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Austin Chronicle The Great Pretenders

Fans find joy and justice in fantasy sports leagues

By Lisa Tozzi

JULY 5, 1999:  When Major League Baseball went on strike in 1994, cutting short the season in August and canceling the World Series for the first time in 90 years, sports fans all over the nation were outraged. For many, the players' strike -- the longest and costliest work stoppage in the history of professional sports -- seemed the ultimate insult. Some walked away from the game and never looked back. Dan Turner decided to get even.

He bought a baseball team.

Not a real team, mind you. Not on his salary at the Texas School for the Blind. Turner is one of 12 "owners" in En Fuego, a fantasy baseball league created by Mark Wesley, a "statistical whiz" from Atlanta. Turner says the initial appeal of fantasy baseball was that he'd be in the driver's seat. He could keep the players he loved and trade the crybabies he didn't respect. At long last, he thought, he could be the boss.

"The owners were treating the players like slabs of meat and the players were being slabs of meat, going to whatever team would pay them the most money," explains Turner. "It just got kinda disgusting seeing it all happen. We decided we'd go ahead and start a fantasy league. We figured we'd treat players like slabs of meat ourselves."

Let's face it: These days it's hard to maintain your loyalty to a professional sports team. Free agency, million-dollar salaries, and the whims of team owners have combined to create an atmosphere in which the team you root for today may not be here tomorrow. Look at the Florida Marlins. After gorging on high-ticket players like Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla, the team won the World Series in 1997. But the champagne's fizz had barely flattened before owner Wayne Huizenga gutted the champion team to save money. By Opening Day 1998, just about every star was earning millions in other cities. Other, less dramatic examples exist in nearly every professional league from basketball to football to hockey.

So, it's no wonder that millions of sports addicts like Turner -- tired of team-skipping players and owners who alternately dismantle their franchises and threaten to leave their home city -- are finding joy and justice in the world of fantasy sports. Some say owning your own team with players of your choosing is a way of re-connecting with the big leagues, a way of finding love and loyalty in athletes and games where such traits are increasingly scarce. Some attach far less political motives to the games, saying it's merely a way to vicariously live the life of a big-time ballplayer or golfer or race car driver. But one thing is clear: What began as a simple contest among a group of friends in New York to determine who knew more about baseball has evolved into a national obsession.

Fantasy's Doubledays

Some trace the origins of today's fantasy games to a little game played with dice and cards invented in 1960 called Strat-O-Matic (See sidebar). But the La Rotisserie story is to fantasy sports what Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown is to baseball. The legend goes something like this: One night about 20 years ago a group of friends -- New York City-based sportswriters, accountants, and lawyers -- were having dinner at a favorite restaurant, La Rotisserie Francaise. Die-hard fans all, talk of baseball dominated the conversation. They argued over the virtues of Gossage vs. Quisenberry, dissected the Astros' pitching staff, and wondered if Steinbrenner would fire Dick Howser. As the friends finished their meal, one of them took out a pen and began mapping a game on a napkin. Each of them would be a rotisserie team "owner." Each would draft 23 players from Major League Baseball's rosters. Each owner would have the same salary cap, and players would carry different values to be determined by a number of factors, including their performance in a number of key statistical categories over past seasons. Other things were important too: Was your player a rugged soul or made of glass? Was he was a troublemaker, and prone toward suspension, or a manager's favorite who plays every day? Anything that cut down your guy's playing time could hurt you. As baseball season went on, the players' actual performance would win the owners points. Trades could be made within limits and for a price. The owner with the most points at the end of the season would emerge the champion. But what to call it? "Rotisserie Baseball," someone suggested, a nod to their white-tableclothed Cooperstown. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Rotisserie -- one of several orders in the fantasy baseball phylum -- has grown exponentially in popularity and its theory now applied to nearly every professional (and some college) sport. Even unlikely enterprises like NASCAR racing and golf have spawned fantasy contests. Some leagues cost money to join and offer valuable cash and prizes to the owner with the highest score. Some leagues are free, played merely for the love of the game.

