Baseball has indeed expanded beyond the American and National League to the Fantasy League. The stadium of the mind is embodied in the burgeoning Rotisserie League, where every fan can run his own team. Organized 11 years ago by a small group of fans and writers, an estimated 2 million persons are playing in this field of schemes. The reality is that fantasy baseball has become big time, with a national expenditure of an estimated $50 million to buy teams and millions more on statistical services to keep fans up to date.
Unlike the product, the dollars are real. And the insatiable appetites of Rotisserians have yielded super fans.
* A sports reporter who abandoned his Mets story to meet the Rotisserie trading deadline.
* A New Jersey player who figured statistics for five separate leagues until an automobile accident left him in a coma.
* A Manhattan man who worried that his pregnant wife's due date would interfere with the Rotisserie draft.
* A 66-year-old California man who roots for his Rotisserie team over his beloved Oakland Athletics.
None of this is what Dan Okrent or his fellow inventors had in mind years ago when they started the Rotisserie fire in a Manhattan restaurant of the same name. Preliminary meetings were held in Tony's Italian Kitchen, so the game just missed being called Tony's Italian Kitchen League. Good thing talks weren't held in the bathroom.
The founding fathers of Rotisserie were frugal gourmets, playing for fun more than dollars, for sport more than ego. Glen Waggoner, one of the founders, says the imperative was simple. The game as invented was for relentless whimsy," he said. "I truly believe that is the way we still play it. The detour is in an obsession with stats, the dark side of trying to screw your fellow owners, things like that. We don't control the monster; we created the game but there are many who play with exactly the spirit we created."
Okrent, a contributing editor for Life magazine, is considered the inventor of Rotisserie baseball. He's also fed up with it. "It's become something of a bane in my life," he said. "People only want to talk to me about this. About 4-5 years ago I was giving a speech to a group of bankers in Boston about the state of the New England economy and when I finished this guy in a three-piece suit gets up and says, 'How much should I pay for Rickey Henderson?' Even if I find a cure for cancer or bring peace to the Middle East, when I die my obituary is going to say, 'Okrent, inventor of Rotisserie, dies.' I'm doomed to be known for this."
Rotisserie baseball is easy to organize. A group of "owners," who have a spending limit of $260 or so, conduct a draft to select a team. Each owner buys 25 or more players up to his spending limit. After that the Rotisserians merely follow the daily box scores to check on the progress of their individual players. Trades can occur between owners until the deadline agreed to by the group of participants. At the end of the real baseball season, the owner with the most points wins a cash prize that can run into the thousands of dollars. There is an unconfirmed report of a league in Las Vegas with an entrance fee of $25,000, but most groups have cash prizes of a few hundred or few thousand at most.
Where do real baseball fans stand when Rotisserie play begins? What happens when a New York Yankee fan, who happens to have Roger Clemens on his fantasy team, is faced with Clemens pitching a shutout or allowing a home run to Don Mattingly? "If your head is screwed on right you resolve that conflict in favor of your traditional team loyalty," Waggoner said. "Let's be serious, we're playing a game. If you've been a Yankee fan for 40 years, something is wrong if this game turns you into something else."
Some fantasy fans disagree. Joel Horowitz is commissioner of a league in New Jersey. "These guys [professional ballplayers] are more or less mercenaries," Horowitz said. "A fan gets upset if his team loses? No way. These guys are making millions of dollars, they get the best women and I'm supposed to be sad if they lose a game? That's so absurd."
Lou Goodman, a 66-year-old retired executive who lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., has to be Mr. Rotisserie. He used to play gin rummy in his spare time. He gave it up for Rotisserie baseball and is considered to be the most successful player in the lTC country. He plays in five leagues and has won in all of them on a constant basis.