Take Me Out with the Crowd

Native Texans living elsewhere raise their children to be expats, fluent in the motherland’s culture. So, growing up in Virginia, I was well versed in the six flags of Texas and the Battle of the Alamo. I learned from my grandfather to shape my chubby toddler hands into the “Hook ’Em” shape every University of Texas fan knows. I understood that our family cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and never the Washington Redskins. In baseball, in good, bad, and heart-wrenchingly disappointing times, we pulled for the Houston Astros, the team my father had rooted for since 1962, when (as the Colt .45s) they became the first major league team in Texas.

My earliest baseball love was the Astros’ first baseman Glenn Davis, a power hitter called up to the major leagues a month before I was born in 1984. According to family lore, as a baby I would point to Davis as my favorite player, and when I was old enough to write, I sent him a letter asking him to be my best friend. Then disaster struck. In 1991, Houston traded Davis to the Baltimore Orioles. In retrospect, it was a smart deal; the Orioles gave up Steve Finley, Curt Schilling, and Pete Harnisch, all of whom went on to have more-than-solid careers. But my seven-year-old self was devastated. I briefly considered rooting for the Orioles, but it just wasn’t possible. Loyalty was the price you pay for having something to care about, I figured.

That’s why, for years, I was convinced that fantasy sports were ruining America. Fantasy sports involve an entirely different kind of fan experience. Interested parties create a league in which every member “drafts” players, drawn from the entire sport, to his or her own team. The league then uses individual players’ statistics from their actual games to determine whose teams win and lose. There are variations. In baseball, some league rules require members to change their lineup daily, others weekly. Some are limited to players in the National or American League. The strategies can vary depending on structure—different statistics can make or break you. In some leagues, participants put hours per week into managing their team; in others it’s hours per day. Plenty of people who start with one baseball team soon wind up juggling teams in multiple leagues and across different sports. No matter how the league is structured, however, fantasy sports are about rooting for individual players. The teams that matter are the imaginary ones you’ve assembled.

The fantasy experience is based largely around drafting, the monitoring of stats, injuries, and trades (rumored and real), and figuring out which players might get benched. The bizarre result is that no one I know who’s a serious fantasy fan can sit and watch a damn game. Instead, they flip channels, watching one team until the pitcher changes, then a different player’s at bat on some other team. If they’re hard-core, an MLB.TV Pass lets them watch up to four games at once on any device.

The beauty of a single baseball game—the changing momentum and shifts in strategy, even the boredom when it starts to drag—gets lost. Somewhere, so does some of the glory of being a fan. Not surprisingly, Matthew Berry, the senior director of fantasy sports at ESPN, disagrees. Berry, who started playing fantasy baseball in 1984, has made a life’s work out of his passion. In fact, he writes in Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It, he thinks almost anyone who likes traditional sports should consider a career in fantasy.

 

Berry makes a good case for the community of fantasy fans. As he notes early on, 13 percent of Americans play fantasy sports, and the market is estimated at around $4.5 billion, mostly in advertising on TV and radio shows that dish out fantasy advice and on websites like Rotoworld, where fans can get updates throughout the day. There are even subscription services, like RotoWire, offering levels of insight others might miss. The community is 92 percent male and 91 percent white, with an average age of 36. Folks tend to be well educated, and by and large, fantasy players go to games at much higher rates and spend more on sports generally than average Americans.

America’s newest pastime has been around for decades. The journalist Daniel Okrent created the first fantasy baseball league in 1979, on a flight between Hartford, Connecticut, and Austin, Texas, where he was consulting for Texas Monthly. (The idea was partly suggested by one of Okrent’s professors at the University of Michigan, the film historian Robert Sklar, who had joined others in a pool to guess which players would win different statistical categories.) For fantasy’s first 20 years, in the days of faxes and landlines, trying to keep up with daily box scores and coordinate trades required a degree of knowledge and obsession that went far beyond catching games on the radio or in the park.

Yet if baseball has long fancied itself a metaphor for the American way of living, fantasy can now make a claim for the new century. “When you think about it,” writes Berry, “one of the beauties of fantasy is that it’s a microcosm of life.” Or of life as we’re coming to know it. In many ways, fantasy baseball is a more suitable pastime than plain old baseball for our 24-7-info self-branding world. Once it conquered baseball, fantasy soon spread to football, which has become the dominant fantasy genre, and then to basketball and international games like soccer and cricket; now there are fantasy leagues for curling and even for solo sports like golf.

Berry’s book picks up in the Internet age. A former Hollywood writer whose output included episodes of Married … with Children and the third Crocodile Dundee movie, he began writing a fantasy column more than a decade ago. He was a pioneer who set himself apart from sports media veterans with his funny asides, printing of hate mail, owning up to boneheaded trading mistakes, and a numbers-don’t-lie, Nate Silver–meets-early-MTV-VJ attitude. Berry eventually became ESPN’s “senior fantasy analyst”—a job that mainly entails appearing on podcasts, TV reports, and Web columns to advise on just about every fantasy sport. He writes that he wanted to “get rid of the stereotype that fantasy’s a nerdy or a niche thing. We needed to make fantasy sports seem like it’s just one of those things people do.” Berry makes sure to drop the names of celebrities who play—including Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who once fell victim to his league’s bizarre rule that last year’s winner gets to bar one team in this year’s league from play. Paul Rudd played a character in Knocked Up whose wife thought he was having an affair only to discover the “other woman” was his fantasy team; the scene mimics the actor’s real-life addiction. The Hollywood Reporter once devoted a cover story to stars with their own teams.

