Saturday, July 20, 2013

Friday Baseball Post

Did you all happen to read Abby Rapoport's essay on fantasy sports over at the Prospect this week? It was about the differences between being a regular sports fan -- a fan of a team -- and a fantasy player. And mostly, it was very nice. In particular, I think she's great on the differences between a team fan and a fantasy fan.

Still...

For one thing, I think she doesn't sufficiently appreciate how much roto and fantasy sports has brought baseball fans. Bill James, and the success of the Abstracts, basically preceded roto, but basically the explosion of information, as much as it was technically enabled by the internet, has always been all about fantasy. Not just raw information, either. Fantasy created a market for sabermetrics, or at least a market that could sustain more than just one brilliant writer. One might even argue that it was fantasy that created real-life teams eventually adopting advanced analysis over the last twenty years. Sure, there was always an incentive for someone to innovate. But it must have helped that there were all those people around who were demonstrating, year in and year out, that some of the old myths weren't true. If I'm right about that, then roto has made the game on the field better.

I think she really missed the right context on this. For Rapoport, fantasy sports are something that basically trace back to roto, and Daniel Okrent. And that's definitely true...in a sense.

But it's only part of the story.

In once sense, fantasy reaches back before Okrent to APBA, Strat, and the other replay games. I played APBA before I played roto, and playing some kind of replay game has been a big part of the way kids were baseball fans for...well, I think it goes back to the 1930s or 1940s, and could be earlier. Tabletop games can have drafts that could be very similar to fantasy drafts, and play out those fantasy seasons. Of course, it's not exactly the same thing, but the idea of being a manager or general manager of real players is a pretty large overlap.

But the other piece of the context that Rapoport ignores is perhaps even more basic: gambling. One way to look at the emergence of fantasy sports is simply as part of the long, long, long story of gambling on sports. And as such, we can remember that for all our nostalgia about growing up as a fan of a team, there have always been rabid sports fans whose allegiance and rooting interest has been on where their money was.

I recognize the behavior Rapoport talks about -- flipping from game to game, only interested in watching "my" players...but after some 25 years of roto (yeah, that's still what I play, 1988 book rules), I'm not nearly as rabid as I once was. Which certainly doesn't help my Blue Sox. Our season's trade deadline was today, and while I tell myself I was busy with an unusually busy work week, what with Senate reform and all, the truth is that twenty years ago I would have found the time to put together a bunch of trade offers. On the other hand, I've always played AL-only roto, leaving me free (at least before the curse of interleague play) to stay a "normal" fan in the National League while being, basically, a Blue Sox fan in the Junior Circuit.

Which also gets to the idea that there are, of course, lots of different kinds of fantasy players. I had two teams at the same time exactly one year, long ago, and I didn't like it at all. But plenty of people are happy playing in several leagues. I can sort of imagine what that's like, but mostly it just seems very different to me, and, for me, a lot less fun. Also, league cultures certainly differ. My league isn't really much for the trash talk and the posturing. Not really sure why, but there just doesn't seem to be much.

At any rate...I've had the good fortune now to know what a roto title feels like and to know what it's like when my team wins the World Series. They're both fun! But very different. When the Blue Sox do well, for me it is exactly like a gambling win; it's like playing a poker hand well or hitting a winning exacta. When the Giants win...well, I don't wear Blue Sox shirts and don't have Blue Sox mugs and, of course, there are no fellow Blue Sox fans to celebrate with. (OK, I do have a Blue Sox that that my wife made me. It's awesome. Then again, I don't even know how many Giants hats I own).

At any rate, my main point here is that fantasy baseball is far more in keeping with the history of baseball fandom than Rapoport lets on; it's just continuous with traditions a bit different from the tradition of team loyalty.

And now, having listened to the Giants beating the DBacks and also having checked how all my Blue Sox players have done tonight (dropped a point, still in second place), I think I'm done here for now.

6 comments:

  1. Here's an interesting illustration of your conclusion: Ichiro Suzuki is currently tied for 66th among active players in OPS+. The most comparable player (age + yrs of service) among those with whom he's tied is Michael Cuddyer.

    When Ichiro had that MVP rookie season in 2001, arguably just before sabermetrics broke huge, he certainly didn't *seem* like a Michael Cuddyer-type player. Today, even as he's about to deliver on the improbable dream of 3,000 hits with a late start, he does seem pretty much Michael Cuddyer-ish, doesn't he? Better than average, but striking out way too much to be the guy we thought he was in the prehistoric days of 2001?

    Even as a professed skeptic of many of the "trees", it strikes me that Abby Rappaport's argument misses the forest for said trees. There may be many opportunity areas for sabermetrics to understand baseball more effectively, but as the Ichiro example shows, sabermetrics has completely changed the way we think about the game.

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  2. Here's my big question about Fantasy baseball. Bottom of the 9th. Giants are down by a run. But Papelbon, your fantasy closer, is pitching. Who do you root for, the Giants or Papelbon?

    In my experience, I almost always root for my "real" team. But this would be a good question for your baseball fan readers.

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  3. I grew up a baseball fan, specifically of the Pittsburgh Pirates. To this day I can tell you Roberto Clemente's batting average in 1958 and the starting lineup in 1960. At the same time, I had my fantasy games--played with baseball cards and friends or alone--and my fantasy play by play with a wiffle ball and bat, and even my fantasy major league, with myself as the modest home run king, described in breathless headlines in brown school notebooks.

    But fantasy was something to do between real games--either listening/watching or playing, or even between real games of bases or shagging flies or playing catch. Statistics were about real players on real teams in real years. Did somebody's batting average one year predict the next year? I think I could answer that one by 12 years old.

    I first heard of roto leagues when a friend at the New York Post was in one, no later than the mid 1980s. I was only slightly intrigued. Never really tempted. If I can't feel the ball in the glove, then at least I have to see the field, hear the fans. That's my perspective. Now, if I could find my baseball cards...

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  4. As someone who went from Cadaco All-Star Baseball, to APBA, to Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, to the second ever Rotisserie League (I was an observer at Okrent's original league's second draft, before Okrent wrote his first article (in SI, I think)), but only lasted one year in that league (it's still going) before returning to APBA and Out Of the Park Baseball, I can safely say that the problem with fantasy sports as currently practiced is that they're all about theory and statistics, lacking the true joy of actually playing the games. Rooting for Matt Harvey's statistical success just isn't the same as rooting for him, and his teammates, to win an actual game.

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  5. I hate to burst your bubble about Ted Cruz. He was born in Canada, therefore making him ineligible for president of the US. Stop writing these inane and pointless articles about his presidential aspirations.

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