Baseball season is around the corner. But now, what goes hand in hand with the umpire yelling “play ball” in the first official game that will take place in Japan between Oakland and Seattle on Wednesday is the wave of six million plus fantasy baseball players who spend, on average, three hours per week managing their imaginary teams picked from real players and $175 a year on software, magazines and other research tools.
When I first entered the major leagues in 1996, the Internet was but an infant and fans still came up to me to ask me to sign their Strat-O-Matic cards. The Strat-O-Matic game, which dated back to the early 1960s, consisted of one card for each MLB player and three dice that you rolled to fine the in-game result. It was the precursor to today’s fantasy teams—you could make up any league structure, any game schedule, and play to your hearts content. I used to love Strat-O-Matic when I was a kid and for the first time, it introduced fans to players from all over the country not just their local teams.
But by the end of my MLB career in 2004, the Internet was allowing fantasy players from all over the world to compete with one another. When fans came up to me to tell me that I was anchoring their fantasy team, it felt a little odd to be so disconnected from the team I was playing for, and to have that fan’s attention so focused on what I was doing for their virtual team. Having a favorite team to follow was not enough anymore as players were mixed and matched in a smorgesbord of personnel decisions. Eventually I came to believe that fantasy baseball creates a higher level of connection between fan and player, bringing me into their home even during the off season and creating a vibrant and active secondary world.
Although I generally avoided playing in the fantasy realm—it’s too much of a commitment—I do think that fantasy has challenged us in how we evaluate players. ESPN now has two primary fantasy gurus, Matthew Berry and Eric Karabell, who are top flight analysts studying metrics and statistics to the depth of any general manager running a team. As an analyst, now I really do have to know who the back-up shortstop is for the Seattle Mariners is and what he did against left-handed pitching, or what the strengths and weaknesses for the set-up man for the Colorado Rockies may be. Fantasy has made not just fans but commentators significantly more educated about players.
Yes, numbers can take over for the passion for the game or even become its own passion, when it comes to everything from evaluating talent to knowing whether or not someone has broken a record. But by allowing everyone to make decisions about how to run a team, fantasy has enhanced reality.