“People” do fantasy, Berry says—but participation skews off the charts toward adult white men, and there’s a bro-ish machismo to a lot of fantasy culture. Getting by requires learning a dense insider’s lingo, and it’s hard to find a league that doesn’t engage in too much trash-talking for a child to play. Then there are frequently misogynistic attitudes, which can seem like a step back from the progress made in recent years in mainstream participatory sports. Berry’s book relates oh-so-hilarious stories of a trade that included “dibs” on a hot waitress and a league teasing one of its members for hooking up with a man he thought was a woman.

For years, Berry’s followers have provided him with outlandish stories about their commitment, which he retells here with relish. There’s the guy who reschedules his daughter’s birthday around the fantasy draft. There’s the guy who, after a hurricane, drained his parents’ generator to power a laptop to keep up with his players. “What proud parents they must be,” Berry quips. There’s the guy who makes a trade at a wedding ceremony while serving as best man and the guy who helped a repo man with his draft as the repo man was taking his car. There are leagues that require losers to get tattoos, and touching tales, like the league that keeps a spot for a deceased member while raising money for his daughter. Berry brings out how a game that’s highly individualistic is also extremely social, and socially networked. Players constantly e-mail, tweet, and reach out to their leagues on Facebook, sometimes for league business, other times to taunt, and somewhere in all that frequent contact, plenty of leagues undoubtedly become tight-knit. But that’s a distinct contrast from the broad lingua franca of the old team communities, where we imagine ourselves linked to those we don’t know by our shared passion for a team. There’s no fantasy equivalent to seeing someone wearing your team’s logo and saying hi.

 

I came to understand the perks of fantasy in 2011, the year I started dating a Red Sox fan who also plays fantasy baseball. The Red Sox were headed into fall with a nine-game lead for the wild-card spot in the American League playoff. Then came September and the kind of spectacular meltdown—losing 18 of their final 24 games—that can leave a fan wandering the streets, muttering and crazy-eyed. Lucky for me, my boyfriend had fantasy. His team was in contention, and he began rooting in particular for a rookie catcher for the Kansas City Royals named Salvador Perez. Focusing on what he could control, he found a way to remain invested in his sport despite the Red Sox tragedy. He was still trying to sneak his phone out at restaurants, to get the latest on his players from Rotoworld. His fantasy team ultimately came in second—but, as he always notes, just one point away from first. We’re now getting married, and I’ve accepted that I’ll spend years hearing about fantasy sports.

Part of me still wants to say that fantasy misses the point. It strips sports down to their most banal. Instead of standing in awe at feats of athleticism, fantasy fans stress out over players missing their statistical marks. The chemistry that gels when players work together matters less when the focus becomes who gets credit for which plays. Bold and crazy managerial decisions, risky moves that may or may not pay off quickly become frustrating in a game that spotlights what’s quantifiable.

The Astros have made me sad many more times than they’ve made me happy—the last two seasons have reached historic lows—but I’ve always loved my connection to the team. The players on the screen can’t hear you rooting. The GM doesn’t hear you screaming that the trade he’s considering is a terrible idea. Lord knows, the umps never hear you shout with words a family newspaper would refuse to print that they just made the dumbest call ever. At the heart of it, though, there’s this: Fans believe that our cheering means something, that somehow we have helped with the win or contributed to the loss. It’s a fantasy more powerful than any silly league.

The implications of fantasy sports are huge—and not just for those who play. Markets reward the most active participants. Fantasy is part of Marissa Mayer’s widely watched efforts to revive Yahoo, and leagues like the NFL have gone mobile in part to help those checking their phones for stats updates. But the rest of us feel it, too. Baseball Prospectus was always a compendium of statistics and analysis, geared to a self-selecting audience, but its editors now largely assume their readers are using it for fantasy and provide columns and analysis specifically for fantasy players. During football season, ESPN now has an hour-long show on game days (often featuring Berry) devoted to fantasy. On networks, it’s common for the sports ticker at the bottom of the screen to include high fantasy scorers. Sports Illustrated, Fox, and CBS are all making fantasy more visible, with the hopes more people will join the ranks of the addicted. On his blog, Berry has played around with fantasy versions of other parts of daily life: fantasy summer movie blockbusters, fantasy reality TV, even fantasy Thanksgiving (you lose points for getting sucked into shopping). It’s all fun and games, except we are moving further and further into a realm where things count to the extent they can be counted and even moments of leisure must be, somehow, hard-core. (According to Vanity Fair, Okrent, fantasy’s founding father,
has switched to a lower-maintenance,  “slo-pitch” version that lets you “lead your life like a semi-normal person.”)

As a child, I loved opening baseball cards, watching games at home, and, better yet, driving to a stadium. But my nostalgia is increasingly for a time when we had a middle ground about our passions—a commitment both deep and uncomplicated to a team that didn’t require constant tending. Fantasy sports is just another arena of life in which we’ve given up a sustainable connection for something that seems to promise more rewards. The extra work may give a sense of results, of measurable accomplishment. Whether our teams win or lose, we’re spared the risk of boredom—we have backup. But it’s hard to match the magic of old-school fandom.

Among the great team-driven moments in my life was a 2003 night when the Astros played the Yankees. Of course the Yankees, with hundreds of millions in payroll, can snag whatever player they want—every good sports movie has an evil team, and that team is usually the Yankees. But on that night in 2003, while playing the Yankees, the Astros used six pitchers to serve up what’s normally an individual feat: a no-hitter. It was the first time the Yankees had seen a no-hitter since 1958. I watched the game with my mother and father in silence. We didn’t get up throughout the game, afraid that any change to our positioning might create a cosmic shift that could undo the moment. When the Astros finally won, we burst into cheers and hugs, beaming at one another. No one bothered to find out how the game would affect the pitchers’ statistics. 

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