Rotisserie League becomes reality for fans of fantasy baseball

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baseball has indeed expanded beyond the American and National League to the Fantasy League. The stadium of the mind is embodied in the burgeoning Rotisserie League, where every fan can run his own team. Organized 11 years ago by a small group of fans and writers, an estimated 2 million persons are playing in this field of schemes. The reality is that fantasy baseball has become big time, with a national expenditure of an estimated $50 million to buy teams and millions more on statistical services to keep fans up to date.

Unlike the product, the dollars are real. And the insatiable appetites of Rotisserians have yielded super fans.

Consider:

* A sports reporter who abandoned his Mets story to meet the Rotisserie trading deadline.

* A New Jersey player who figured statistics for five separate leagues until an automobile accident left him in a coma.

* A Manhattan man who worried that his pregnant wife's due date would interfere with the Rotisserie draft.

* A 66-year-old California man who roots for his Rotisserie team over his beloved Oakland Athletics.

None of this is what Dan Okrent or his fellow inventors had in mind years ago when they started the Rotisserie fire in a Manhattan restaurant of the same name. Preliminary meetings were held in Tony's Italian Kitchen, so the game just missed being called Tony's Italian Kitchen League. Good thing talks weren't held in the bathroom.

The founding fathers of Rotisserie were frugal gourmets, playing for fun more than dollars, for sport more than ego. Glen Waggoner, one of the founders, says the imperative was simple. The game as invented was for relentless whimsy," he said. "I truly believe that is the way we still play it. The detour is in an obsession with stats, the dark side of trying to screw your fellow owners, things like that. We don't control the monster; we created the game but there are many who play with exactly the spirit we created."

Okrent, a contributing editor for Life magazine, is considered the inventor of Rotisserie baseball. He's also fed up with it. "It's become something of a bane in my life," he said. "People only want to talk to me about this. About 4-5 years ago I was giving a speech to a group of bankers in Boston about the state of the New England economy and when I finished this guy in a three-piece suit gets up and says, 'How much should I pay for Rickey Henderson?' Even if I find a cure for cancer or bring peace to the Middle East, when I die my obituary is going to say, 'Okrent, inventor of Rotisserie, dies.' I'm doomed to be known for this."

Rotisserie baseball is easy to organize. A group of "owners," who have a spending limit of $260 or so, conduct a draft to select a team. Each owner buys 25 or more players up to his spending limit. After that the Rotisserians merely follow the daily box scores to check on the progress of their individual players. Trades can occur between owners until the deadline agreed to by the group of participants. At the end of the real baseball season, the owner with the most points wins a cash prize that can run into the thousands of dollars. There is an unconfirmed report of a league in Las Vegas with an entrance fee of $25,000, but most groups have cash prizes of a few hundred or few thousand at most.

Where do real baseball fans stand when Rotisserie play begins? What happens when a New York Yankee fan, who happens to have Roger Clemens on his fantasy team, is faced with Clemens pitching a shutout or allowing a home run to Don Mattingly? "If your head is screwed on right you resolve that conflict in favor of your traditional team loyalty," Waggoner said. "Let's be serious, we're playing a game. If you've been a Yankee fan for 40 years, something is wrong if this game turns you into something else."

Some fantasy fans disagree. Joel Horowitz is commissioner of a league in New Jersey. "These guys [professional ballplayers] are more or less mercenaries," Horowitz said. "A fan gets upset if his team loses? No way. These guys are making millions of dollars, they get the best women and I'm supposed to be sad if they lose a game? That's so absurd."

Lou Goodman, a 66-year-old retired executive who lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., has to be Mr. Rotisserie. He used to play gin rummy in his spare time. He gave it up for Rotisserie baseball and is considered to be the most successful player in the lTC country. He plays in five leagues and has won in all of them on a constant basis.

"It's the greatest thing since toilet paper was invented," he said. His allegiance is to his teams, not to the hometown Athletics. "The Oakland A's are my favorite team but in Rotisserie you forget about team loyalty, you forget about being a fan of a particular team," Goodman said. "This is a mistake some of the fellows make. They are the ones you love to have in the league. If they are a Giant fan or a Cub fan they'll go out of their way to get as many players as they can from those teams. I stay away from that. I go with my head, not my heart. You can be a baseball fan, but when you get into Rotisserie you are rooting for individual players, not teams."

