Sports Section 

When it was invented in the late 70s, Rotisserie League baseball was intended to mimic the details of real baseball, especially the wheelings and dealings of general managers. Thanks to the new game's creators being mostly writers, who soon put out a book of rules explaining the fun they were having (all camaraderie and ritual, it was kind of like a Boy Scout manual), Rotisserie League baseball has flourished, booming with the game in the 80s and even surviving the strike of 1994, though not without occasionally being labeled a scourge on the national pastime. Even one of its inventors, Daniel Okrent, said it skewed a fan's perspectives and tore at the game's traditional allegiances. There was probably something to that; there was definitely something distasteful to the idea of dweeby baseball stats hounds, "owners" of their own "teams," trading stars back and forth like so many baseball cards, especially in late-season "dumping" deals that saw a team out of the running drop its top players on a contending team in exchange for young prospects who might never pan out. Yet these deals, mercenary as they were, did not affect the real players or more conventional fans, who knew nothing about them.

Rotisserie League baseball--a general label applied to all the leagues that sprang up thanks to that original book--is uniquely compatible with baseball in that the sport, being orderly and individual-oriented with a lengthy tradition, lends itself to detailed statistical analysis. Don't talk to me about fantasy football leagues, none of which has yet found a way to make offensive linemen a part of the scheme, and the same goes for basketball, where team chemistry frequently defies numerical analysis. Yet Rotisserie League baseball, which measures a team of players according to eight categories--batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and stolen bases for hitters; wins, saves, earned run average, and base runners allowed per inning for pitchers--actually gives a fairly valid if sketchy idea of the way a team of baseball players might perform as a whole.

What's more, Rotisserie leagues are to be distinguished from "fantasy baseball," at least to my way of thinking, by the simple idea that Rotisserie leagues establish a framework whereby teams can retain consistent personnel from year to year--or not, depending on the whims of the so-called owner.

The idea, again, was to develop a game as similar to real baseball as possible. Rotisserie leagues incorporated contracts that expired or could be extended (at an extra cost to the owner, of course), an April free-agent auction to fill out rosters, and a minor-league draft allowing each team to mine for prospects in the high or low bush leagues. Yet a funny thing began to happen with baseball's "new economics" in the wake of the strike. Real baseball began, more and more, to mimic Rotisserie League baseball, complete with mercenary deals, patchwork teams that little resembled themselves from year to year, and "dumping" trades--like, for instance, the one just consummated by the White Sox.

And I wonder. Can I fairly decry what the White Sox are doing when I've been playing Rotisserie League baseball for 12 seasons now and have done the same thing a few times myself?

Of course there are differences, beginning with the idea that I like to keep the same players around from year to year and watch them develop. My players are an extension of me, of my prejudices as a student of baseball, and I'm as committed to them as I am to my own ideals. I'm an owner, after all; they're mine. Let me also say that I am in a tough league with ten other knowledgeably but honorably run teams: the Bourbon League of Amateur Club Owners to be exact (unfortunate puns are as much a part of Rotisserie leagues as arbitration is of real baseball), organized by the Reader's own Neil Tesser in 1986. It is now an 11-team league of 23 players per team drawing on players in the 14-team National League, which allows for a free-agent pool of scrubs, up-and-comers, and past-their-primers to fill out squads in case of injuries. Many longtime readers will recognize my partner Boom Boom; our team, since the league's inception, has been known as the Boomtown White Cox, or as the Pale Hoses.

What was that I said about unfortunate puns? (Now you know why I have been hesitant to write about Rotisserie League baseball all these years.) A more conventional fan might well argue that Rotisserie leagues tear at the game's fiber, the traditional allegiance fans have for their local teams. Make no mistake: when the interests of the Boomcox clash with the interests of the Cubs, I root--privately but avidly--for my players. This might offend some baseball fans, but why? In the wake of the 1994 strike, feeling an unbreakable bond to a team seems naive. What have the Cubs done to retain my allegiance but leave their beautiful ballpark largely untouched and not trade away their star players?

Which in this town turns out to be enough to distinguish the Cubs from the Sox. But I'll return to that notion later.

Still, why shouldn't I root for the team I put together ahead of the team Ed Lynch put together?

