It was almost 30 years ago that some very bright, young men gathered at the late, lamented La Rotisserie restaurant in New York City to hammer out the framework for baseball's first fantasy league (or "Rotisserie baseball," as it is still known by the game's first generation of players).
No doubt these folks had some modest ambitions for their little game and themselves. But given that they were journalists and, thus, both perpetual cynics and limited in their intellectual scope, they would never have regarded themselves as visionaries and certainly weren't craving mainstream respectability. But it came anyway, with roto-ball exploding over the next couple of decades into not just a game and guilty pleasure but an industry that would embrace many sports, serve millions of participants with vital (as well as worthless) information and produce billions in annual revenues.
Which is, of course, why fantasy baseball has wound up before the Supreme Court. The case involves Major League Baseball's attempt to claim ownership of the licensing rights to the players and their statistics, the very heart of the game and, thus, the lion's share of the profits as well. The existing industry claims that baseball has always promoted itself by putting box scores into the public domain, long before anyone imagined that they were useful beyond reportage.
My own injudicious roto-league convened last Sunday at O'Reilly's, a pub with absolutely no pretensions in New York's west 30s—the 28th season we of the American Dream League have thrown out a first pitch. We are not remotely as famous as the original Rotisserie League, yet we are indeed a notable aggregate. We were the second fantasy league ever formed, ours an American League meant to complement the Rotisserie League's National League game. And our combatants include some of fantasy's baseball's most influential theorists: Alex Patton, Les Leopold, Peter Kreutzer—men who have aspired to be to roto what Bill James has been to baseball.
But to me that is of peripheral importance. What is truly amazing about our league is simply that it is fundamentally intact. A significant number of the teams are still run by the original owners, most others by owners whose tenures exceed 25 years, with a few newcomers who have been with us for a decade-plus. While the Rotisserie and other longstanding leagues eventually imploded, ours, filled with scrappy, irascible, contentious and, at times, obnoxious recriminators—and the seriously resentful—has survived for almost three decades. Somehow we have been able to set aside or transcend our many differences to move ahead each season in common purpose.
The greatest threat to our league's survival has turned out to be—no surprise—modernity. Back in the day, when we relied on the telephone, we rejoiced in the common pleasure of how much these calls at all hours of the day in all corners of the world infuriated our wives. Now, of course, we communicate seamlessly, with our wives barely aware that any contact has been made. And the contact by e-mail proves far more bruising than it ever was on the telephone.
These days we share a common Internet site that bears the misnomer "Tight Circle." It has proved to have almost the opposite effect, giving frequent rise to the question, "Will the circle be broken?" The original notion was to turn all our baseball discussions as well as our roto triumphs and tragedies into fodder for one extended group discussion. But as most of us are journalists, and thus incapable of restricting commentary to what we actually know or understand, we now stray—many would say barge—into subjects of religion, national politics, movies, literature, sex and Spitzer, subjects on which we are not necessarily well versed and seldom in agreement. "Idiot" and "fascist" are typical of the grand wit of our rejoinders.
In other words, each year baseball cannot arrive soon enough. But last Sunday, over Guinness and eggs, I was reminded not of our faults but of our virtues, not of our differences but of our shared reverence for the game of baseball and our fantasy world. There was a movement afoot to raise the stakes, a high-three-figure investment that stretched most of us when we began in the '80s but now, even as we approach our Social Security years, seems a rather modest sum. But the increase was voted down by a substantial margin. It was never about the money. It was always about the game. And as the day wound down, as the final suds slid down our throats, each of us was thinking exactly the same thing: not "may the best team win" but, assuredly, "may I, the best man, win!"