While most Rotisserie leagues place a spending limit of $260, that amount has been pushed to $550 by the Star Dust league in New Jersey, where Rickey Henderson was once purchased for $126 in what is believed to be a fantasy league record.

In this year's Star Dust draft, Cal Ripken topped the list at $92. Darryl Strawberry ($90), Barry Bonds ($85) and Jose Canseco ($86) were the other big-money players. Mattingly, due to concerns about the condition of his back, cost only $33. The real skill, Schimmel said, is knowing who to draft after the big names. "Anybody can get Strawberry and hope he doesn't land in Smithers," he said. "It's how you draft after that."

New Jersey writer Larry Schwartz, who covers baseball and other sports for the Bergen Record, is an ardent Rotisserie fan. "There have been times when I was supposed to be writing running [during a game] and it was the trading deadline," Schwartz said. His newspaper story would wait. "I'd make calls to make a trade. The fun is that you own a team, you control it, you make the decisions, you have freedom to do what you want with the players. Should I trade Sandberg or Strawberry? I've been baseball crazy since I was a kid. The fun is watching the team, following the players and trying to improve it."

Jerry Capozzalo, a 46-year-old social worker, could be the most ardent of Rotisserie baseball fans. An automobile accident left him in a coma for several days. "His wife took a poll about when he would come out of it," Schwartz said of the statistics-orientated family. "He's in three leagues," Horowitz said of Capozzalo. "If you opened two more he'd be in them, too. His life would be diminished if there was no Rotisserie. Guys like these will be doing Rotisserie until they drop."

"It's competition and ego," said Capozzalo, who has recovered from his injuries. "And there's absolutely a conflict of interest. Let's say you got John Franco on your team coming in to get a save and you have some guy coming up and he's on your team, too. What do you want to happen? If I'm competitive in the power categories I might want the home run. With the pitchers, you'd rather get a win from a starter or a save by a reliever."

What do major-league players think about all of this? "(Relief pitcher) Dan Quisenberry once apologized to all the Rotisserie players for having a bad year," Schwartz said. Most are amused at the fans' fervor.

"I like it, I think it's pretty neat," Mattingly said. "We hear things from people in the stands, people in the street. I think it's cool. I don't know all the rules, but . . . it's great as long as the fans are having fun. I think it's part of the whole baseball thing."

"People come up to me and say have a good year, not for yourself but because you are on my team," Gregg Jefferies said. "It sounds like fun for them."

Hubie Brooks said, "It's getting bigger and bigger. You hear it from the stands. Maybe it's a way for people to get more involved in the game."

Tim Teufel added, "I find it typical that the fans are into it. Baseball fans are very dedicated, stats-oriented people who enjoy breaking down the game of baseball. We try to do it the other way, we try to make it as simple as possible. Rotisserie is the opposite, they want to make it as complex as possible. I guess it's an event to a lot of people." Apparently the players themselves do not participate in Rotisserie, though some do play fantasy football.

Fantasy players can be annoying to those involved in the real game. "I got a call from a surgeon in a hospital in Washington," Mets publicist Jay Horwitz said. "He wanted to know if I could give him the Mets' projected starting lineup in June. I said, 'Would you give me free surgical advice for this information?' and he hung up on me. You are reluctant to give information because it could be gamblers. I could make a lot of money if I was crooked."

At the National League office in Manhattan, league publicist Katy Feeney has to screen calls. "If their player isn't in the starting lineup they go into a state of panic. They'll call and say, 'Why isn't he playing. Is he on the disabled list?' " Feeney said, adding that callers are politely told that no information can be furnished. "I don't have the staff to do it."

Just as baseball fans can be obsessive, Rotisserians can be fanatic. "We got one letter from a wife who blamed us for breaking up her marriage," said Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated, another Rotisserie founder. "Our policy on that was if the marriage wasn't strong enough to survive Rotisserie League, it wasn't strong enough to begin with."

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