I ATTENDED BASEBALL camp at Gettysburg College when I was still in elementary school. One rainy afternoon, we were trapped inside and a coach asked if anybody knew which Hall-of-Famer had come from Gettysburg. I shot my hand up and blurted "Eddie Plank."
The man looked at me like I was an alien. He had meant the question rhetorically, I suppose. "Yeah, he won 326 games for the old Philadelphia Athletics," I added helpfully.
Another stunned look from coach.
Little did I know, but in that exchange and many others like it, I was revealing myself as a baseball "geek" - a kid so obsessed with baseball and its statistics that I would look for any possible way to connect with the game. And exactly the kind of fan who would later become a fantasy baseball player.
As it turns out, there are millions of others like me (though maybe not so hardcore), and thus, fantasy sports leagues have become big business. Imaginary games are such an accepted part of fandom these days that I write a weekly column for this newspaper covering the fantasy terrain.
But the saturation hasn't reached everyone. Since the column began, many people have expressed curiosity about fantasy baseball and football. What are the rules? How do you get started?
First, fantasy baseball does not require an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane statistics. If you have a good general knowledge of current baseball players and you know what ERA and RBI stand for, you'll be fine.
The whole crazy thing began in 1979 at La Rotisserie Francais, a (now defunct) French bistro in Manhattan. A few magazine writers and advertising executives decided they were tired of second-guessing the men who ran real baseball teams. So they figured they'd create their own game and their own teams. That outing, organized by writer and editor Daniel Okrent, begat Rotisserie baseball.
The game started almost as a tongue-in-cheek exercise, but soon, the first fantasy owners found themselves playing with greater intensity than they had expected. They then published a book to introduce the game to the masses. I discovered it as a seventh-grader at Gilman School.
The concept is simple. You get together with 10 or 12 fellow fans, and from a pool of major-league players (some fantasy leagues use only the National or American League), you assemble teams of 23 starters and a few reserves. You (or more likely an Internet stat service) then track the players' statistics in eight to 10 categories, including home runs and batting average for position players, wins and ERA for pitchers. Whoever's team has the best overall rankings in those categories at the end of the baseball season wins.
Picking a team
There are two ways to pick teams: auction and draft.
The original Rotisserie league used an auction format, allotting a $260 budget to each team (the money need not be real). Many fantasy veterans consider this the only pure form.
Someone might start by saying "Albert Pujols for $30," and every owner, moving in a pre-set order, would then have a chance to raise the bid on Pujols. Once bidding ended, the next person in order might say "Randy Johnson for $25," and the auction would move around the room again. You continue in that fashion until every team is full.
Auctions are great fun because they require you to think on many levels. You must know the players and also the tendencies of the other owners. Can you get your friend Nick to bid $50 on Pujols or not? If so, you've drained his budget and crippled him for a few rounds of bidding. If not, you may have gotten stuck with an expensive player who doesn't fit your strategy.
You must remain aware of how much money each owner has and of how many quality players are left at a given position. You must enter with a plan but be flexible as conditions change. These auctions can take all day and achieve great intensity (the possibilities for taunting are endless). They are best left to people who know one another or who know the game well.
Many other leagues, especially more casual ones that select players on the Internet, use straight draft formats. Most drafts take a "snake" format, meaning the owner who selects first in round one selects last in round two and vice-versa.
Drafts tend to move more quickly than auctions because they involve fewer steps. They require close monitoring of the talent remaining at each position, but there's no budget to worry about. And drafts proceed in a logical fashion, with the best players going first and the least appealing going at the end.
Most leagues use Internet-based services to keep statistics and manage roster moves. My leagues use CBSSportsline.com and TQStats.com, but a simple online search will turn up many other options. You'll end up paying about $10 per person for such services, which update statistics and league standings daily. (Many send daily or weekly e-mail reports as well.)
You'll also want to appoint a league commissioner, who can interface with the stats service and settle rules disputes either at your draft or during the season. Many leagues have detailed constitutions.
