It's that time of year: workplaces and campuses everywhere are abuzz with the frenzy of the fantasy baseball draft. Fantasy-league managers are scouring various sources, looking for the hidden gems that will give them bragging rights all summer long.
Me? I'm sitting it out. Again.
Every year, I try to explain to my fantasy-smitten friends why I think these leagues are a pox, a blight, a blasphemy. And every year, more people play and more words are published and broadcast about fantasy baseball. I'm losing this battle.
My antipathy toward fantasy baseball has its roots in a tragedy in the summer of 1979. An enterprising young journalist named John Genzale had coaxed me and a few other baseball nuts into playing a new game: we'd submit a roster each week and score points based on the stats racked up by the players we chose. In those pre-Internet years, we tallied our numbers from newspaper box scores.
I've since learned that we were probably pioneers; the "Rotisserie League" created by Daniel Okrent in New York didn't launch until the following year. But we were way out in the woods of South Lake Tahoe and had no idea we were trailblazers.
Anyway. I was in the "newsroom" at KTHO Radio in South Tahoe on August 2, 1979 when the bells on the AP teletype machine started ringing (yes, children, bells really did ring when big news broke, even when your "newsroom" was formerly a bathroom in the converted motel that housed the radio station). The bulletin told of the death in a plane crash of Yankees star Thurman Munson.
My first thought: "This is big news!" My second thought: "Wait...isn't Munson my catcher?"
Naturally, I assumed I'd be able to replace a dead catcher in my lineup. Wrong. Genzale, who would go on to a remarkable career in journalism and academia, acted "in the best interest" of our little game and forced me to wait until the weekly roster change.
It seemed wrong then and still does, 34 years later. I've used the Munson Incident as my excuse for avoiding fantasy baseball ever since. But the reality is that I have much deeper reasons for steering clear of fantasy baseball.
There are basically two flaws in the fantasy world. First, I'm a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan. I love the game of baseball, but once the season begins, I bleed orange and black. In fact, I don't really trust folks who say they're fans but don't make the emotional investment in a team. Sure, I keep track of how other teams and players are doing. But I damned sure don't want to be watching Matt Cain facing Joey Votto in a key at-bat with a little voice reminding me that Votto is on my fantasy roster and a three-run homer would be good for my team. Not!
My other problem with fantasy baseball (and fantasy sports in general) is that they reduce complex games to small sets of data. They tend to focus on a few statistics (hits, RBI's, home runs, ERA, strikeouts, etc.) while ignoring the broader sweep of the game. Notably, most fantasy leagues ignore the role of defense. If they pay any attention, it's often the token inclusion of a stat like "outfielder assists"--hardly a true measure of an outfielder's overall defensive value.
As a consequence of the above, fantasy players tend to fixate on one-dimensional big-leaguers: mashers who can't play defense. This is why folks in our newsroom are horselaughing one colleague who used a second-round choice to take one of her favorites, Brandon Crawford, when Hanley Ramirez was available. His current injury aside, history says Ramirez is an offensive threat but a defensive liability. Fantasy ball cares not a whit for Crawford's defensive prowess.
I like to tell my fantasy-besmitten friends that I love baseball too much to reduce it to fantasy baseball. I feel differently about baseball strategy games (I grew up on Strat-O-Matic, APBA, and Gil Hodges' Pennant Fever); these simulations attempt to include all of baseball's nuances.
There's always a chance, of course, that the flood of modern advanced stats will find its way into fantasy leagues. (Vanessa, you'd feel better about your Brandon Crawford choice if "Defensive Runs Saved Above Average" was included; he was almost 20 runs better than Hanley Ramirez last year). If that happens, perhaps I'll be back. But I'll still be ticked off about that Thurman Munson deal.