La Rotisserie Francaise has since shut its doors forever, but the founding fathers still gather every winter for their official Rotisserie League Baseball meetings. And millions of their progeny have followed suit.

Nothing but Net

Fantasy sport participation has exploded over the past five years, thanks in large part to the Internet. There is no way of knowing for certain, but some experts estimate as many as 15 million people, more than 96% of them men, play fantasy sports today. And in a world built on statistics, they've found a pot of gold in the Web. See, fantasy owners live and die by the numbers. Stats. Box scores. ERAs. Field goal percentages. Passing yards. They gobble 'em up for breakfast and snack on 'em before bedtime. Years ago, you really had to scramble to find out all the vital stats on every player on your team and in your league. There was no Baseball Weekly or NFL Prime Time.Naturally, the fantasy games attracted chiefly the die-hards: guys who were willing and eager to spend eight to 10 hours a week trawling for the vital information on a Milwaukee Brewers catcher or a little-known Montreal Expos second baseman. But the Internet has opened up fantasy games to a larger population -- the more casual, not-yet-obsessive folks who may like the idea of "owning" their favorite players and competing with their friends but who don't have the time or the know-how to get started and keep up with an avalanche of information on more than 20 different players on dozens of different teams scattered all over the country, week after week.

These days, every professional team has a Web site; just about every newspaper does too. All chock-full of the stuff fantasy sports lovers' dreams are made of -- numbers. In addition, a cottage industry devoted to compilation and distribution of information for fantasy team owners has blossomed over the past couple years. There are countless Web sites out there -- some sponsored by the big boys like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and CBS; some smaller independent companies -- to give league owners the tools for survival. ESPN sponsors an X-Games league for those who'd rather own street lugers and aggressive in-line skaters than quarterbacks. SI for Kids even runs online fantasy World Cup soccer, NBA, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR leagues for the wee ones.

Steve Shirey
photograph by John Anderson

"Twenty years ago when this started, it was hard to get the information," says Peter Shoenke, president of Roto News, a Los Angeles-based online service that provides comprehensive news and information on baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, and racing for fantasy owners. "Even newspapers didn't keep stats the way they do now. It was so time-consuming; you'd have to be a real fanatic to play. Now the amount of time you put into it is next to nothing."

But while everyone may not start out a fanatic, it doesn't take long to become one.

Larry, Dan, and Steve

Austin residents Larry Lobash, Steve Shirey, and Dan Turner are three otherwise productive members of society and admitted sports junkies who live for Opening Day. Months before baseball season began, Lobash, Shirey, Turner, and nine other guys -- one as far away as the Balkans -- started combing their Filofaxes, searching for a day before baseball season kicked off to hold their league draft. It was a 12-hour affair, live via the Internet. Some owners were at home alone, some gathered in clusters of two or three. For half the day, this ragtag band of friends and strangers scattered all over the world played let's make a deal.

The draft is a trip to the dark side, a walk in the dirty moccasins of Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner. It's long and tiring and cutthroat. The almighty dollar can take priority over heartfelt devotion. Friendships fall by the wayside. Families are ignored. Competitors try to drive up the price of ballplayers on the auction block. Things like "You want me to pay how much for Sterling Hitchcock?!" and "Raoul Mondesi is worth at least $30!" reverberate throughout cyberspace. "The draft's the last pure bastion of capitalism," says 39-year-old Lobash gleefully. "Nothing is too expensive if someone else is willing to pay for it."

When all is said and done, each owner emerges unscarred and with 23 National League ballplayers to call his own. Some players will be costly disappointments; some will be shocking surprises. No one will really know until 26 weeks later who was smart, who was foolish, and who will be just dang lucky.

Turner was last year's champ, but Shirey, co-owner of Comet Cleaners on Lake Austin Blvd., is this season's success story. Shirey's Paper Tigers, an En Fuego expansion team, are in first place, according to the 17 pages of eye-blurring statistics the league churns out every week. His secret? Well, Shirey's team includes last season's home-run king Mark McGwire and pitching superstar Kevin Brown, and is rounded out by some solid surprises like the Arizona Diamondbacks' second baseman Jay Bell, who was considered to be way past his prime before the season started, but already has racked up a surprising 22 home runs.

