Friday, May 27, 2011

On Putting Fantasy Above Reality In Baseball

kendrys moralesOn May 29, 2010, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim first baseman Kendrys Morales won a game against the Seattle Mariners with a grand slam home run – the first ever in his young career. Few things in baseball are more exciting than a grand slam, so to win a game with one guarantees the play airtime on SportsCenter.

Unfortunately, Morales received SportsCenter coverage for more than his home run. Brimming with pride upon winning the game, Morales rounded the bases and leapt onto home plate in exultation. A bone in his left leg broke on impact. Surrounded by his teammates, he fell to the ground in pain. Celebration turned to tragedy in a heartbeat.

Morales has not played a big-league game since. He was expected to play this season, but complications in his rehabilitation will prevent him from taking the field in 2011.

Why does this matter to me, an obnoxiously dedicated Philadelphia Phillies fan? Morales was on my fantasy team.

Fantasy baseball as it is played today was created in 1980 by sportswriter Daniel Okrent, who adapted previous versions of the game into what he dubbed “Rotisserie League Baseball”. Rotisserie players – let’s call them ‘owners’ for clarity’ – manage a team of actual baseball players (see the need for clarity?) and compete against one another using the players’ statistics to score points. Rotisserie’s innovation was to use actual day-to-day stats in specific categories rather than earlier practices of using past player data to simulate games.

Because of the larger rosters and longer schedule, fantasy baseball makes for a more intensive game than others such as football. Owners often manage their rosters on a day-to-day basis, calibrating their lineup to maximize scoring. However, the streaky nature of many major leaguers (a by-product of the grueling 162-game schedule) makes predicting player performance incredibly difficult. Victory rarely comes to the player who simply drafts a handful of good players and never changes his lineup.

It’s all a numbers game. In a standard rotisserie league, each player can help you in any of ten statistical categories (five for hitters, five for pitchers). Good players contribute to each evenly or dominate a few at the expense of others. You then must play or bench players with some regard to potential performance on any given day. Is this guy good against righty or lefty pitchers? Should I play someone who’s slumping on the off-chance that he gets me a few stolen bases? Will trading my stud third baseman for two or three pitchers help me improve in other categories?

fantasy failure

To Fantasy Baseball Owner Craig, each player is five potential stats. That’s it. Kendrys Morales is not a Cuban All-Star-turned-defector-turned-breakout first baseman who suffered a tragically ironic injury in only his second year in the majors and suffered further injury during his rehab. To F.B.O. Craig, Morales is a wasted draft pick.

This is the disconnect between Fantasy and Baseball.

I’m not proud of it. I don’t like being mad at Mets third baseman David Wright because he’s been underperforming and is now on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his back. As a fan of the sport, I should be rooting for one of its best players to make a speedy recovery just because he makes the game better.

I should be, but I’m not. If I can put aside my anger longer enough to root for his recovery, it’s because, on one of my two teams, I’m in last place in the home runs and need use his bat in my lineup. There’s even a chance Wright comes back soon and tries to play through the pain without undergoing extensive rehab/surgery. That increases the odds he will either A) get hurt worse or B) play below his baseball card averages due to injury. This will make me just as mad as the initial injury.

david wright dl

David Wright should be commended for wanting to recuperate as quickly as possible and help a struggling franchise like the Mets win some games. Mets fans may be dismayed by his absence, but they should be encouraged by his tenacity and dedication.

I, of course, don’t care. I have a hole at third base and am having trouble finding a suitable replacement.

There’s that “I” again. Fantasy baseball shifts the role of the baseball fan into a much more personal one. You aren’t rooting for your community’s team or the team your dad made you watch as a kid. You are a fan base of one, cheering at a list of twenty-some guys on your computer screen. Chances are your real-life friends who follow baseball are competing against you in a fantasy league; they won’t be cheering with you at the bar when your shortstop steals second.

The fantasy of fantasy baseball isn’t the same one that drives middle-aged men to attend “Fantasy Camps” in Florida. This isn’t the fantasy of playing the game of baseball; it’s the fantasy of running a team that way you want to. Of being the lone guy at the top of the ladder making all the decisions. Anyone who’s ever considered writing an angry letter to their local team’s general manager can attest to the immense satisfaction running a fantasy team can provide.

But we shouldn’t get so carried away with the fantasy that we forget about the reality of the sport. These men face tremendous pressures: injuries, salary negotiations, long seasons on the road away from their families, fans like myself who flood the Internet with thoughts good and bad about their play. To us, it’s a game. To them, it’s a game, but it’s also their job. Morales defected from his native Cuba to play professional ball in the States. Now his career is in limbo due to a freak injury. Wright is doing the best he can on a flawed team, and half of New York City will expect him to carry the Mets on his stress-fractured back when he returns.

Fantasy sports are a peculiar breed of game. They run in abstract parallel to another game, and your potential move-set in fantasy is wholly reliant on someone else’s performance in reality. Think Human Chess. Let’s just try to remember that the pieces are actual people, not pawns playing for our amusement.

UPDATE: This xkcd comic perfectly expresses the ultimate futility of playing fantasy.