Dream Teams

Tired of second-guessing how your favorite sports clubs are managed? Fantasy leagues let you take charge of the action.


I ATTENDED BASEBALL camp at Gettysburg College when I was still in elementary school. One rainy afternoon, we were trapped inside and a coach asked if anybody knew which Hall-of-Famer had come from Gettysburg. I shot my hand up and blurted "Eddie Plank."

The man looked at me like I was an alien. He had meant the question rhetorically, I suppose. "Yeah, he won 326 games for the old Philadelphia Athletics," I added helpfully.

Another stunned look from coach.

Little did I know, but in that exchange and many others like it, I was revealing myself as a baseball "geek" - a kid so obsessed with baseball and its statistics that I would look for any possible way to connect with the game. And exactly the kind of fan who would later become a fantasy baseball player.

As it turns out, there are millions of others like me (though maybe not so hardcore), and thus, fantasy sports leagues have become big business. Imaginary games are such an accepted part of fandom these days that I write a weekly column for this newspaper covering the fantasy terrain.

But the saturation hasn't reached everyone. Since the column began, many people have expressed curiosity about fantasy baseball and football. What are the rules? How do you get started?

First, fantasy baseball does not require an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane statistics. If you have a good general knowledge of current baseball players and you know what ERA and RBI stand for, you'll be fine.

The whole crazy thing began in 1979 at La Rotisserie Francais, a (now defunct) French bistro in Manhattan. A few magazine writers and advertising executives decided they were tired of second-guessing the men who ran real baseball teams. So they figured they'd create their own game and their own teams. That outing, organized by writer and editor Daniel Okrent, begat Rotisserie baseball.

The game started almost as a tongue-in-cheek exercise, but soon, the first fantasy owners found themselves playing with greater intensity than they had expected. They then published a book to introduce the game to the masses. I discovered it as a seventh-grader at Gilman School.

The concept is simple. You get together with 10 or 12 fellow fans, and from a pool of major-league players (some fantasy leagues use only the National or American League), you assemble teams of 23 starters and a few reserves. You (or more likely an Internet stat service) then track the players' statistics in eight to 10 categories, including home runs and batting average for position players, wins and ERA for pitchers. Whoever's team has the best overall rankings in those categories at the end of the baseball season wins.

Picking a team

There are two ways to pick teams: auction and draft.

The original Rotisserie league used an auction format, allotting a $260 budget to each team (the money need not be real). Many fantasy veterans consider this the only pure form.

Someone might start by saying "Albert Pujols for $30," and every owner, moving in a pre-set order, would then have a chance to raise the bid on Pujols. Once bidding ended, the next person in order might say "Randy Johnson for $25," and the auction would move around the room again. You continue in that fashion until every team is full.

Auctions are great fun because they require you to think on many levels. You must know the players and also the tendencies of the other owners. Can you get your friend Nick to bid $50 on Pujols or not? If so, you've drained his budget and crippled him for a few rounds of bidding. If not, you may have gotten stuck with an expensive player who doesn't fit your strategy.

You must remain aware of how much money each owner has and of how many quality players are left at a given position. You must enter with a plan but be flexible as conditions change. These auctions can take all day and achieve great intensity (the possibilities for taunting are endless). They are best left to people who know one another or who know the game well.

Many other leagues, especially more casual ones that select players on the Internet, use straight draft formats. Most drafts take a "snake" format, meaning the owner who selects first in round one selects last in round two and vice-versa.

Drafts tend to move more quickly than auctions because they involve fewer steps. They require close monitoring of the talent remaining at each position, but there's no budget to worry about. And drafts proceed in a logical fashion, with the best players going first and the least appealing going at the end.

Getting organized

Most leagues use Internet-based services to keep statistics and manage roster moves. My leagues use CBSSportsline.com and TQStats.com, but a simple online search will turn up many other options. You'll end up paying about $10 per person for such services, which update statistics and league standings daily. (Many send daily or weekly e-mail reports as well.)

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