Rotisserie Hits Big Leagues as a Favorite Pastime

Times Staff Writer

I can remember a spring, not too many years ago, when a prolonged New York newspaper strike threatened to extend itself into the baseball season, and my obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a summer without daily box scores. The thought was impossible; it was like trying to think about infinity.

--Roger Angell in “The Summer Game”

These are critical weeks for Brad Bunshaft. Opening Day is just around the corner and there’s so much to do, yet so little time.

Bunshaft’s pitching is solid, but he needs power, home-run hitters to be precise. He has his eye on Sid Bream of the Pirates and perhaps--if the draft is kind to him--Eric Davis, the Reds’ new superstar.


He is spending two hours a night poring over his stat sheets, compiling list after list of his options. How much to spend on Bream? Can he really hope to get Davis?

“This is the most important time,” Bunshaft said. “Every night you check to see what ballplayers are going to possibly make the team out of the minor leagues. You check to see which ballplayers have seen their better days.”

Bunshaft, of San Diego, does not own a major league baseball team. But he is part of a grand national exercise in self-delusion that heats up each year when the Boys of Summer return to spring training and the boys of America follow their every move.

It is called Rotisserie League Baseball, a rapidly growing fad that allows otherwise normal dentists, grocery clerks and computer programmers to convince themselves that they actually own and operate major league baseball clubs. For the next six months, they will pay, cut, trade and agonize over “their” players in an obsessive desire to bring home a pennant.

“We all grow up and we all determine that we’re not going to be big-league ballplayers,” says New Yorker Glen Waggoner, a writer for Esquire magazine and one of the founders of “Rotiss,” as it is known to its enthusiasts. “Few of us have $20 million, $30 million or $40 million to spend, so we do the next best thing--we start our own league. This way, we don’t have to spend $25 million and we don’t have to wear checked pants.”

Named for the Manhattan restaurant at which its dozen founders cooked up the game during the winter of 1980, Rotisserie has caught on with baseball addicts and box score junkies across the nation, including an untold number in San Diego County.

Members of about 500 leagues, which average 10 teams apiece, have paid $50 to register with the Rotisserie League Baseball Assn. run by Waggoner. But they represent just a small fraction of the number of people actually playing the game, he said.

A 1984 guide to the game sold 51,000 copies, and a second book published a few weeks ago has 25,000 copies in print. Companies now offer number-crunching services and tout sheets for Rotisserie players (though personal computers have enhanced players’ ability to compile stats themselves).

“There’s no question that it’s taking off,” Waggoner said. “We have been startled by the success, amazed that there are so many crazy people out there. We thought we had a comfortable, quiet group of insane baseball fans. It turns out there are many more.”

League rules vary slightly, but most games work like this: Owners pay money or scrip for the right to a franchise, and in a marathon auction, bid portions of that sum for 23 real major-league players from teams in either the American or National leagues.

The founders in New York spend $260 each on their teams, and their book offers suggested prices for every major-league player based on that sum. Yankee outfielder Rickey Henderson, the most valuable offensive player in Rotisserie, is worth $50. Steve Jeltz, the Phillies’ pitiful shortstop, is worth $1. Owners must draft a certain number of players at each of the nine baseball positions, so they choose one less than the standard major-league roster.

Throughout the regular baseball season, they track players in four offensive categories--home runs, runs batted in, batting average and stolen bases--and four pitching categories--earned run average, wins, saves and a ratio of hits plus walks to innings pitched.

After the regular season ends, the top team in each category receives 10 points, with nine going to the second-place team and on down to one point for the last-place team. The owner with the best point total wins the pennant and half the money contributed. Second-, third- and fourth-place teams divide smaller shares of the pot, which grows during the season because of fees paid to make trades and replace injured players.

Obviously, a detailed knowledge of players’ strengths and weaknesses--as measured by baseball’s litany of arcane statistics--is mandatory for success in the league. As a result, it attracts a collection of people--almost all of them men--obsessed with baseball and its minutiae.

Women have been known to play the game, but most are long-suffering “Rotiss widows.” Some manage to contribute, like the Rotiss wife whose only rule was that her husband could not select Steve Garvey.

Rotisserians say that the game offers an incredibly real feeling of owning and operating a baseball team, a sensation that revives long-dormant dreams of athletic glory.

“This is hard to understand if you’re not a baseball fanatic, but once you’ve owned a team, you’re bitten by this bug,” said San Diego State University student Ed Davis, owner of the Sun Kings in an unnamed local league. “I find myself second-guessing moves of G.M.s and owners all the time, telling these boneheads they’ve just blown it or they’ve thrown away their future or they’ve tossed away the pennant.”

“Everyone likes the feeling of being in charge once in a while,” said law student Mike Osinski, commissioner of the Freebase Ball League, founded during the 1985 sports drug scandals. “I like the fact that I don’t even pay Eric Davis minimum wage. I don’t even give him $3.35. I got him for $1.40. I stole him.”

Perhaps that’s why Rotisserie, in many cases, simply takes over participants’ lives.

Owners say that they can spend 50 to 100 hours preparing for draft day, scouring baseball Bibles like USA Today’s detailed statistical section, the Bill James Baseball Abstract, The Sporting News and dozens of other publications in search of a tidbit of information that might land them an unheralded rookie.

Once the season begins, owners spend their evenings as did Oceanside’s Jess Marino, co-owner last year of an unnamed team in the San Diego Rotisserie League. Between 5 and 8:30 p.m., Marino listened to radio sports reports every half-hour, hoping for word that one of his players had stolen a base or picked up a save. This was in addition to watching as many as four separate ballgames on cable television channels.

