A few weeks ago, I referred in this space to college football recruiting as "the 'Dungeons & Dragons' of sports" or something in that vein, but the truth is the analogy is better suited for that other athletic growth industry—fantasy sports.
That's not as easy to write as it would have been a year ago, before I agreed to participate in a fantasy baseball league, or had enjoyed it so much I'm excited to do it again.
This is somewhat of a change of heart because fantasy sports are, of course, about "fantasy," which is not very sporting and conjures up, well, "D&D," Harry Potter and "The Lord of the Rings," whose charms, frankly, are lost on me. They are also about the individual over the team, which my ingrained sports ethic cannot abide. In January, I forbade friends watching with me from even thinking about their fantasy teams during the Saints' playoff game with the Bears, every neuron of devotion being karmically required elsewhere. Their make-believe season was over, so there was not even a rooting interest at stake in the digression, and still a Marques Colston drop inevitably prompted fantasy-based conjecture.
Such is the obsessive draw of one's own sporting Frankenstein. Even your favorite real team is probably indifferent to your opinions, but any fantasy manager who has taken the time to research and assemble dozens of disparate parts into a coherent whole, breathing life into a functioning, competitive beast that can hold its own against his friends' little monsters, has an obvious investment in the thing's fate. Sometimes financial, depending on the league, but almost always, in some way, emotional.
Last summer, I signed on to play fantasy baseball in an online league hosted by my then-roommate. Baseball has its advantages as a statistically driven enterprise (mainly because of sample size, as the major leagues' marathon season crams in 10 times the games the physically bruising NFL could possibly muster), but for the most part, I just don't care very much about baseball. I haven't followed it with any regularity in a decade, have made no effort to keep track of the massive free-agent defections and have never had a favorite team. A fantasy baseball team incorporates every position on the field, while fantasy football teams consist only of a few offensive positions that regularly handle the ball, and success at those positions is dependent on the play of teammates with no fantasy role. Every baseball player steps to the mound or the batter's box as an individual in control of his own statistical fate. So if fantasy sports are responsible for undermining the concept of "team" in our most pristine pastime, well, fine by me. I can read Philip Roth's "Great American Novel" or a thousand other odes for all that steroid-shredded nostalgia.
My position on this league prior to the season was at best lackadaisical. I figured I'd check in on my lineup once a week, if I got around to it, to bench injuries if nothing else. As unquestionably the least knowledgeable baseball guy in the 12-man league, I had no chance to win, right? So why did I take it so personally when my team, The Stoics, struggled out of the gate and limped to ninth place after the first few weeks? How is it that my progress report quickly became daily, two or three times most days, and that a sizeable chunk of a routine morning at the office consisted of setting my lineup for the day and comparing the RBIs of my struggling catcher with those of a half dozen available free agents, seemingly all named "Hernandez"? That I watched, more than once, "Baseball Tonight"?
Not only did I anger the other owners by doubling them up for sheer volume of roster moves (for a while, I kept a rotating spot open to grab pitchers for one start, then drop them), but also by using my ignorance to my advantage. D. Uggla, for example, was an unknown rookie for the Florida Marlins, but where other managers were wary of a free agent they would never heard of, I'd never heard of anybody—all I saw when I needed a new second baseman was his point total. Uggla became a key contributor in The Stoics' leap to second place, and eventually I even learned his first name: Dan. For months, I had unconsciously extrapolated the initial 'D' into 'Darren,' but hey, the kid could hit!
By August, I understood slightly the obsession. In my head, the fictional Stoics, as they clung to a realistic chance of winning it all, took on the style of play their name symbolized: an emotionless consistency that went out to get the job done with no complaints, no excuses, no hype, no bragging. They became, in fact, a team: "They called you boys a joke, a fluke, misfits, and you proved them wrong!"
I have no idea if a single player on The Stoics embodied any of those qualities in his actual performance. I know that one, Manny Ramirez, almost certainly did not. I don't know if any of the as-yet unselected players on this year's team, The Capitalists, believes in the efficacy of an unfettered market economy, either. I do know the league members humbled by The Stoics' surprising performance last year have adjusted the rules to thwart their style of play, drastically limiting the number of allowable moves to 40 to add more weight to the initial draft. But I know also that I am looking forward to this foolishness anyway, and that I'm picking a catcher before the third round.