Shirey is never too far from his team. "I've got my full geek gear," he says, whipping out a clip board with an ink-scrawled list of his players and stats from his desk in the steamy back office of the cleaners. He then turns to his computer and calls up the Web site for TQ Stats, the company that helps distill En Fuego's weekly standings. "Yep. There I am," he says, pointing to his name at the top of the list.

Though trash-talking among owners is an extracurricular activity, among En Fuego, Shirey isn't crowing too loudly. He's got a sportsman's superstition, afraid to jinx his winning streak. "I know baseball's cruel," he says. "You never know what's going to happen. ... I don't have a clue as to why I'm in first place. I guess it's beginner's luck."

Larry Lobash
photograph by John Anderson

But while Shirey is a newcomer to En Fuego, the 27 year old is a grizzled veteran of the fantasy sports game. Shirey's love for sports was born and nurtured on the half-mile bike ride from his home to the old Texas Rangers stadium, where he attended 50 home games a season. His interest in fantasy games started in high school, when his friend introduced him to an NCAA college basketball tournament fantasy game played by drafting college players from the 64 teams in the tournament. Shirey calls it a "three-week betting spectacle."

Since then, he's been hooked; he runs a fantasy football league, he is in two fantasy baseball leagues, and he still falls prey to March Madness come tourney time, too. He estimates he spends about $600 a year on fantasy games, "but I usually do pretty well, so I make some of that money back," he quickly adds.

But lest you think Shirey is one of those folks who flies to Vegas to plunk down $100 on which techno-pop tune will welcome the home team to the court during the NBA playoffs, think again. "I'm not some freaky gambler," he laughs. "I don't do bookie stuff."

It's not the money, but the thrill of competition, that drives Shirey. "We all wish we could do what these guys do. And we also all think we know it better than the managers," he says. "I mean, here I am spending more money than I ever have a chance of winning, but I just love it every week when the standings come out. Oh, sure it may sound odd [that] I'm trying to beat some guy in Maryland or somewhere that I don't even know. But for me there's definitely a rush that comes with the competition."

But even Shirey admits he once got burned out. Combing 14 football boxscores on the Internet every Sunday night, looking for the number of sacks allowed by the Baltimore Ravens' offense, can be taxing. Like Michael Jordan in 1993, he discovered he'd lost his taste for the game and decided to walk away. "I'd sit there and watch games, and all I cared about was what my guys were doing," he explains. "It ruined [football] for me. I quit because I was sick of being like that." But like Michael Jordan in 1995, Shirey came back to fantasy games. "Now I have a whole new attitude. I don't just sit there and live and die every play anymore. I came back rejuvenated and with a proper attitude."

Ethical Questions

Dan Turner
photograph by John Anderson

The proper attitude can be difficult to maintain. Ethical questions abound. And even those with the loftiest intentions can lose perspective on things. Say you're an Astros fan and a fantasy team owner. On your team, you have John Rocker, the young Braves closer known to his teammates as "Marmaduke." As a fantasy owner, you want Rocker to rack up another save, score you points, maybe win you some cash. As an Astros fan, you want Rocker to get rocked for some hits and your club to win. What do you do? "Some say that if you have $200 riding on your fantasy team, then you root for the save," guesses John Nunnally, USA Today's fantasy sports editor. And that's a criticism of fantasy sports, that it exacerbates fans' cynicism and divides their loyalties. But, Nunnally adds, fantasy games are not to blame for the waning of fans' blind hero worship. "That just comes with growing up and the way the business is," he says.

Dave Del Grande, basketball writer for the Oakland Tribune, who pens ESPN's "Ask Mr. Fantasy" online column, posits that fantasy sports forces folks to become better, more educated sports fans. "Out here [in Oakland] there's a million 49er fans that can't name for you a single New York Jet. They may know the 49ers, but they don't know football. With fantasy games you get to know the teams and the players better. You find yourself watching more football with an educated eye, instead of just being another bandwagon 49er fan."