If you don't have a dozen friends willing to play fantasy baseball, you can acquire a team on any number of Web sites - ESPN.com, Yahoo and MLB.com to name a few - and play with strangers. This may give you a good sense for whether you like the game. Several sites even allow you to select leagues populated by other novices.
I play in a straight-draft league on ESPN.com with some college buddies, many of whom are not fanatical players. The league gives us an outlet to stay in touch (most online leagues offer league chat boards) and have a friendly competition.
Draft day, usually held during the two weeks before the major-league season or during the first week of play, is the annual highlight for most leagues. It's the day when everyone comes together, either in person or via computer, and it's the day when you most directly test your baseball wits.
Once the season begins, you can remain as involved or uninvolved as you please. Some owners love to make trade offers, and their teams may look entirely different on July 1 than they did on April 1. Others like to sit back all season and watch the team they drafted.
I'd look for at least some trades. If you reach mid-May and you're struggling in a particular category (say stolen bases), you may want to trade from an area of strength (say power) to balance your team. If you wait too long, you may sacrifice any chance to regain ground. I also recommend looking to trade players who perform vastly better than expected in April and May. They tend to be overvalued and can be cashed in for struggling players likely to improve in the second half.
But if you simply want to draft players you like and stick with them, that's fine. If you're that kind of manager, find a league of likeminded compatriots. There's nothing worse than being the one casual guy in a group of cut-throats who live and die with fantasy baseball.
One final note: Many leagues play for cash prizes. This can be a low-key thing, with each owner kicking in $20 and the winner taking 60 percent of the pot, the second-place finisher taking 25 percent, the third-place owner taking 15 percent and the fourth-place owner taking 10 percent. Or you can find high-stakes national games with top prizes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The authorities do not treat fantasy play as gambling so don't worry. Some people simply play for the love of competition. Do whatever makes you most comfortable.
Childs Walker's column, On Fantasy Sports, appears Tuesdays in The Sun's sports section. You can also find a podcast at blogs.baltimoresun.com/sports_fantasy_guy.
Tips for Beginners
Try to play with friends; socializing is half the fun.
Establish rules for your league early and write them down; disputes will inevitably arise.
Plan well in advance for your draft day; it's great fun, but hard to schedule.
Don't buy too many preview magazines; pick a few sources and stick with them.
Have a plan going into your draft: Know how much you want to spend on each position and which players you'd like to build around.
Be flexible during your draft; be willing to alter plans when unexpected buying opportunities arise.
Draft players you like (no sense positioning yourself to root for a bunch of Yankees).
Look for trade opportunities immediately. Even if you like your team, be honest about its weaknesses and try to correct them quickly.
When trading, don't try to fleece your fellow owners. The best traders offer something the other party needs.
If you find you don't enjoythe game, try something different: another strategy, a big trade, even quitting the game for a while. Fantasy baseball should never make you miserable.
Rotisserie League Baseball: The Official Rule Book and Draft Day Guide: This annual book explains the origins of the game and the rules as devised by the founders. It also gives you a general sense of pricing for this year's player pool.
Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster: For those looking to dive headlong into fantasy play, this is the most sophisticated guide available. Shandler also runs an excellent Web site, BaseballHQ.com.
The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2006: Of the magazines available on your local newsstand, this is one of the best. It brings together a broad array of experts who offers "picks" and "pans" for the coming season.
Baseball Prospectus 2006: No annual guide gives you more information on more players. The Prospectus isn't tailored to fantasy players but offers great statistical projections and some of the most interesting thinking available on the modern game.
CBSSportsline.com: Probably the most popular site for keeping league statistics. It's also generally well-reviewed by users.
Rotowire.com: The ultimate clearinghouse for player-injury updates and news about who will play on a given day and who won't. Indispensable.
Mastersball.com: A subscription site that offers excellent fantasy advice.