch they were drinking had intoxicated them to the point where they could dismiss, if not fully ignore, the game's systematic problems.... I'd forgotten what it was like to watch a ballgame when you have an emotional investment in the outcome; these people had an emotional investment in the outcome of every pitch."

Walker took the fantasy obsession a bit further than most players do ("I'm not that bad," my boyfriend kept reminding me as I read the book.), Spending nearly $50,000 to develop and manage the perfect fantasy baseball team, Walker hired a statistician from NASA to develop a predictive software program and a research scout to unearth every qualitative piece of trivia about potential players. During the course of the season, Walker used his press credentials to lobby managers and GMs to make adjustments that would improve his players' performances, and make locker room visits to give his players pep talks. At one low point near the end of the season, he even showed up to an arbitration meeting with homemade signs and pamphlets to protest the the Angels' suspension of his star outfielder, José Guillen.

But if Walker found that fantasy baseball restored his love for the game, he is also a perfect example of how the craze is ruining the concept of fandom. If it wasn't for his two assistants, Walker would have no one to discuss his team with outside of the other members of his league--no one else would care about this random assembly of players. He suffers alone, leaving his wife to discover him curled up on the floor in front of a televised baseball game whimpering "Francona is an idiot…" A whole industry has sprung up to cater to fantasy players--with books, magazines, and subscription websites--and even traditional sports outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN now offer their own leagues, as well as reports on players' fantasy values. But while these efforts have made fans more invested in the game, at the same time they have disconnected fans from each other.

Teams give fans something in common--the players may come and go, but Minnesotans will always root for the Twins. In fantasy baseball, however, there are a dizzying number of possible team combinations. The chances of someone else out there having your exact lineup is extremely remote, and the chances of you ever connecting with that person are nil. The people you can talk to about your team are your fellow league members, none of whom can share your triumphs or sorrows because they are trying to beat you. And once the next year rolls around, you have an entirely new roster of players to cheer on. Just as I developed some sense of affection for "our" players, I'm going to have to start all over because my boyfriend has drafted just one returning player from last year's team.

In addition to destroying the concept of fandom, fantasy baseball also does damage to the ideal of a team. Walker may have jerseys for the members of his fantasy team ("The Streetwalkers"), which players accept with varying shades of amusement, but they do not actually play together as a team. Their real jobs require them to work with teammates to get a win, sometimes hitting sacrifices to advance another runner or coming out of the game so the manager can insert a left-handed batter into the lineup. If every player concentrated solely on maximizing his own statistics, the game wouldn't work. And yet when Walker talked to ballplayers, they told him that fans were constantly harassing them about their fantasy production. "For some reason, they want me to hit more doubles," one player reported. "People are always telling me I'm doing well for them on their fantasy team," Pittsburgh closer Mike Williams told Walker. "I get that a lot more than 'You're doing a great job out there.'"

The principles of fantasy baseball also devalue one of the most important fundamentals of the game: defense. Because there isn't any way of tracking defensive statistics (although pitching could arguably be counted as defensive), fantasy baseball leagues don't count those efforts. You would never draft a Golden Glove winner unless he was a power hitter as well. As a result, fantasy owners see defensive plays as unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. Willie Mays, with his famous basket catches, would have been the bane of fantasy gamers for tempting injury in the outfield instead of concentrating on his production at bat. As my boyfriend constantly reminds me, our team's motto is: "Let it drop, make it up at the plate."

"Those" women

Truth be told, however, my biggest complaint about fantasy baseball is that it has made me into one of "those" women. You know, the women who complain about being football widows and hector their boyfriends for spending too much time watching sports and sigh dramatically whenever the subject of the NBA playoffs comes up. I have always taken pride in the fact that I can hold my own in any sports conversation, giving me instant cachet among a boyfriend's male buddies. And baseball--baseball was my first love. In elementary school, my freakishly small hands meant that my glove couldn't hold a softball, so I played baseball instead. I spent hours throwing tennis balls against the side of our garage to practice my fielding skills, and was thrilled when a coach praised my ability as a second-baseman by telling me I was a young Lou Whitaker. Somewhere in my files I still have my Detroit Free Press clippings chronicling the amazing season of 1984.

But when I started dating my boyfriend, I found that this wasn't enough to let me in on conversations about baseball with his friends. After all, they don't talk about specific games or standings; they talk about their league. And that's a discussion that excludes everyone but eight people on earth. I was appalled to find that at social functions, the circle closed while they ribbed each other about players who were underperforming and pitchers who shut out another member's star power hitter, leaving the women on the outside to shake their heads and console each other.

But while I still dislike fantasy baseball, I love my boyfriend more. When he called after this year's draft, babbling "We got Miguel Cabrera! We got Teixeira!" like a 10-year-old kid, it was impossible not to get drawn in by his enthusiasm. Besides, if this is going to be the center of his life for six months out of every year, it's much easier to join in and root for our team than try to ignore it. Officially, I am "Vice President of Operations," a meaningless title that nonetheless mollifies me most of the time, even as my recommendations about line-up and trades are inevitably ignored. If it had been up to me, we would never have let last year's rising star pitcher John Patterson get by without picking him up. Next year, I want my own team.

The print version of this article incorrectly stated that José Guillen played for the Oakland A's in 2004. In fact, he played for the Angels.

Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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