At 8:30, the TV highlights began. “Not only do you watch Sports Center (on ESPN), but you flip over to CNN,” Marino said. “If you time it right, you can watch the same highlights on CNN as you do on ESPN. Because there’s always the chance that you might find out that some guy hit a homer or stole a base or drove in a run.”

Marino would then discuss the day’s events with his co-owner on the phone every night and sometimes speak to several other owners, arranging trades. By 5:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, Marino would be at work at a computer with USA Today statistics, updating the standings of the league’s teams.

“This is crazy. You really have to say no to this,” he said. “But I didn’t want to.”

Marino, who works full time at Hughes Aircraft in Carlsbad and has two young children, finally quit Rotisserie when he started night school this year.

“I definitely miss it, though,” he said. “I find myself really missing it. Yesterday (Padre) Lance McCullers pitched well and got the win. And he was one of our guys. I was saying, ‘Yeah, Lance, way to go.’ And then I realized: Big deal.”

There are other ways to get carried away. The Banana Republic League, organized by Del Mar dentist Gordon Dixon, has cast its own trophy, a bronze monstrosity depicting a player sliding into home plate flanked by a tank and gun-toting Latin American soldiers.

The trophy is an alternative to the founders’ celebration, in which Yoo-Hoo, a chocolate-milk drink once endorsed by former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, is poured over the head of the pennant-winner. Waggoner will send Yoo-Hoo to any league members who live beyond the Yoo-Hoo Belt.

Previous Banana Republic League winners kept the trophy at home, but Dwynn Johnson, wife of last year’s victor, dentist Ron Johnson, makes him keep it at his office.

Banana Republic held a black-tie awards banquet at the end of last season (wives invited), and Opening Day ceremonies in which a “semi-clad” woman threw out the first ball (wives not present), Ron Johnson said. Some owners are taking their children on scouting trips to Arizona this spring.

Bill Heller of Imperial Beach, owner of the Heller Highwaters in the Irrational League, is spending his vacation week in south Florida this year, attending the first Rotisserie League Baseball convention, which coincides with the spring major-league exhibition schedule.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Heller, a retail clerk in a supermarket. “This is just an opportunity to go back there and hang out and experience this, to be around other people who are into Rotisserie leagues and shoot the breeze with them.”

Despite the expense of the trip, Heller said that he is one Rotisserian who keeps his involvement in perspective: He, for one, will not be scouting minor-league camps like other fanatics at the convention.

“I’m going to see my ballgame every day and spend a lot of time around the pool,” he said.

The question, of course, is why? Why do Rotisserians immerse themselves in statistics instead of the sweet sound of ash on horsehide and the excitement of Opening Day? Why follow the national pastime like most people follow their stock portfolios?

In “The Summer Game,” Roger Angell, one of America’s top baseball writers, described the allure of box scores this way:

“This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of ‘Don Giovanni’ and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.”

Waggoner is less profound: “It’s because we’re box score junkies. We have to be able to find in that morning box score the answer to our most pressing question: Did we go 0-for-4, or did we go 4-for-4?”

Many Rotisserians are ex-athletes themselves and love the competition of matching wits with other members of their fraternity. The game only adds to the fun of watching baseball, they said. Dreary contests between the Braves and Cubs take on new meaning when Ozzie Virgil’s at-bats can determine a tight Rotisserie pennant race.

“People who get involved in this have to like baseball,” Heller said. “But it’s not the total love of baseball that’s the main part of this game. The hidden joy of this is matching yourself up against your friends and showing that you can do a little better.”

Passions run high. Marino tells of being cheated on a trade by the husband of his child’s godmother. Dixon was enraged when his Cuban Reds lost a pennant because of the miserable performance of former Pirate pitcher Rick Rhoden.

“Rhoden lost the whole thing for me the first year,” Dixon said. “I came in second. He wouldn’t get hurt. I kept waiting for Rhoden to break his leg and he wouldn’t.”

Beyond that is the lure of the fantasy world.

“You’re in your own little world,” said Bunshaft, who pilots teams in two baseball and two football leagues. “For me, it’s just a hobby. Just like people collect stamps or coins or so forth, I collect information.”

And then there are the deals. Bert Blyleven for Charlie Hough? How much is rookie Stan Jefferson worth?

Dirty tricks and swindles are common. After all, owners are owners.

Waggoner says: “You’ve got to be every bit as hard-headed as (Padre General Manager) Jack McKeon, but a little bit smarter.”

“The whole time I was growing up (in New York) . . . you’d watch the Mets and come up with these deals they should be making,” Marino remembered. “It was great to imagine what they’d be like if they had made these deals, but you can’t do anything about them. Here, you can do something about them.”

But once Rotisserians start down that slippery slope, baseball is never the same. One of the game’s most sacred tenets, to-the-death worship of the home team, is dashed when owners have players scattered on teams throughout the league.

Loyalties “don’t exist anymore,” Marino said. “In any game, you’ve got guys on both teams who are on your team as well. You don’t care who wins. You just want the guys on your team to do well. The only time there’s ambivalence is when one of your hitters is up against one your pitchers.”

At least one local league won’t tolerate such heresy. In the Hibachi League, Commissioner Bob Parrot fines anyone caught rooting against the Padres or saying anything negative about the team.

Looking back, many Rotisserians cannot remember life before their game was invented, how they filled their spare time in the days when they were mere baseball fans.

“We continue to be husbands, lovers, fathers, friends,” Waggoner said. “We have jobs and we are more or less responsible citizens. We vote and we do good deeds.

“What Rotisserie League Baseball does is fill in the gaps that we didn’t know existed. It doesn’t mean we don’t go to business meetings anymore. It’s just that when we go to business meetings and our minds wander, they now have someplace to wander to.”