Out of Bounds: Fantasy baseball: blessing or curse?

In the coming days, all 30 Major League Baseball managers will make their final preparations for the 2011 season – as will millions of managers of a different sort.

These skippers don't toil in the dust of an actual baseball diamond but in the vast expanses of cyberspace, making their home not on the dugout steps, but on the couch. Their winnings do not consist of banners or diamond-studded rings, but of satisfaction, respect and – if they're lucky – the office betting pool.

They don't don uniforms or know what it's like to face a major league fastball, but they keep better track of hot streaks, slumps, call-ups and breakout stars than the professionals do. They spend almost seven months out of the year hunting the waiver wire and honing their craft only to start over each opening day.

It's just about time for their season to begin. Time to break out the computers, stat sheets and sleeper predictions. Time to draft, trade and fill that last roster spot. It's time for fantasy baseball.

Like most good ideas, the inception of fantasy baseball can be traced back to an idea, a handful of friends and food. It was over lunch at the La Rotisserie Française restaurant in New York City that former public editor of The New York Times Daniel Okrent and his buddies devised the first fantasy game. They called it "rotisserie baseball" after the restaurant in which it was conceived and held the very first draft in April of 1981. Since Okrent and his friends were all members of the media, their idea gained popularity in press boxes all over the country. Throw in the convenience of the Internet, and the rest is history.

"I was once followed into a men's room and I actually went to the stall while this guy kept talking to me about whether he should make a trade or not. I suppose I knew then that it had became an obsession," Okrent said in an interview with Vanity Fair.

Almost 27 million adult Americans participated in fantasy sports in 2010, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The number includes fantasy baseball, football, basketball, hockey and even soccer. It has been three decades since the creation of modern fantasy competition and in that time span the way fans participate, follow and enjoy their sports has been revolutionized.

Take, for instance, the knowledge of the average fan; rarely does it expand past the confines of his favorite team, division or league. After all, why would it need to? This isn't so with fantasy. Today, a Marlins fan in Florida knows not only that homegrown outfielder Mike Stanton is primed for a breakout year, but that across the country in Oakland, Calif., Athletics pitcher Gio Gonzalez is ready to do the same.

Just ask someone who plucked Toronto Blue Jays outfielder José Bautista off the waiver wire last year. Bautista, a previously unknown talent, came out of nowhere to club a league-leading 54 homeruns – 38 more than the second-highest total of his career. A pickup like that can win a league and for some smart owners, it did.

Fantasy sports have also helped to forge a new relationship between fans and players. A good season by a particular player in fantasy can create a newfound appreciation for that player in real life. The opposite is also true, and sometimes much more potent. Some might say fantasy has also diluted fandom to a certain degree.

Take this example: A die-hard Boston Red Sox fan finds himself with the ninth overall pick in his fantasy draft. His strategy going in is to fill the weakest statistical positions, such as second base and shortstop, first. As the first couple picks progress, he realizes that New York Yankees star second baseman Robinson Cano is falling and may very well fall right into his lap. Sure enough, it's his turn and Cano is still on the board. A wise owner would forgo all personal feelings toward Cano and select him anyway. Deep down, however, a true Red Sox fan would rather die than select a Yankee and may elect to choose someone like Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia instead.

If he decides to go with Pedroia, he remains loyal to his team and the baseball world remains in balance despite the fact that Cano may have been the better statistical pick.  If he chooses Cano, however, the fate of his team may very well rest in the hands of a Yankee. In essence, he must root for the Yankees to succeed to ensure the success of his fantasy team, a form of heresy in some baseball circles.

Fantasy has a way of pitting the desires of a fan's heart against his mind. It has St. Louis Cardinal fans drafting Brandon Phillips and Los Angeles Dodger fans vying for Buster Posey; it has thrown the whole balance of rivalry and fandom out of whack.

Who would have thought that the nerdy statistics game, formally known as rotisserie baseball – or all fantasy sports for that matter – had the power to not only increase the aptitude of the average fan, but to dilute the potency of traditional fandom at the same time?

In the end, only time will tell of the overarching effects of fantasy sports on the fans who play them. In the 30 years since Daniel Okrent's famous lunch, though, the popularity of fantasy sports has only increased. And unless fans stop caring about sports or stop getting satisfaction out of managing their own teams to glory, fantasy sports aren't going anywhere.

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