In the summer of 1985 while at at a two-week camp in Terre Haute, I met a media professor from Indiana State. He told me about a game his colleagues had been playing for a few years. It involved real NFL football players and their scores during games each season. That conversation was my first exposure to fantasy sports and spawned 27 years and 80 seasons worth of league play.
I want to add at least one more season to that total. Beginning this May, GeekDad will field a fantasy baseball league for parents and their kids. Recruiting is currently underway to form a community of 16 ownership teams to shepherd franchises into weekly battle until a champion is crowned in early September.
The more sports-minded geeks in our community may already see the value of fantasy sports participation. For those others who need some convincing, here are five reasons to grab your child’s hand and volunteer together:
1. Geek History
Daniel Okrent’s Rotisserie League in 1979 is considered by many to be the first organized fantasy league for baseball (a football league actually predates Rotisserie by almost two decades). Unlike Strat-O-Matic, where statistics compiled during previous seasons are repurposed for games of chance, Rotisserie used current players and the stats they generated each day. However, the roots of fantasy sports go deeper into computer science and academia.
In 1960, John Burgeson’s IBM program simulated baseball games using player statistics and random number generators. The game captured enough interest for a Pittsburgh radio personality to produce a show about it. That same decade, professors from universities like Harvard formed rosters of real players and earned points for the statistics they achieved. Okrent was a student of one of those professors at Michigan and learned the game there. Until the Internet matured in the late 1990s, fantasy league play was a niche hobby that tended to annoy sports journalists and professional players. Today, millions participate, helping fantasy sports grow into a billion-dollar industry.
2. Doing the Math
Baseball has become a plaything for advanced mathematics and statisticians trying to soak insights out of every pitch. In 1971, the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, was formed by Bob Davids to develop the history of baseball. It has been described as the Phi Beta Kappa of baseball and is most notable for cultivating a new generation of stats junkies, like Bill James and Rob Neyer.
Historically, the backs of trading cards are limited to traditional statistics. Sabermetrics advanced the numeric language of the game, de-emphasizing common measures like Batting Average and ERA and introducing new ways to evaluate player effectiveness. OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) combines power with the ability to get on base. Keith Wollner added the VORP (value over replacement player) as a way to indicate how great is a player’s contribution toward producing runs than an average player. Okrent is credited with inventing WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), considered the most important statistical indicator of a pitcher’s worth.
The software that manages fantasy sports leagues tends to hide the math, of course, but that won’t stop dedicated fantasy owners from keeping track of their own players’ statistics during the season.
3. Making Titles
A good fantasy league will be structured to allow a variety of successful strategies. My Reality Fantasy Sports league borrowed the Rotisserie stats categories — batting average, runs batted in, stolen bases, homeruns, earned run average, wins, saves and strikeouts — but instead of comparing cumulative stats at the end of the season, we implemented week-long head-to-head matchups and selected starting lineups from a larger roster of players. To create some baseball symmetry, we also drafted MLB managers and compared the actual wins for their pro teams as a ninth “inning” (later, we ditched managers and added runs scored). Most importantly, Reality is a “keeper” league with a minor league system to promote long-term player development.
This structure affords owners multiple ways to be successful each season. Strong pitching or strong hitting can win a title, and a club can be great at specialty categories (like steals or saves) to mask inconsistency in other innings. Teams performing poorly can focus on acquiring young talent, even college and high school players, to and protect them to develop future production.
Trading players is an art that combines persuasion, scouting, and risk. Speculating on a future hall-of-fame pitcher by sacrificing performance of a current All-Star can help turn a franchise around. Building a dynasty may not involve circuit boards or Legos, but it is certainly a maker experience.
4. Soaking in Culture
“Baseball has marked the time,” Terence Mann tells Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams. “This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
W.P. Kinsella isn’t the only author to be enamored of the game. Jack Kerouac invented his own fantasy league that featured lineup cards of fictitious players and teams. Dozens of well-known science fiction writers — including the likes of John Kessel, Stephen King, Frederik Pohl, Kim Stanley Robinson, Rod Serling, Theodor Sturgeon, Harry Turtledove, and Ray Bradbury — incorporated baseball themes into their dialogues and plot devices.
One of the great benefits of fantasy sports is how much it improves one’s appreciation of baseball and how important the sport has become to our art and culture. Not only will the player’s names become more recognizable, spanning geographic biases, but understanding the current version of the national pastime adds significant context to other aspects of our lives, from storytelling to technology to conversation with strangers.
5. Seeking Community
The most important perk to participation in a fantasy league is the community you join when you start submitting starting lineups.
I ran my first league as a senior in high school, before email and the World Wide Web offered support for either data collection or dissemination of game results. I spent many hours over the course of the fall semester crafting hand-written newsletters to Xerox and distribute between classes to other owners, reporting on the standings and notable player performances. This evolved into year-round weekly newsletters and full-blown quarterly magazines, mocked up with Pagemaker, covering our suite of fake sports games.
While this left a paper footprint to preserve on shelves in the garage, the value of each newsletter was as a social object to engage our community of owners. We traded more, made phone calls, gathered for drafts, held reunions and even mourned at funerals together. Fantasy sports participation was first and foremost about interacting with people.
If you are interested in joining a startup fantasy baseball league for GeekDad parents and their kids (or just have questions), please look for more information on the project site.
[This article, by Kevin Makice, was originally published on Wednesday. Please leave any comments you may have on the original.]