Fantasy football season might be upon us, but it doesn’t hold a candle to fantasy baseball. So says Travis Timmons.
Everyone you know is probably in draft mode—fantasy football draft mode, that is. It’s that time of year.
I’m no different. A couple of weeks ago, while in San Diego visiting my family, sons and father had a raucous time as held our draft, live and in person. This event is the both the highlight and climax of fantasy football for me.
Baseball is different, though. The next day, I returned to my dear fantasy baseball team, like returning to a long novel that is now roaring toward its well-earned climax. See, fantasy baseball has ruined me for anything else fantasy-related.
I had always thought fantasy sports were pointless. You know, what else signaled the decline and fall of civilization, our modern malaise, our alienation, all wrapped up in one activity? Playing a game with avatars (really just numbers) of real men seemed silly. I secretly judged those who played, and mumbled vagaries about instrumentalization. Even as I continue to play fantasy sports, I still vacillate between thinking the whole thing silly and thinking it’s somehow meaningful—an admittedly ambivalent state.
My resistance began melting away when a friend asked me to play in his fantasy football league. I won’t lie; the experience wasn’t earth-shattering. I didn’t witness another cathedral of civilization crash down, nor did I discover that fantasy football is the best thing ever. What I found instead was something more banal—people linked by a single friend (like the hub of a wheel), playing a game of weekly point scoring.
Don’t get me wrong, I love games. After all, I devoted most of my life in middle and high school obsessively studying (“training”) and playing competitive chess. I can totally do games. However, in my first fantasy league experience I found fantasy football to be a mix of slightly boring and slightly engaging. (Those of us who played gobs of chess joke that the “royal game” kills your enjoyment of most other games.) Still, I soon found myself watching for the names of “my” players on the eternally rolling stats bar at the bottom of NFL broadcasts.
After my first couple years of fantasy football, a close friend asked me (again!) to join his fantasy baseball league. This immediately went better for me. My team, the Puget Pounders, won the regular season title through a dominating hitting performance, until the injury bug stung us in the playoffs (mostly unjustly!). (This year is no different: my Pounders hold a 16.5 game lead on everyone else. My friends despair again of the Pounders’ batting prowess.)
It so happens that I was just getting serious about baseball as cultural pursuit and had begun reading some sabermetric basics like the Fangraphs’ glossary, Bill James’ Historical Abstract, and Jonah Keri’s articles on Grantland. The timing was perfect, since the idea of playing fantasy baseball quickly became a means to an end. I had purpose; I wanted to see how the uniquely discrete data/statistical events featured in baseball played out over the longform narrative that is the baseball season. And the fact that I’m extremely competitive only heightened the project, since I could test ideas out empirically with a fantasy baseball team (e.g. how heavily do you weigh OBP when pondering a hitter’s value for power, RBI, or run production? Or how do you use FIP when deciding on a pitcher with that damned ERA number?).
So I wanted to see how these ideas worked out, like little machines—perhaps like William Carlos Williams’ claim that poems are little machines—and see how my own meddling interacts with the ideas. (Why else do soccer fans obsess over the intoxicating power of the infamous Football Manager, the greatest video game ever made?)
In baseball, there’s a discreteness to events. Plays stand quite alone in that they begin and end—unlike sports such as soccer, hockey, and basketball (“complex team invasion sports”). This discreteness is one reason the quantitative movement (i.e. sabermetrics) is so much more developed in baseball than in other sports. By playing fantasy baseball, you can tap into this body of work and watch, day by loving day, as count data add up (e.g. strikeouts, hits, HRs, steals, etc.) and rate stats tick up or down (e.g. WHIP, OPS, etc.). The fun is that you get to follow this data for 162 days. Over such a long stretch, the data categories for each player become little stories, especially as you begin to observe tendencies, like how hitters match up against certain types of pitchers, or vice-versa. To use an analogy, each player’s data categories combine like the character traits of a major character in a novel. It is for this reason that, elsewhere, I’ve called fantasy baseball the “Tolstoy of fantasy sports.”
I can take this analogy a step further. This year, over email, one of my friends and I discussed how we dread the mid-season redraft or dropping half the roster at the season’s end (we have a keeper league), because we get so attached to the players on our rosters, just as we get attached to the characters in a long novel. The season’s longform narrative allows us to carefully observe the data move bit-by-bit, as we develop emotional (yes, I’ll use the “e-word”) attachment to the players on our roster.
