When I was a kid, I played games of baseball with my action figures, reenacting old World Series that I’d seen on ESPN’s overnight filler programming. Eventually I started to make up my own baseball teams and dramatic game situations, because I was and am a big dork. Roadblock was always the cleanup hitter because he looked like Joe Carter in my tiny, mutant mind. I spent most of one summer righting the Pythagorean wrong of the 1954 World Series with tiny plastic army guys.
The only reasons I ever stopped playing imaginary games of baseball with 3-3/4” action figures are 1) I had to attend school so as to eventually secure gainful employment 2) risk of pariah-ization. Shame is a powerful motivator. I have mostly come to terms with the cold reality that never again will I spend most of my days blissfully alone, laying on my stomach, working out improvisational baseball improv theater on the backyard grass or the den carpet (deemed best because it was green-ish).
Sometimes, out of general kid-effusiveness, I would try to explain to a well-meaning adult, or even another youngster, what was going on in my imaginary baseball games, but it usually elicited blank appreciations of my commitment and very little actual interest, or a suggestion that I go run around the neighborhood or something. I was never really hurt by the lack of interest. Because what the hell were they going to do, watch the game? Keep score? I really only told the others about what I was doing so that they understood what a good idea I’d hit upon. Miniature concrete baseball theater was a one-player game, and I was not especially keen on popularizing it.
Because the A’s and Mariners took a tramp steamer back from Japan, I had six long, awful days to kill between the Japan series and actual opening day. Work and commuting to work and showering and cooking dinner and talking to the cat helped kill some time, as per usual. But I spent most of my idle minutes across those six days thinking about baseball, specifically fantasy baseball. Sure, I whiled away a minute looking forward to chuckling at Mark Teixeira’s weird face and enjoying Jeff Karstens’ much more sympathetic weird face, and I burned even more minutes worrying about how exactly the Indians are going to score runs this year. But I spent the majority of my baseball processor time looking at my two fantasy baseball rosters, sliding guys around in my lineups, greedily running my eyes and internet-fingers all over my teams like they were new packs of actual baseball cards, or better yet, GI Joes. If I could commission artisanal action figures of my fantasy baseball team without feeling like I was regressing from complete adulthood, I probably would.
Bear with me through a sharp turn. The above paragraphs are slightly inane, per my usual standards, but you’ll have to allow me to tell you the most boring story in the history of the world in order for this piece to creak around to having a point. This most boring of stories is about someone else’s fantasy sports team, roughly the same genre of story (individualized fictions about fake sports events) those kindly Ohioans politely nodded at c.1990.
The “someone else” in question here is me (surprise!). So the first time I played fantasy football, in 1994, I had no idea what I was doing. I figured that winning in actual football was directly proportional to winning in fantasy football. So with my first pick, I took Troy Aikman. He was the quarterback of the team that had just won two straight Super Bowls, so he must be good, so went my thinking. Yes, Emmitt Smith scored all the touchdowns on those Cowboys teams, but he was someone’s keeper.
But so anyway, I drafted Troy Aikman first overall. Aikman actually wasn’t a very good fantasy quarterback, as all of the dudes in the league notified me immediately after I made my selection. Aikman usually went 12 for 20 for 180 yards with 1 touchdown, which in our scoring system translated to about nine points. One week my team only scored four points, total, all of them coming from Fuad Reveiz. What a disaster! I would like to say that I learned from my mistake but 18 years of health, leisure and perseverance later, I am still pretty bad at fantasy sports.
You’re bored, right? I am bored, and it’s my story. Jean-Paul Sartre gets the official credit for coining “hell is other people,” but I am applying for a patent on the variant “hell is other people’s fantasy sports teams.™” Fact claim: It’s hard to care about someone else’s fantasy team, even if they’re in your league. The extent that I care about Dustin Pedroia in fantasy baseball is coequal with the extent that he’s on my team. In non-fiction sports, I care about Dustin Pedroia considerably because he is bald and looks like a cartoon badger, but /digression.
