The creators of fantasy baseball have made peanuts on their passion – but they can still teach you a thing or two about it.
In 1971 a Portland State University student named Caroline Davidson received $35 to design a simple logo that looked like a curvaceous check mark. Her handiwork would go on to adorn hundreds of millions of pairs of sneakers as the Nike swoosh. Twelve years later, Davidson was compensated with a diamond ring engraved with her design – and, better – a generous amount of Nike shares.
It has been 30 years since Daniel Okrent created fantasy baseball, and nobody has given him a diamond ring or an equity stake for his efforts. Yet his brainchild has grown into a national obsession that has claimed 10.8 million souls in this country alone.
The average player spends $468 per year on fantasy sports, making it a $5 billion industry, not counting other imaginary sports like fantasy football and fantasy auto-racing.
"I was a schmuck for not making any money on this thing," sighs Okrent.
He and his compatriots, mostly fellow writers and editors from New York, called their creation Rotisserie Baseball (after the French restaurant where it was conceived), and they eventually copyrighted it.
They launched the game, which allows "owners" to assemble virtual teams and compete against each other, in 1980. But later in the decade rogue practitioners skirted the trademark by changing the name to "fantasy baseball."
Advice from the experts
The game's founders may not have made any money on their idea, but that doesn't mean they can't offer valuable advice to the current generation of fantasy zealots.
When it comes to strategy, "Avoid one-dimensional players like Adam Dunn," says Harry Stein, a member of Okrent's original league. Since fantasy sports are notoriously demanding of players' attention, Okrent offers a different sort of advice: "Pay attention to your wife."
All joking aside, however, what made Okrent and his crew good at fantasy baseball is that they were experts in scouting. Back in the early 1980s, they didn't have the Internet – or the 200-plus dedicated baseball Web sites and blogs that exist today. So they reverted to a more hands-on kind of research: going to Florida and romping around spring training complexes themselves.
Since most of the founders were members of the media, they'd use their press passes to get into locker rooms and grill players they thought they might want on their fantasy teams. Cary Schneider even created a fictional baseball publication called Baseball World News in order to score credentials.
"In the early years, you had to go to greater lengths to get an advantage," says Schneider, who recalls waylaying players in parking lots as part of his spring scouting regime. "Nowadays, you tend to know if a middle reliever on the Pirates has a hangnail."
The founders enjoyed astounding access during the regular season as a result of their efforts. Stein, an early champ of the original league, remembers covering an Expos game in Montreal in 1984. One of his fantasy pitchers had played the previous night on the West Coast, but the game ended too late to show up in that morning's box scores.
Today, all he'd have to do is go online. Back then, Stein was so desperate to know the outcome that he went to the locker room and asked Pete Rose, a player-manager at the time, for the results. Rose went to a nearby payphone, made a call and returned seconds later with the information. Stein later realized that Rose, now banned from baseball for gambling, had gotten the information from his bookie.
For fantasy baseball players without press passes, a better bet might be to consult modern-day experts like Ron Shandler and Scott Swanay. Each has his own Web site--BaseballHQ.com and FantasyBaseballSherpa.com--that offers player projections, news and analysis.
Shandler earned such great respect for his work that the St. Louis Cardinals brought him on as a consultant in 2004. (He only stayed one year because it interfered with his fantasy baseball business.)
Just remember that when it comes to fantasy baseball, expert experience doesn't always translate into success. Dan Okrent, who still plays in the original league, has yet to win the game he created.
Five experts and their picks
Founder of Rotisserie (fantasy) baseball
• Fantasy MVP: Aramis Ramirez
• Bust: Jose Reyes
• Sleeper: Carlos Marmol
• Top Rookie: Cameron Maybin
• Advice: Pay attention to your wife.
Author, Baseball Forecaster
• Fantasy MVP: Albert Pujols
• Busts: Troy Percival, Manny Ramirez, A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez
• Sleepers: David Purcey, Johnny Cueto, Aaron Harang, Aaron Hill
• Top Rookies: David Price, Matt Wieters, Travis Snider, Cameron Maybin
• Advice: Decide whether you are in this to have fun or to win. In many cases, those two goals are mutually exclusive.
Original league member
• Fantasy MVP: Albert Pujols
• Busts: Adam Dunn
• Sleepers: David Murphy
• Top Rookies: Matt Wieters, David Price
• Advice: Bid up superstars but make sure someone else gets them. The successful rotisserie player does not get wedded to the idea of landing a particular player. And avoid one-dimensional players.
• Fantasy MVP: Alex Rodriguez
• Busts: Evan Longoria, Felix Hernandez, Troy Tulowitzki, Ervin Santana, Cliff Lee
• Sleepers: Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Spilborghs, Shin-Soo Choo, Delmon Young, Kevin Slowey
• Top Rookies: Matt Wieters, Travis Snider, Cameron Maybin, Jason Motte, David Price
• Advice: Use a set of player rankings that quantifies position scarcity. If time permits, compare your player rankings to Average Draft Position (ADP) data from a credible source (such as Mock Draft Central) to avoid picking your targeted players too soon.
• Fantasy MVP: Alfonso Soriano
• Busts: Cole Hamels, AJ Burnett, Prince Fielder
• Sleepers: Mark Mulder, Nick Swisher, Nelson Cruz
• Top Rookies: Kenshin Kawakami
• Advice: Read psychology books. The way to win is to understand the people in your league and to know what they do before they do it. Try to get inside peoples' heads.
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