Other team “owners” in our league find being stuck with the same players all season to be stifling and boring—you know, the folks who offer trades every week. I have yet to accept a trade playing fantasy baseball. Coincidentally, my friend and I have made the fewest “roster moves” in the league, yet comfortably sit in 2nd and 1st in our division. I wish for a cause-and-effect relation to this correlation of devotion.
Imagining that the whole thing is one hell of a long fantasy football season is the opposite paradigm for playing fantasy baseball. Participants get bored with baseball’s dog days and so they trade away or waiver wire away to keep their interest piqued. Otherwise, like, where’s the fun? In anecdotal fashion, I’ve observed that these folks tend to dominant their fantasy football leagues.
I suppose I’ve a boring old soul of the sort that enjoys Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bill James, etc. So I don’t mean to condemn the way my other friends play fantasy baseball. It’s just that the way I play is a great fit for my personality, reading habits, and epistemological leanings. After all, fantasy baseball is still—no matter how you dress it up metaphysically—a silly game, like all other fantasy sports. Keeping this in mind, there’s no shame in playing fantasy baseball to win and doing what you must to keep your interest chugging along all those months. Yet I won’t stand down that easily from my claims about something else going on. After all, we play silly games for reasons, some of which I find incredibly compelling.
What compels me is the way that the baseball season is a “living” (unlike say, Breaking Bad, Girls, Game of Thrones, Mad Men) longform narrative we can experience publicly. Playing fantasy baseball only deepens the narrative for me, since the “silly game” immerses you in the story through the network of data points that constitute each player’s performance. Of course danger lurks here, too, but that’s a story for another day. For me, playing fantasy baseball connects me to the narrative with the bonus of seeing how my own observations and thinking play out in the controlled environment that is a fantasy sport.
But I also think there’s something beyond the narrative at work in fantasy baseball. For me, it’s also the way I follow the narrative that matters. By now, the idea that baseball’s glacial pace teaches patience is a sporting truism, often of nostalgic coloring. Rather than asserting that baseball teaches patience as a formed product, I’ll say that it exercises patience. Or, as NYU’s president John Sexton puts it, baseball “calls us to live slow and notice,” the central claim of his book Baseball as a Road to God. And fantasy baseball is a unique opportunity for living slow and noticing, since it necessarily involves you in the baseball season as you manage your silly little team.
For me, managing the Pounders enacts Sexton’s “living slowly and noticing” philosophy—perhaps one of the only areas in life I consistently practice this mode of being. And practice it is, as I wait for a pitcher’s sample size to begin filling out before I make a decision about whether to keep or trade him, or notice certain tendencies to emerge slowly with my hitters. Perhaps it’s troubling that fantasy baseball is the main outlet through which I practice these things (rather than, say, meditative prayer—I’m a Christian—or with my family), but the practice is there in whatever faint (pathetic?) form fantasy baseball takes. Besides, who’s to say that mindfully noticing a tree is somehow morally superior to noticing a baseball player?
I have one final point about playing fantasy baseball (and following baseball in general, I suppose): there’s a sort of letting go, a loss of control that’s involved. Over the course of a baseball season, so much can go wrong in a sport famously predicated on failure: injuries, surprise “career years”, System 1 thinking errors, or just plain old boredom. Thanks to this longform narrative, fantasy baseball’s lesson is poignant. You build and build and build, month after month after month, only to have the whole thing crash down in September. It’s existential stuff. Seriously!
Luckily, it’s just a silly game in a controlled environment, even if you do have money on the line. So there’s some safety in the lesson. But accepting uncertainty in the practice ground of fantasy baseball is surely—at the least, perhaps again in the faintest of forms—equipment for living.
Hopefully, by now you can understand why I’m all in with fantasy baseball and feel ruined for other fantasy sports, especially with the football season upon us. The NFL’s sample size is just too small, with its quick, slam-bam 17 week schedule. There’s no breathing time, no time for slow living and noticing.
Again, I don’t condemn anyone favoring the 17-week thrill ride that is fantasy football. It’s just that I sometimes want more than thrills.