In the touchy-feely venacular of modern psychotherapy, for every addict there is an enabler. Del Grande, Nunnally, and Roto News' Shoenke are just a handful of the folks who work in the fantasy sports biz spoonfeeding advice and information to the masses for fun and profit. After graduating Northwestern University, Shoenke covered the stock market for the Wall Street Journal, but he had a better idea. He decided to provide Rotisserie baseball and other fantasy sports owners with information in the same way brokers do their clients. He and three fantasy sports-loving friends founded Roto News. Two years later, the company hosts more than 10,000 leagues (each with 10 to 12 players apiece) for baseball alone. The site boasts a half-million visitors a month. "We thought we were fanatics," he laughs. "But then we saw people who were really into it." Most of Roto News traffic is in the morning when people are supposed to be at work, says Shoenke. "Apparently the first thing people do when they get to work is check on their team. That shows you the level of importance this has for some people."

Sometimes, God and Nature throw fantasy buffs a curve. On June 13, Houston Astros manager Larry Dierker suffered a seizure and collapsed in the dugout at the Astrodome during the eighth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres. Baseball fans all over the nation were naturally concerned. The affable Dierker -- former Astros pitcher, announcer, and now manager -- is a popular figure, particularly in Texas. But concern about a malformation of neurotransmitters in the 52-year-old Dierker's brain was not the only thing making some fans nervous, says Shoenke. "There was a big debate over when [owners] will get the stats from that game," he says. "Folks were complaining. Some wanted them immediately." You see, Derek Bell's sixth-inning grand slam homer off the Pad's Heath Murray could prove very valuable to owners who have Bell on their team. But the statistics from that game will not be official until the suspended game is completed on July 23.

Serving Two Masters

Given the level of obsessiveness some "owners" have (owners who do care about free throws more than which team wins), what do the pros think? Golden State Warriors beat writer Del Grande says that some Warriors are actually fantasy sports owners themselves (not for basketball, of course). "They are definitely aware it exists," says Del Grande. "Sometimes I even joke around with someone like Donyell Marshall. I'll say, 'Hey Donyell, you made a lot of people angry last night with those two points last night.'"

But on the plus side, Del Grande says most people don't even know where Golden State plays, but sometimes, when the team travels to opposing towns, they find fans rooting for them. "You hear fans cheering for a particular player on an opposing team," says Del Grande. "I think fantasy sports must have something to do with that."

Similarly, Larry Lobash says that fantasy games seem to have contributed to the fluency of sports as a national language. He can wander into a sports bar in St. Louis or Kansas City and debate the virtues of that young reliever the Cards or the Royals called up last month, with the expertise of a local die-hard. "You can strike up a conversation with anyone just about anywhere," he says. "We have a depth of knowledge of the 500 to 600 players in the National League. After a couple years you pretty much know them all."

All's Fair

Professional sports could learn a lot from fantasy players. Take, for example, the egalitarian approach to finances. Every team has the same salary cap -- En Fuego's is $260. No New York Yankees/ Kansas City Royals disparities here. The result is everyone is forced to come up with strategies: Do you blow your wad on a Barry Bonds, or do you load your teams with low-ticket players and pray that at least one turns into a Fernado Tatis, who Lobash was crafty enough to draft this season?

"It's a chess game that lasts for 160 games," says Lobash. "There's so much strategy. But there is some luck involved, unlike chess, where you can mathematically predict an outcome. In this league you have to deal with the whims of ingrown toenails, and somebody's sister getting sick, and so-so having an off-day; the whims of humanity. "

The season never ends for some fantasy sports owners. By the time En Fuego's chess game is over, Shirey and Turner will already be immersed in the interceptions and passing yards of fantasy football. But Lobash is a purist. No other game poses the challenge of baseball's 162-game season, he says. "I go into a slump after the World Series," says Lobash. "To me football is a child's game. When you compare the two, baseball would be on par with chess, where fantasy football is like checkers. It's for people who aren't really that good with numbers, who aren't that sharp," he teases, glancing sideways at Turner.

Turner doesn't miss a beat: "What's wrong with checkers?"

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