It’s pretty much impossible to care about someone else’s joy at owning Matt Kemp or Arian Foster, in the same way it’s impossible to (beyond the dimensions of politeness) really appreciate someone else’s vacation photos. At its best, fantasy sports is an act of community, but giving more than zero shits about someone else’s team is even harder than caring about the crazy dream someone else had, or your cubicle neighbor’s niece's piano recital photos, or someone else’s investment strategy.
I still talk about fantasy sports participation in terms and tones reserved for a mildly shameful vice, like it’s something that should come in a brown paper wrapper. But fantasy is mainstreamed to the extent that there are both really good novels and hate-filled sitcoms about it, and fantasy in general is a gabillion-dollar annual business. Roto culture has depths that rival or surpass most any obsessive hobby, the general vibe of which is a blend of middle-church American male dorkhood, white-collar bros at leisure, and 4Chan trolls. Roto hasn’t yet evolved quants (no one is yet bent enough to apply computational physics to K/9 rates, but clock’s ticking), but it has evolved Jim Cramer-style pseudoexperts, who, per laws of nature, are mostly obnoxious.
But my outwardly feigned shame aside, I actually really, unconditionally like fantasy sports—they provide amusement and, in the recent past/larger cosmology, distract me from the fact that the nonfiction teams that I root for are incredibly depressing. Fantasy is increasingly the main arena in which I consume sports, and fantasy is increasingly a socially networked, corporately-sponsored program, just like real sports, on pretty much every level north of the Iditarod Last Great Race on Earth®, brought to you by Wells Fargo. I don’t take roto baseball seriously—or rather it doesn’t have any serious financial or emotional consequences—but my involvement is real enough that I spend at least an hour every week from mid-March to the end of the MLB season, dicking around managing a fictional team of real dudes in competition with against other fake teams run by a different set of real dudes. Auction day in March is like a family reunion/trip to Vegas/sweat lodge (I have never gone to Vegas or sweat-lodged anything, actually). It’s basically a low-wattage holy day for me—it's the closest I get to my dream of spending eternity in the plush Elysian carpet fields, making up baseball games for Lifeline and Dialtone to act out.
So, about that point I was creaking around to: Yes, hell is other people. Yes, fantasy sports are a nerdy corner of that hell. But I’m not trying to turn this into a liver-spotted grumblerant about how reverting to previously popular social norms is the only thing that can save us from a ripening into a society full of Ow My Balls!. It’s certainly true that fantasy can delocate traditional fandom—I streamed pitchers against the Indians for parts of last season. As a fan who lives in a city halfway across the country from most other fans of my team, I’m missing out on the community of pro baseball fandom, insofar as such a thing exists. Were it not for a handful of imprinting moments in my childhood (the ones where I actually, y’know, left the house and talked to other people—like countless games at Municipal Stadium, or the time Brett Butler and Mel Hall visited Berea Baseball Association tee-ball practice in 1987), I might be a Yankees or Mets fan (crosses self in gratitude for complex reasons).
Searching for baseline human dignity in the act of fantasy sports is a hard swath to mow, I realize now. Jean-Paul Sartre wasn't wrong about hell being other people, even if in the raspy hindsight of an overstimulated present, that seems 1) an obvious philosophical ground condition 2) an understatement. I have to assume that the only reason ancient Sumerians didn't have "Hell is other people" printed on their money was that they just assumed everybody was thinking it and knowing it and feeling it at all times. Also, I think they used barley for money. But if they had money, and it said "Hell is other people" on one side, then on the other side, it might have said, "Make it work," or "Deal with it" depending on whether they had neohistoric Project Runway to make references to.
Fantasy sports are culture, somehow, just like all the other things that have moved their slow thighs into our viewfinders. The challenge of fantasy sports, and of generalized adult humanity, is to see in other people the same joys you find in your own universe. Can imaginary ownership of Dustin Ackley overcome my anxiety about the consequences of shared human experience? I will try to find out for you, and in doing so prove it to myself.