Fantasy Indeed

[from The Art of Sports / February 12, 2007]

Aside from the obvious reasons that it’s an excuse to gamble, swear, goof off and generally not do anything even remotely productive, it was never quite clear to me what exactly draws adults into joining fantasy sports leagues.

Certainly no isolated hobby – iMedia estimates that online fantasy sports are a $1.5 billion industry annually – it’s disconcerting all the same. What sane person wants to look at spreadsheets full of RISP and VORP comparisons? Who wants to spend their summer keeping track of guys like Jose Guillen and Neifi Perez, or debating whether Mark Bellhorn is a second baseman or a third baseman?

I would sit there at work listening to guys gushing about who stole how many bases last Sunday or who they hoped would hit a home run this weekend, or why such-and-such pitcher was a “stud.”

They sounded familiar, I thought, the way I did when I was a kid, getting just a bit too worked up about how many strikeouts Jack McDowell picked up against Oakland or whether or not Karko would be off the DL in time for the big series next week against Detroit.

And then one day, after hearing that Billy Wagner blew another save and indirectly helped that kid who sat on the fourth floor take the points lead in the office league, it hit me: fantasy sports, for all the talk of studying the game and assessing statistical weight, are really just the paperless modern update of the baseball cards my friends and I used to be so hardcore about.

“I’ll trade you this Donruss Ellis Burks for that Stadium Club Gold Nolan Ryan” could just as easily become “I’ll trade you Jeff Weaver for Albert Pujols.” It’s about giving yourself a larger stake in the game most of us no longer can play. It’s about trying to scam your friends. It’s the illusion of control over a larger entity and of benefiting from some stranger’s achievement.

Once upon a time it was a piece of laminated cardboard going up in value; now it’s putting up a few hundred dollars each April in the hopes that Derek Jeter will get enough RBI this year to win you your money back several times over.

In a way, it’s the natural evolution from boyhood hero-worship to full-out adult man-love. It’s a way for adult men to somehow mooch off of other adult men, albeit other adult men they’ve never met and who have infinitely cooler day jobs.

Such is life: once a fanboy, always a fanboy.