When she isn’t singing a cappella pop and rock with Out of the Blue, Diana Liao ’07 said she likes to pretend she is a macho guy with nothing better to do than watch other guys in tight pants, belt buckles and knee high socks play a non-contact sport and act cocky.
“Playing fantasy baseball is the easiest way to pretend you know baseball,” Liao said. “I was skeptical at first because I had no idea how it worked and actually thought it was more like virtual reality baseball where you had a team and they ‘played’ each other somehow in real-time … cyborg clones of baseball players playing each other in Sims-like 3-D graphics.”
For a growing number of baseball fans like Liao, the Yankees’ acquisition of Alex Rodriguez and the Red Sox’s signing of Curt Schilling are no more interesting than the battle for the Rockies’ second base job or the dogfight for saves in Toronto’s bullpen. The reason is fantasy baseball. Before the start of every Major League Baseball season, fantasy “owners” like Liao hold a draft or an auction, dividing up major league players into fantasy teams. The combined statistics of these players are charted over the course of a season. Home runs, stolen bases, runs, batting average and runs batted in are the standard hitting categories, while wins, saves, strikeouts, earned-run average and base runners per inning make up the standard pitching categories. The team with the best overall stats in October wins.
“The dominant form of pro sports team ownership in the U.S. has long been the wealthy individual, and fantasy baseball allows the average fan to replicate owner and GM powers,” said anthropology professor William Kelly, who is currently teaching “Sports, Culture and Society.” “Baseball is the most statistical of our sports and its statistical grid of indicators is known and accessible to knowledgeable fans. Even if they can’t or won’t balance their checkbooks, they can engage in serious debate about ERAs, OBPs, and countless other comparative stats.”
A gift from above
On Nov. 17, 1979, Albert Pujols was not yet born. The big news in baseball was Boston’s signing of Tony Perez. Little did the world know that a few notes jotted down by writer Daniel Okrent on a flight to Austin, Texas, would quickly inspire a baseball revolution. That January, Okrent met to explain his idea of “statistical baseball” to some friends at a Manhattan restaurant called La Rotisserie Francaise. The following spring, Rotisserie League Baseball — more commonly known as fantasy baseball — was born.
At Yale, most residential colleges have at least one or two fantasy leagues, as do student-run organizations from musical groups to fraternities. Hundreds of students play in leagues with friends from home, and even more try their hand at winning cash prizes through online contests.
“What I like about playing fantasy baseball is that it makes more games of baseball exciting,” Spencer Fry ’06 said. “When you have a hitter in the batter’s box or a pitcher on the mound in real life who’s on your fantasy team, you start cheering for them even if you don’t care whatsoever for that particular team.”
However, fantasy owners often run into trouble when it comes to allegiances. There is always the question of who to root for — your fantasy team or your favorite MLB squad.
“It becomes difficult sometimes,” said Fry, a Yankee fan. “For instance, I have Curt Schilling on my fantasy team, so I’m stuck between wanting him to do well and wanting the Red Sox to go 0 and 162.”
The advent of the Internet has made fantasy baseball a 24-hour operation. With sites such as Yahoo, ESPN and RotoWire, player news and stats are updated by the minute. Most online leagues offer real-time scoring, allowing fantasy owners to see how every pitch affects their league’s standings. As a result, owners range from casual to fanatic.
Marshall Shaffer ’07 is one of the latter. A veteran fantasy baseball player, he has been playing since sixth grade. After a few years in which he managed eight teams, he has downsized to only six this year.
“For me, fantasy baseball is a daily routine,” Shaffer said. “I’d say I spend about one hour per day on it. In the morning, I pick up a newspaper to check stats, injuries and game recaps. Later in the day, I go on the computer to check out the pitching match-ups and career stats against pitchers. Based on that information, I decide which of my players I want to keep active that night.”
Not all fantasy leagues require diligent preparation. Liao is the commissioner of the OOTball Playaz League, the only pop/rock a cappella fantasy baseball league on campus. The league consists predominantly of singers in Out of the Blue, most of whom cannot name their starting first baseman offhand.
“Fantasy baseball also gives your life meaning over the summer, until you realize you’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time on it, and see that you’ve somehow been wasting your life away on something akin to memorizing the names of the first 150 Pokemon,” Liao said.
Despite the obsessive compulsion frequently fostered by fantasy baseball, its proponents see it as an excellent means of communication. Jose Soegaard ’06 is one of many Yalies who uses the hobby to keep in touch with high school friends.
“Our league started last year as a way for all of us to keep in touch,” Soegaard said. “We do so primarily by arguing back and forth over trades and other issues like whether or not Mark Prior really deserved to be a first-round pick this year because of his injury. I’m the kind of guy that needs to know constantly who’s pitching lights-out, who has hit five homeruns in the last week, et cetera, and fantasy baseball is just a great forum for that.”
Over the past two decades, fantasy baseball has experienced exponential growth. Recently, other fantasy sports have cropped up, ranging from football to golf to NASCAR. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), over 15 million Americans — or roughly six percent of the population — play or have played fantasy sports.
The fantasy baseball community has periodically experienced legal scares due to the increased visibility of high-stakes Internet leagues, where winners of national contests claim prizes upwards of $20,000. In February 2001, Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa introduced HR 556, the “Unlawful Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.”
But fantasy sports lobbyists in Washington, D.C., persuaded lawmakers to include an exemption for their brand of game. According to the FSTA, the change was made because “the authors of the legislation realized the strong opposition that would be generated by the fantasy sports community if the carve-out was not there.”
The bill protects sports gambling that “has an outcome that reflects the relative knowledge and skill of the participants with such outcome determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of sporting events.”
Betting operations not dependent on a single sporting event and contests with prizes established in advance are also allowed by the legislation.
With legal fears dissipating, it seems that fantasy will continue to be an ever-present reality in the sporting world.
“Fantasy baseball is the greatest thing ever,” Chris Oropeza ’05 said.