Editorial: Fantasy becomes reality

Friday, March 17, 2017

They were stored in shoe boxes, mostly. Sometimes organized by team, other times by position. Sometimes nine favorite cards would be spread out on the floor and placed roughly in the formation of a diamond: first the catcher, then the pitcher, then the four infielders and finally the three outfielders. Sometimes a manager card – maybe Earl Weaver or Billy Martin – would be placed on the periphery, just waiting to kick dirt on an ump who was missing a good game.

What happened next didn’t matter. Lay out a second team and let the two battle it out in the imagination of the lone spectator. Flip over each card and try to memorize the number of home runs and steals. Wonder what it would be like to actually hold a Mickey Mantle rookie card in mint condition. It was enough just to be surrounded by the dream of baseball.

As time went on, the players made fewer and fewer trips out of their shoe boxes for games, and the cards’ value in dollars and cents became more important than the names and faces they carried. Then came the fatal blow: fantasy baseball.

The Internet killed the baseball card – and we along with millions of other baseball fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before fantasy baseball, fans really had only four ways to enjoy the sport: play it, read about it, watch or listen to it or collect cards. But that all changed in 1979, when writer Daniel Okrent (who would later serve as the public editor of the New York Times and the managing editor of Life magazine) came up with an idea that he pitched to three equally baseball-crazed friends over lunch at a “lousy” New York City restaurant called La Rotisserie Francaise: Instead of arguing about who would be a better baseball general manager, why not create a game where they could find out for sure? Each “GM” would have $250 to spend during an auction in which they would choose 23 real Major League players – 14 hitters and 9 pitchers. Over the course of the season, they would track statistics in four categories for hitters (batting average, home runs, runs batted in and steals) and four for pitchers (earned run average, wins, saves and walks/hits per innings pitched). The team with the most points at the end of the season would be crowned the champion. The name of the game (in honor of that lousy restaurant) was Rotisserie League Baseball.

It was an instant hit. And years later when the Internet got hold of it, “fantasy sports” became an American obsession. Unfortunately for Okrent and the gang, they never figured out a way to make any money off their idea. But they succeeded in making millions and millions of people, young and old, better baseball fans.

Before fantasy baseball, there was no reason for a Red Sox fan to watch a game in April between the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates. But if that Red Sox fan also happens to have Pittsburgh pitcher Gerrit Cole and Cincinnati outfield Billy Hamilton on a fantasy team, it’s a must-see game. And who but an actual general manager for a Major League team or a fantasy owner in a dynasty league would spend hours comparing the skills of elite prospects Victor Robles of the Washington Nationals and Eloy Jimenez of the Chicago Cubs, two Minor League outfielders not yet old enough to buy a drink?

Sometimes we miss those old shoe boxes filled with baseball cards, but we can’t afford to linger on the memory for too long. We have a fantasy baseball draft coming up, and there’s a lot of work left to be done. Our only lament is that we, like Okrent, haven’t figured out a way to make a living from this “silly little game.”