Yet the egotism that naturally emerges from owning a team is something to be guarded against as a Rotisserie player. I remember ABC golf commentator Dave Marr once saying the sidewalks along Broadway are lined with people who think they can hit a golf ball out of a fairway bunker with a wood. The same goes for Rotisserie owners who think they're better scouts of talent than major league managers and general managers. Like any long-term Rotisserie leaguer, I can rail about the Shane Macks and Geronimo Berroas and Melvin Nieveses--guys who never got a chance in the National League, only to prove themselves in the American League, where they were beyond my league's jurisdiction--but Rotisserie owners who moan about the stupidity of "real" baseball GMs are almost always losers, year in year out. A good Rotisserie owner ought to know not only the abilities of every player in his league but also what each player's real manager thinks of him--whether he's in the doghouse or is being groomed for stardom, whether he'll get a chance to be the bull pen closer or has already been pigeonholed as a middle reliever. Likewise, though most Rotisserie leagues do not account for fielding statistics, an owner should always know that a good fielder will always get an extra chance to prove himself. (Take note, all owners of Brooks Kieschnick who have been complaining about what a no-talent Doug Glanville is.) An owner has to know not only a player's potential but the realities of his situation.

Ultimately, who's the better baseball fan, the one who follows his team and no other, or the one who checks the box scores of every team in the league? This isn't an argument that baseball fans should choose up their own players and throw real baseball out the window. In 12 years, I have never once had Ryne Sandberg as a player, but that hasn't kept me from appreciating a future Hall of Famer. (First ballot? I'm not sure; that's another column entirely.) Yet Rotisserie baseball has got me through seasons, like this one, when what a local fan really needed was a little bit of fantasy.

(I realize that few baseball fans actually participate in Rotisserie leagues and that it's impossible at this late stage of the season to actually organize one. Yet fantasy can still come into play in various ways. Driven away from real baseball by the fading fortunes of the Cubs and Sox, yet finding myself hankering for baseball in almost any form, I found myself reading Mark Harris's The Southpaw, the first of his Henry Wiggen books, at the recommendation of a friend. I had always resisted Harris, in spite of the high estimation I have for the movie version of his Bang the Drum Slowly, because what novel, what work of fiction, could possibly be as fantastic as any real-life pennant race? Up until now the only baseball novels I valued were Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Assoc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which isn't so much a baseball novel as a fantasy-baseball novel. Yet The Southpaw has made me an instant convert, with comic scenes such as the one in which rookie Henry Wiggen watches from his hotel window as aspiring minor-leaguers arrive on the train for spring training. Meditating on the difference between a "punk" and a real player, he finally sees a real player step off the train and comments at length on the physical presence the player has that separates him from the others. So Wiggen goes out to meet the player, who coming up the stairs takes one look at him and says, "Hello punk." For baseball fans fighting their personal biases against baseball fiction, I recommend Bill James's excellent The Politics of Glory, his analysis of what it takes to be a Hall of Famer. I skipped it in that awful summer of 1994, but returned to it after reading his new Guide to Baseball Managers, and I think it might just be James's best book, the one in which he bends baseball statistics most legitimately to his chosen purpose.)

To return to the subject, a year ago I traded Joey Hamilton, Javier Lopez, and Tony Gwynn for Ugueth Urbina, Ed Taubensee, Edgar Renteria, and then minor leaguer Scott Rolen--a trade that would no doubt have shaken the Boomtown faithful because it certainly struck my fellow Bourbon League owners as a giveaway. Yet now Urbina is the closer for the Montreal Expos, Renteria is a rising star with the Florida Marlins, and Rolen is the certain NL rookie of the year (while Taubensee is the throw-in backup catcher he was always meant to be), and the Boomcox, last year's eighth-place finishers, are this year trying to hold on to first. If the Boomtown faithful had been alienated last year, they would no doubt be flocking back this year.

Yet that's just the thing: there are no Boomtown faithful, only Boom Boom and myself. Year in year out, a fantasy baseball team is all about statistics, about production, about finishing ahead of the rest--and only by extension about a fan watching young players develop the way a fan should--while for most real baseball teams performance on the field is only part of the equation determining whether the franchise is successful. A baseball team is so much more than wins and losses. What better examples are there than the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, who have floundered so often on the field yet almost always catered to the deeper needs of their fans. It may well be that in trading Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez the Sox pulled off a steal on the order of getting Urbina, Renteria, and Rolen. Yet those players arrived the year after I made my trade, while the Sox' top prospects are at least two years away. And by giving up on a season in which they were only three and a half games out with two full months to play, the Sox alienated the fans they attempted to woo back last winter with claims that they were going to go all out to put a competitive team on the field.

Baseball is a business, the cynics say, get used to it. But a business cares, first and foremost, about what its customers think about the product. For years now the Sox haven't been run as a business but as a Rotisserie League team, one in which a fantasy owner dreams that he is the only one whose opinion counts and that he can deal with players on a whim, without a thought for the fans. That's why the Sox are where they are now.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Agenda Teaser

Music
Steve Earle & the Dukes Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music
July 25
Galleries & Museums
Tattoo Field Museum
October 21

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers