There is a segment in the new documentary film, Fantasyland, when several esteemed baseball media veterans rail against fantasy baseball. I have to shake my head.
Mike Francesa of WFAN, Phil Mushnick of the New York Post and Hall of Fame writer Murray Chass are classified as "The Naysayers." They think fantasy baseball is "foolish" and "ridiculous."At one point, Chass says,
"It used to be that people rooted for teams. But now, with the development of fantasy baseball, people are rooting for individual players."
The real question is, what is a "team" anymore? Back when I was growing up in the 1960's, I knew all the players on my New York Mets. I developed a relationship with these players because there was continuity each year. I knew that Ron Swoboda, Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw would all be wearing the blue and orange for at least a few seasons. And while I also knew some players would get traded, the core of the team would remain mostly intact. It was easy to find a rooting interest in the players and the team because they were one and the same.
Since the free agency era, most rosters turn over every 3-4 years. This is not condemning the process, just stating the reality. It is tough to find loyalty to the players on a team when the names change so often. Frankly, if there is a reason for the shifting focus from team loyalty to player loyalty, it is baseball's own damn fault.
Maybe comedian Jerry Seinfeld said it best: "We don't root for teams anymore. We root for laundry."
Fandom is all about finding a connection to the game. Fantasy baseball provides that connection, albeit in a different way from what we were used to.
The insult to fantasy leaguers, though, is that we are not real fans. The truth is, we all still love the game, perhaps even more than ever. We remain as much a fan of the sport as Francesa, Mushnick and Chass are. In fact, a strong case can be made that we are better, more informed fans.
We are more knowledgeable about all teams, not just our home team. We watch every game to its end, even blowouts. We need to know how each team is constructed and what their organizational philosophies are. We know about minor league prospects and understand how each team's depth chart impacts their potential path to the Majors. We try to understand how managers use their bullpens, the impact of lineup construction on run scoring, and the predictive value of just about every element of the game.
We still want teams to win, because when they win, we win. It's just not always the home team we're rooting for.
Mushnick calls us "anal retentive stat-chasers" as if these types of people never existed before fantasy baseball. For any kid who traded baseball cards, it was the sea of wonderful numbers on the back that held far more interest than the color photo on the front. And for those of us who played (and still play!) Strat-O-Matic, stats were everything. So this is nothing new.
The game has changed over the decades. The designated hitter, interleague play and the wild card were all intended to keep fans connected to the game. Fantasy baseball does the same.
Of course, there is always the potential for too much of a good thing. And the obsession of Fantasyland protagonist Jed Latkin does the hobby no favors. But behind his overly ambitious behavior resides no less of a "real" baseball fan than any of us.
We still watch games. We still root. When Johan Santana faces a player on one of my fantasy teams, I deal with it. I still want the Mets to win. If they win 5-4 with my fantasy team's Albert Pujols hitting two home runs, then everyone goes home happy.
Nothing wrong with that.