So today I spent an hour talking about my book on Talk of the Nation
in a segment hosted by Neal Conan
. Dan Okrent, the beloved founder of Rotisserie baseball, joined in, and so did Jonah Keri of Baseball Prospectus
Maybe it was the general vibe of NPR or the procession of very smart callers, most of them women, talking broadly about their experiences with this crazy hobby and the people who play it. Possibly it was something somebody slipped into my Starbucks... In any event, for whatever reason, the discussion veered into sociology and I went happily along.
A word of warning: my academic credentials in this department are nonexistent. I didn???t even take sociology 101. I have about as much credibility in this field of study as Baghdad Bob, the spokesman for Saddam???s regime, had in the last days of the American invasion. But depite all the media I've done in support of this book, a list that includes 200 radio hits, a dozen print interviews and about ten separate appearances on ESPN, I???ve never had something like this happen to me. It???s not that I tried to make a somewhat profound point, I actually tried to make two of them. And both of them sort of popped out of my brain almost fully formed. For a guy who's not enormously spontaneous, this was a serious milestone.
They both involve the fundamental question most people ask about fantasy baseball: why on Earth would anybody play it? Here are the two answers I gave.
1. Fantasy baseball is very American.
Baseball, for all that it's been anointed as our national pastime, is a strange little pocket of totalitarianism. The owners run the teams with baronial authority, accepting no input from the outside. There's that antitrust exemption that shields them from innovation and competition. The fans are not much different from vassals, really. They wear the team colors, pay $50 for tickets, drop $12 for a cup of yellow liquid with bubbles at the ballpark (they used to call it beer), and cheer their hearts out for this team no matter how badly the management botches things. They will have no say in how the team runs or which players are traded. They will get the information the team sees fit to release and nothing more. In return for their loyalty, the beneveolent team monarch may reward them with an occasional good season or, in rare cases, a championship. In my case, as a fan of the Detroit Tigers, the distance between the last celebration and the next one (if it ever comes) will be at least 22 years.
On the other hand, my fantasy team is, in some undeniably real sense, mine. There's nobody else in the world who picked all my same players and spent the same dollar amounts to get them. If they're a disaster as a group, there's no idiot upstairs for me to blame. If one of them is traded away, it will be at my own order. I am, in the great American tradition, wholly self reliant. More than this, I have no allegiance to a uniform. I am not beholden to any foreign power. I have organized my baseball fandom around the greatest American birthright of all: the right to shop. In a sense, I've staked out my own claim on baseball's wild frontier. It may prove to be a little barren patch of nothingness, but at least it will be mine. So to all those "pure" fans who mock the fantasy game, I have this to say: Go back to your feudalism and leave the capitalists alone!
2. Alexis de Tocqueville lives.
Not so long ago, a Harvard political scientist named Bob Putnam wrote a brilliant essay called "Bowling Alone." It was an exhaustive study of the decline of bowling leagues in America, bolstered by all kinds of data that showed how Americans are not spending as much time in each other's company. The implication was that the America Tocqueville once saw, a place carved out of the wilderness by people who freely and happily made little associations (like bowling leagues) was slowly falling away.
The one social phenomenon that didn???t make it into his study was the growth of Rotisserie leagues.
During my research for the book, I found fantasy baseball leagues where three generations of one family are playing side by side. One of the callers to Talk of the Nation today said that she plays in a Roto league with her far-flung siblings just so they can all stay connected. There are Rotisserie leagues that leave empty chairs at the auction table for members who've passed on. There are literally thousands of leagues holding drafts this weekend in which a dozen members will fly in to attend from all corners of the country, as they do every year. I have seen copies of the constitutions of various Rotisserie leagues that are nearly 30 pages long now after years and years of amendments adopted. There's a league where one member's sister got a nasty divorce from another member which was shepherded by another member who's a divorce attorney. And guess what? They're all still making trades together. One league in Michigan that's been together 20 years still forces its winner to wear the same polyester jacket to the annual banquet.
Anyhow, you get the idea. I???m pretty sure that if Tocqueville could be transported back in time this weekend to have another look at Americans, he???d wind up drafting a team in a 5X5 mixed league with a heavy emphasis on improving young starters with good bullpens and a deep middle infield with uniform 20-jack power. Or maybe he'd just say "screw this" and go bowling.