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Remembering the Fun of Fantasy Baseball
Dan Port | Tuesday April 10th, 2012
Some fantasy players forget to have fun playing the game. (US Presswire)
Some fantasy players forget to have fun playing the game. (US Presswire)
Why do we play fantasy baseball?  For fun, right? 

That's how we start.  We're all looking for a way to enhance the game we love- a way to make every game mean more and lead to more fun.  So we study it.  The more you understand it, the more you'll probably enjoy it.

Available data and technology has made that possible, and it's no coincidence that the popularity of fantasy baseball exploded at the same time that sabermetrics/deep analytics/whatever you call it went through a massive acceleration.  Indeed, new statistics, new metrics, and the growth of the internet are forever linked to each other and the growth of online fantasy games.  The last decade or so has truly been the golden age for baseball data and analysis, and fantasy baseball has been undeniably changed by it.

What began as a "silly little game" played on index cards for mild amusement has erupted into a multi-billion dollar industry loaded with high-stakes cash competitions, cutthroat tactics, relentless smack talk, and, of course, loads of analysts peddling information and calling themselves "experts."

A few words on these "experts":

Drifting somewhere between legitimate journalists and amateur bloggers are a slew of fantasy baseball "experts" who spend hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of hours pouring over the most obscure of baseball data, all in an attempt to assemble it into a conclusion explaining present player performance and predicting future numbers (it should be noted that parts of Baseball Press settle into this field, though we have never claimed ourselves as "experts" and have never sold content or begged for donations).  Some "experts" or "gurus" are content to work ferociously on their hobby and accept moderate fame in the baseball "blogosphere" and social media circles as their only reward.  Others, though, are quick to attempt to profit off of their efforts and can turn caustic when confronted with criticism or disagreements.

It's not unreasonable to attempt to make financial or professional gains from one's efforts (it's the core of capitalist society), but with the current saturation of fantasy baseball "experts" online, compiling data and forming subjective conclusions from it seems akin to setting up a food stand at a free all-you-can-eat buffet.  Without a unique twist or specific niche to set one apart, the appeal isn't really there (and even if it is, it's still easy to get ignored or overshadowed).  Furthermore, with enough time, education, and motivation, anyone could conceivably replicate similar analysis and call himself an expert.

Like so many others, I began participating in fantasy baseball over ten years ago as a fun hobby that also helped me learn more about the game and the players involved.  Back then, the fantasy landscape was simpler and it was a casual activity between friends.  That's no longer the case for many fantasy players.

The explosion of data has changed things, and to remain competitive fantasy players have had to integrate a plethora of strategies into each season of play.  Not doing so is a recipe for failure, even in more casual leagues.

In 2010, Bill James, the universally recognized father of sabermetrics, made a brief cameo appearance on an episode of The Simpsons and quipped:  "I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes."  Fantasy baseball has certainly gone that route too (though online forms have made tax preparation far simpler than fantasy draft preparation).

I play fantasy baseball because I like baseball, not because I like math or research or staring at a computer screen looking at spreadsheets of data.  However, like most people, I am a competitive person who hates losing, so the time and work involved in playing fantasy baseball is something I deal with and sometimes enjoy the discovery of.  But again, the primary goal is having fun.  Winning is fun too.

For some fantasy players, things have evolved and they may now have other goals.

It's pretty apparent that, as fantasy competition has gotten more and more cutthroat, some players are competing as a means of intellectual egotism.  What this means is that, while a first place finish is desirable, some players are more concerned with being right about a certain decision than their spot in the final standings.  As a whole, winning replaced fun as the motivation to play, then winning was eventually replaced by this overwhelming desire to prove yourself smarter by finding "diamonds in the rough" or "sleepers" or pulling off "steals" in trade that other fantasy competitors were unable to see and discover.

This loss of perspective has some strange effects.  There are fantasy players who don't attend, watch, or listen to games and only experience baseball via box scores and statistics.  For these folks, professional baseball players may become trade commodities and just names and numbers on a page, instead of human beings.  The games may become lists of stats, and seasons may become mere packets of data.  Their  fandom evolves into just number research determining educated guesses.

And educated guesses is all they are, though some stat worshipers may be reluctant to admit that.  Major League Baseball, like all physical sports, retains a lot of unpredictability.   Sub-standard players have big performances, consistent superstars suffer failures, and talent-heavy teams post losing records.  If all of the numbers could predict all of the events, the games would be played on a computer instead of a diamond of grass and dirt.  Would many even prefer that?  Are the actual games just a necessary annoyance?

Is the game within the game supplanting the the game itself?

This question struck me last season, as I sat at my computer at 1 o'clock in the morning in a bedroom lit only by the glow of a system monitor, waiting for a recent big league call-up to clear waivers.  I wondered what had become of the teenage version of myself who had once viewed fantasy baseball as a fun break from the stress of school and social pressures.  Recreation started to feel like work, and I wasn't sure how I got to that point.

Very few people make a liveable wage from fantasy baseball, and those who do are mostly journalists and analysts for major sports news organizations.  Playing in a fantasy league probably shouldn't be a 20 or 30 or 40 hour-a-week commitment, because it certainly doesn't pay like a job should.  It's a hobby, and hobbies are supposed to be fun.  They help you relax.  Fantasy baseball is often more frustration than relaxation.

On a recent Baseball Press podcast, Nate Springfield and I had a lengthy impromptu discussion about balancing fantasy baseball with the rest of one's life.  Nate and I have different lifestyles right now (he's married with children, I am single and spend my weekends bar-hopping) but we're both committed to certain personal and professional obligations outside of Baseball Press and our fantasy baseball leagues.  Those "real life" commitments dictate how much time and energy we have for fantasy sports.  And really, that's the way it should be, but sometimes it's easy to lose that perspective.

In summary, I hope this writing is not read as hostility toward the always-growing intensity around fantasy baseball.  I love baseball and, overall, I love playing fantasy baseball.  However, I think it's vital for all of us, from the casual roto competitor with one Yahoo team to the most hardened fantasy analyst putting in twenty hours of weekly research for NFBC or Fangraphs' Ottoneu, to occasionally step back and ask why we're doing it, what we're getting out of it, and whether it's all worth continuing.  Ask if it's still fun or fulfilling.

If it isn't, I'm sure there's a spot near me at the bar.
Dan PortDan Port has been a writer and article editor for Baseball Press since the fall of 2009. He's a Wisconsin native and Los Angeles resident, as well as an aspiring novelist, moderately successful gambler, and avid craft beer aficionado. You can reach him at dan@baseballpress.com or check him out on Twitter @danport and at DanielPort.com.