The rumblings begin in early March, right around the same time the first spring training games are getting underway in Florida and Arizona. Sports junkies from all over the country begin to awaken from the coma that follows the Super Bowl and turn their lazy eyes once more toward the baseball diamond. But for these particular junkies, the resumption of America's pastime isn't simply about living and dying with the home team. Rather, it is about gambling.
Believe it or not gambling on baseball is very much alive and well, despite the unfortunate legacies left behind by Pete Rose and the 1919 Chicago White Sox. The difference this time around is that, instead of simply calling the local bookmaker and betting on the New York Mets losing this weekend, groups of friends get together and bet on the performances of the world's best players.
To cover up the fact they have essentially built their own gambling ring, these groups refer to their activities by the euphemism "fantasy baseball." Typically, about a week before opening day, a group of roughly 10 to 12 people spend the better part of an evening picking players they believe will have exceptional seasons. The idea is that each member of the group acts as the general manager for his or her own "team." He or she then picks one player for each baseball position, some backup players, and finally a pitching staff. The manager can keep the people he or she drafts for the entire regular season, trade them to a friend, or simply get rid of them if they don't perform or suffer a long-term injury.
The rest of the draft night usually involves large quantities of pizza and beer, as well as lots of yelling, numerous personal insults, and several jokes about players.
The basic idea behind fantasy baseball is to put together a team that excels in many statistical categories. For example, a manager whose players steal more bases than any other team come October gets ten points. The second-place manager gets nine, and so on. This process is then repeated for other categories, like homeruns, strikeouts, and runs batted in. When the season is over, the points are totaled up, and the winner gets the lion's share of the money that everyone anteed-up in the spring. There are other ways to run a fantasy league, but this model is the most common.
Sadly, fantasy baseball is more than just a bunch of guys finding a new way to bond and butt heads while simultaneously gambling. There are also many unspoken rules, some of which hold dire social consequences if broken. I bring this up only because I found out the hard way just what happens when they are broken.
Rule Number 19-18B: Conflicts of Interest--If more than one manager in a given league supports the same home team, under no circumstances shall either manager draft or sign a player from said home team's rival.
Translation: Cubs fans should not draft Cardinals. Athletics fans should never pick Giants. But above all else, Red Sox fans must never, ever have a New York Yankee as a member of their team. When I picked Yankee second-baseman Alfonso Soriano over statistical juggernaut Alex Rodriguez, the other Bostonians in my league stared in disbelief, fired countless expletives in my general direction, and then, with an ice-cold finality that sent shivers down my spine, disowned me as a fellow Red Sox fan.
But things didn't end there. I was greedy, and I wanted to win, no matter what the cost. I next drafted another Yankee in Roger Clemens, who is considered by many in Massachusetts to be the biggest traitor in both sports and actual history. My alienation was complete.
Now, as I sit here in the middle of May contemplating my current position at the top of my league, I feel strangely lonely. Fantasy baseball has broken my soul.